The OF Blog: June 2009

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

About those Fantasy Masterworks reviews I'm planning

Shortly (as in the next 24 hours), I'm going to write my thoughts regarding Evangeline Walton's The Mabinogion. The format will be different from most of my reviews in that I will not be quoting as much (or at all, in some cases) and I will be trying to write 500-1000 words only, addressing the following topics:

1. The book's A/S/L - its age, style, and language/prose. If the book, say like Walton's, is an interpretation of older myths, I'll note that in the beginning.

2. The mechanics - what I noticed about the book's structure and my reactions to the story's/stories' mechanics.

3. Would I classify this work as a "Masterwork" - after all, I'm curious to see how many of these stories hold up over the years and if I could ever see myself including such novels in my own version of a must-read list.

So with these things being the focus of these shorter reviews, don't expect quite as much analysis, although I might permit myself to do so when merited (and since I've already reviewed most or all of the stories by Gene Wolfe and M. John Harrison that are included here, I'll just merely retool those for a shorter format later on, after I re-read them in 2009/2010). Hopefully, these brief reviews will spark some discussion and debate, as I'm certain I will not be praising all of these books (some of them I found to be quite empty and I highly doubt a re-read or two would change my opinion).

Monday, June 29, 2009

An amusing little late-night thought

This is based off of a few comments and discussions that I'm following in a few places (again, this isn't from a single course, got it?), and I'm about to zonk out from the sleeping pills (which I take only on Sundays these days, since I seem to sleep 12 hours each weekend night/morning), so this might be a bit out there:

What the hell is an "intellectual?" Is it a self-appointed position, or is it something thrust upon another? Can one be a conscientious intellectual? If one were to be self-doubting and tended to think unusual thoughts that might be larger than one's appetite to fuck, would that make a person an intellectual? Is such a term a meliorative or a pejorative?

And why did I have more than one question? It's just past 2 AM here and my alarm is set to go off in just over 5 hours! Gah!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I have decided to do something almost suicidal

I have decided that over the next couple of years, I'm going to read (re-read in many cases) and write (for those I haven't before) at least some sort of capsule review for the 50 books in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series. Below is the list and highlighted in bold are the ones I've read, with italics for the ones I own but haven't yet read in full:

  1. The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw Gene Wolfe
  2. Time and the Gods Lord Dunsany
  3. The Worm Ouroboros E.R. Eddison
  4. Tales of the Dying Earth Jack Vance
  5. Little, Big John Crowley
  6. The Chronicles of Amber Roger Zelazny
  7. Viriconium M. John Harrison
  8. The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle Robert E. Howard
  9. The Land of Laughs Jonathan Carroll
  10. The Complete Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  11. Lud-in-the-Mist Hope Mirrlees
  12. The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel Gene Wolfe
  13. Fevre Dream George R. R. Martin
  14. Beauty Sheri S. Tepper
  15. The King of Elfland’s Daughter Lord Dunsany
  16. The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon Robert E. Howard
  17. Elric Michael Moorcock
  18. The First Book of Lankhmar Fritz Leiber
  19. Riddle-Master Patricia A. McKillip
  20. Time and Again Jack Finney
  21. Mistress of Mistresses E.R. Eddison
  22. Gloriana or the Unfulfill’d Queen Michael Moorcock
  23. The Well of the Unicorn Fletcher Pratt
  24. The Second Book of Lankhmar Fritz Leiber
  25. Voice of Our Shadow Jonathan Carroll
  26. The Emperor of Dreams Clark Ashton Smith
  27. Lyonesse I: Suldrun’s Garden Jack Vance
  28. Peace Gene Wolfe
  29. The Dragon Waiting John M. Ford
  30. Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe Michael Moorcock
  31. Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams C.L. Moore
  32. The Broken Sword Poul Anderson
  33. The House on the Borderland and Other Novels William Hope Hodgson
  34. The Drawing of the Dark Tim Powers
  35. Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc Jack Vance
  36. The History of Runestaff Michael Moorcock
  37. A Voyage to Arcturus David Lindsay
  38. Darker Than You Think Jack Williamson
  39. The Mabinogion Evangeline Walton
  40. Three Hearts & Three Lions Poul Anderson
  41. Grendel John Gardner
  42. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter Michael Swanwick
  43. WAS Geoff Ryman
  44. Song of Kali Dan Simmons
  45. Replay Ken Grimwood
  46. Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories Leigh Brackett
  47. The Anubis Gates Tim Powers
  48. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld Patricia A. McKillip
  49. Something Wicked This Way Comes Ray Bradbury
  50. The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales Rudyard Kipling
So...which ones on this list have you read? Which ones that I haven't read that you have would you most recommend to me and why?

2009 Locus Award winners announced

Taken from the Locus Online site, with commentary to follow:

Science Fiction Novel: Anathem, Neal Stephenson (Atlantic UK, Morrow)

Solid, unsurprising choice. I enjoyed reading this back in January, although it wasn't Stephenson's strongest work, in my opinion.

Fantasy Novel: Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt)

One of my favorite 2008 reads and a novel that I gave up trying to write a review of, due to how many layers of connection and interpretation there are between this and Vergil's epic poem.

First Novel: Singularity's Ring, Paul Melko (Tor)

Have this book, but for some reason, never got around to reading it.

Young-Adult Book: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, Bloomsbury)

Enjoyed it when I read it earlier this year, but it wasn't as good as several other YA novels from 2008 that I've read so far.

Novella: "Pretty Monsters", Kelly Link (Pretty Monsters)

Fitting win. Enjoy almost all of Link's writings.

Novelette: "Pump Six", Paolo Bacigalupi (Pump Six and Other Stories)

Not surprised it won, as it was a strong story.

Short Story: "Exhalation", Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

See above. It's Chiang. Anyone surprised?

Anthology: The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin's)

Haven't read.

Collection: Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)

Good, strong collection. Trying to think of any that would be a strong alternate, but failing at the moment.

Non-Fiction/Art Book: P. Craig Russell, Coraline: The Graphic Novel, Neil Gaiman, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (HarperCollins)

Haven't read yet.

Editor: Ellen Datlow


Artist: Michael Whelan

Also good.

Magazine: F&SF

Good, when I read print mags, that is...

Publisher: Tor

And in the David Langford territory for wins...

Which reads better?

Here are two translations, one amateur, the other the official, of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's opening paragraph to The Angel's Game:

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.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

One of those is mine, of course. I'll let those who haven't read the book in English guess which is which. I have to say that I feel better about my own translation after comparing it to Lucia Graves' excellent rendering of Zafón's words. I'm going to guess there will be quite a few people pleased with the quality of her translation, while others may be curious about how the two of us chose to interpret the Spanish original, which I guess I should supply to those of you who are bilingual:

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.

Interesting things from non-Anglophone countries

Here's a sampling of what you're missing (and if this is Spanish and Portuguese-heavy, it's because I understand those languages better than Romanian, Swedish, or German):


The 42nd iteration of a Fantasy/Horror cinema convention in the Catalonia region of Spain is set for October 2-12 at Stiges.

Arañas, a Spanish-language anthology devoted to the feelings provoked by seeing/coming into contact with spiders, has an interesting line-up. Might import this one later.

Interesting bit on Samuel Delany and his "return" to Science Fiction.

Breves no tan breves

Flash fiction written in Spanish, with several good stories utilizing this form.


Swedish-language SF anthology coming out from FEL, with contributors cited. Wonder if any of these will later be translated into English or Spanish, since I can barely understand Swedish.

Destripando Terrones

Review of Mario Benedetti's Pedro y el Capitán that's a bit intriguing to me.

Letra e Video

Portuguese version of one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs.


Short bit on a bookfair that features several Millenium Press translations into the Romanian of works by Anglophone SF/F writers.

Noticias ciencia-ficción

Fabricantes de sueños, which looks to be an interesting Spanish-language anthology, comes out in Spain on June 30. Might have to order this one as well, even if it'll cost me an arm and a leg in shipping/custom fees.

Mundos desconocidos, another Spanish-language anthology, this time containing several stories from the 2007 Premio Andrómeda. Looks interesting.

XVII Certamen Universitario de Relato Breve Fántastico
was recently announced in Alava, Spain. Winners include Argentine Dueño de nada (Owner of Nothing) in the Spanish-language category and in the Euskerra language category, Oksia Zalakain Ederra won with Sagar erreak Zuhaitzean zintzilik (I don't understand Euskerra/Basque, so no translation of the title).

Alejandro Guardiola's Sombras de una Vieja Raza was a finalist for the third Premio Minotauro awarded this year. Might have to look into this one.

And while I may edit this later (I have to be somewhere in 40 minutes and have to start getting ready now) to include interesting bits from the remaining few sites in my non-English blogroll, feel free to link to other non-Anglophone sites that have things of interest for readers here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Chiming in on non-Anglophone SF

SF Signal has a great topic for their lately Mind Meld feature, titled "Guide to International SF/F (Part I)". Lots of great books (some of which I've read, others I've heard about) mentioned over there.

In a way, posts like this frustrate me, in no small part because I had in mind pitching a post about some excellent Spanish-language spec fic that I had recently recently, only to discover recent (and excellent) posts and sites, such as Lavie Tidhar's must-read World SF News Blog, have already covered much what I would have likely discussed in such a piece. Perhaps I'll go ahead and do it someday, but I think it'll be a while.

However, there are a few gaps that I noticed in the SF Signal piece (although I suspect much of this will be addressed in the second part). The first thing that I noticed is that quite a few of the authors being held up as examples of great authors writing in other languages are really just the various countries' "superstars" for said SFF markets. In other words, the Lems, Sapkowskis, and their like tend to be older, established writers. Very little was said in that piece (although this could be due to my professed ignorance about certain language/national markets) about the actual SF "scenes" that have developed (or are developing) recently in many parts of the world.

I don't know who've they've asked to participate in Part II of this Mind Meld, but I certainly hope that the SF Signal people have contacted Brazilian writer/professor/editor Fábio Fernandes. Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Fábio and not only do I value his friendship, but I also value the work he has been doing in various venues, ranging from his Portuguese language blog to his English language one to his reviews over at Fantasy Book Critic. He, along with fellow Brazilians Jacques Barcia and Braulio Tavares, among several others (hopefully Fábio will see this post soon and add more, as I know there are several I'm leaving off simply because I don't have their blogs saved and have forgotten their names, to my shame), would have lots of interesting things to contribute about the Brazilian SF scene, the pressures to write and publish in English, and so forth.

A second area that was relatively neglected in that post were those fictions that here in the Anglo-American markets might be slapped with "slipstream" or "interstitial" labels. Works like those of Federico Fernández Giordano's 2008 Premio Minotauro-winning novel, El libro de Nobac, which mixes several SF tropes into a meta-mystery tale, or Xavier Velasco's 2003 Premio Alfaguara-winning Diablo guardián, which features a more hip, seductive Satan-like figure. If these works had been published in English, there might have been some arguments on blogs such as this one and others about if said books and several others might fall within one market categorization or another.

But these comments are not meant to be nitpickings, but rather to serve as a complement to the discussion brewing over at SF Signal and the World SF News Blog, among others.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more

Was going to let the Zen Squirrel be the last word, but via a link to a link, I discovered this piece on Empty Criticism over at Ruthless Culture. There are many things that I could say (mostly positive) about Jonathan McCalmont's article, but this quote from a piece by Mark from K-Punk is what grabbed my attention:

“In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).”

It is interesting (but not surprising, I guess) that some of the sharper criticism in these frequent internet tempests both emanates from and is directed toward those commentators who have some background in graduate school-level liberal arts programs. While I disagree with much of this piece, it is something worth considering when doing a self-evaluation: "Is the argument for the Argument, or for something else?" I'm not so far down the rabbit hole that I post, discuss, or debate just to do it without some underlying principle that I cherish. But there is something that does tempt me on occasion toward this pathless direction, so it's best for me to continue to be wary.

There is much more of interest in that post. Food for thought, even though my thoughts are running out at nearly 1 AM here. More later, although in the meantime I'll leave this for consideration:

What would constitute a "full" review?

So asks the gentleman who really needs to start writing reviews again, it seems.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When you think you're becoming exasperated with online matters...

...sometimes, all it takes is a moment of zen to recall why you do what you do in the first place. In honor of that, I present to you the Zen Squirrel:


While I have a few books that I "have" to finish soon for reviews here and elsewhere, found myself getting captivated by this little 200 novel by Bolivian-now-Cornell Professor Edmundo Paz Soldán called Los vivos y los muertos. Released a little over a month ago in the US, this Spanish-language novel tells the story of a few deaths in a small upstate New York town from the PoVs of several of those closest to those who've died. Paz Soldán so far, 1/3 in, has nailed the teen PoVs, their thoughts, worries, and concerns. This has the potential to be one of the better reads in any language for me this year, at least for 2009 releases.

Too bad an English translation is unlikely, since I don't think many, if any, of his previous works (which I've read and enjoyed) have been translated into English.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Green, for a bit at least

OK, it's me being in turns idealistic and a follower, but as long as the current crisis is going on, I decided that I'll voice tacit support with my color choice.

The new tribalism and you

A couple of weeks ago, I commented about a review on Strange Horizons that seemed to have kicked some sort of a hornet's nest, based on the responses that followed. Almost a week ago, I blogged (in a rather weak post, I'll admit) about those who do stir up the hornet's nest. And last night, I posted about a sense of disconnect that I was feeling, which generated quite a few responses (nearly 50 at this point) and a few posts elsewhere. What I found interesting were the connections (Jonathan McCalmont also noted this in his first response to my post from last night) between the three.

Blogging for me is like masturbating in a fish bowl world - everyone is going to witness every single stroke and to praise/condemn you for how you are jerking off. But that's only part of the picture. What I find intriguing is this sense of "tribalism" that's become part of one small branch of a larger blogosphere. Take for instance the reaction by SQT, both in the comments section and over at her blog. Or rather, consider the reactions of those who follow her blog and who, for the most part, have nothing invested in the discussion at my blog outside of how it affects SQT.

I never named names in my post last night. I felt like it would be counterproductive and would detract from the main thrust of my own post, which was more a venting vehicle about my own frustrations about how I'm failing to live up to my own ideals. The quotes around "selling out" are meant to be ironic, in the sense that this term is so devoid of a singular definition as to be practically worthless. But yet they sparked something.

I read through the 30+ comments to date over at her blog. It's rather interesting to read the value judgments on myself and a couple of others who commented in my post. In many ways, the outrage that a few expressed is akin to that which appeared in that Strange Horizons review that I linked to above. There is something personal in the responses, as if a clan member had been attacked and that their honor had to be defended. McCalmont made an astute observation there, one that I find myself thinking upon now.

I like social groups, but at the same time I distrust them. There is always that vague threat of a mob mentality developing, of people investing so much of their own selves into what an outsider might consider to be a picayune matter. Yet despite the ultimate insignificance of the matter (for example, this blog might on a busy day get a shade over 1000 page views. The average porn site will see millions, if not tens of millions, of page views over the same time span), some find themselves defending vigorously some sort of "chosen champion."

Let someone attack or even just merely question a particular point of view supported by a self-selecting group. Might as well be seeing the internet version of a cockfight after it's all been said and done. And is that attacking (or in their minds, "defending") group necessarily in the "right?"

I could care less if the readers of this blog (which technically is a group blog, even if my co-editors have mostly abandoned it over the past few years) support my stance or rip into me for whatever reason. I value honest comments about things that I slack off on doing more than I do most praise. Groupthink, or the "new tribalism" as I prefer to call it, rarely advances discourse much. Then again, neither does Quixotic tilting against windmills, which is a topic that will have to await another time and perhaps place. I'm off to read and perhaps exercise for a bit - that does me much more good than fretting over what so-and-so might be thinking or not thinking about me. Not bad advice, that.


Seems that this post was taken a bit personally by some. Normally, I'd just let this blow over, shrug, and move on, but I think I'll address a few things being discussed in other quarters for clarification's sake (and not to start a third post on a subject that originally was centered around myself and not others), as the interpretations of what I have written recently have been...umm...interesting, to say the least.

The title "When do you ever stop whoring yourself out?" was meant to apply to myself as much as to anyone else. Posting just to post is really bad for me in the long-run, so I devoted quite a bit of that blog entry to mocking my own self there, while addressing a few other points.

I didn't really want to address this directly, since it wasn't the central part of that original article, but the reason I said "This isn't about 1 or 2 or even a handful of blogs, but more about some that are in my blogroll, others that are not. " was because it was a feeling after glancing through several dozen blogs, some in my blogroll, others that were in the blogrolls of the ones I was reading at the time this past weekend. In other words, it was an aggregate, not an individual blog or two being singled out (for the record, the comments in this post and I think elsewhere that presume it was directed at Pat's blog are wrong for the same reason that SQT thought I was singling her out - I wasn't thinking of particular blogs but instead of a general impression).

So when people asked if I were talking about them, the answer had to be "of course not," because I wasn't thinking about their blogs. Sad to say, but I rarely read half of the blogs in my blogroll more than once a week or so at the moment. I was blogging about an impression, how the reflection on that impression made my own faults as a blogger stand out to me, and then I thought I'd move on. Guess I should have known better (see the fishbowl masturbation comment above).

In this article as it originally stood (this update being the only edit to the content, as the original post is preserved in its entirety), I referenced one blog and the reaction there to my original post. I used the blogger's screen name by name, noted the perceived behavior. It wasn't done to "attack" this person (who I barely know) or to seek publicity (I get enough of that, to be honest). It was an immediate example of something that I had contemplated first when reading the responses to a few things this year alone: Racefail '09, Amazonfail, and (to a lesser extent) the reaction to Martin Lewis's recent review at Strange Horizons. If I had a do-over, those would have been cited as well as examples of what I perceive to be "internet tribalism."

As you can see from the response to that link at the beginning of this update, this caused a bit of a mini-tempest. Yes, I blog to have conversations. I like discussing a few things that aren't treacly sweet. I like disagreements and debates. But I'm not in the habit of engaging in ad hominems here (or most anywhere at most any time). That's why I'm writing this apologia, to address those people who don't know me (know of me, perhaps, but certainly not an acquaintance of mine) but who seem to have fallen into acting out what I described in my original post above.

As I said there and I'll reiterate here: I don't want defenders. Honest critics are fine, however. All I would suggest (and not even ask) is that these posts be read from a more "distant" point of view. I'm not interested in "controversy" for controversy's sake. I could care less about cheap traffic spikes, since it is as large and as worthless as a squirrel's shit in the middle of a forest. What I'm interested in is how these reactions have shaped up. Some have taken my words too seriously. Why they have is between them and their own selves. Some have made reflective essays of their own that hopefully will be of value to them (and which hopefully won't lead to misunderstandings and accusations). But of course, the best response to all that has to be the Hook Giveaway. Levity is so underrated in these matters.

June 15-21 reads

Seven books this week, each of them first-time reads. Two standouts, one really good read, three that were decent reads, and one that was ultimately a bit too flawed for me to enjoy much.

218 D.H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent - I really enjoyed Lawrence's prose here. I had read three other novels of his (Sons and Lovers; The Rainbow; Lady Chatterly's Lover), but here his prose and dialogue were much better. I also liked the way the story unfolded. All in all, a novel that I would recommend to those genre-mostly readers who seem to think "mainstream," "literary" fiction doesn't have much to offer them. Sometimes, it does, with a dose of horror near the end for those who like that sort of thing.

219 Stuart Archer Cohen, The Army of the Republic - Normally, a story that deals with a resistence to a quasi-Bush regime that uses Homeland security to crack down upon anti-globalization activists would be just the sort of thing for me. But despite some well-written scenes, there were times that Cohen got even too strident for the left-leaning likes of me and the story dipped too much into paranoia for its own good. As a result, this is a book that will be a bit too polemical in nature for some, which is a shame, because he had some good points to make that were lost in the hyperbolic screeds.

220 Ursula Le Guin, Voices - Second volume in her Annuals of the Western Shore YA trilogy. Le Guin's writing here was stronger than in her first volume, but there were times that the story seemed to drag a bit. Overall, it was good and I would re-read it in the near future, but this trilogy took a long time before it started to appeal to me.

221 Fritz Leiber, The Second Book of Lankhmar - This volume released by Gollancz contains the last three Grey Mouser and Fafhred books. I found myself enjoying their adventures and the underlying thematic elements more and more here. Shame that there are no more of their adventures forthcoming due to Leiber's death almost 20 years ago. Some really good stuff here that most genre fans (and some that are not) ought to consider reading.

222 Michael Moorcock, Mother London - This novel of interwoven narratives of survivors of the V-1 and V-2 attacks on London is one of Moorcock's strongest novels. After reading it, I can understand why Moorcock has won the Guardian Prize and has been lauded as being one of Great Britain's 50 Best Writers Since World War II. Highly recommended.

223 Robert V.S. Redick, The Red Wolf Conspiracy - Generally, I really dislike stories set on ships/at sea. This book continues that, as I found myself becoming more and more disinterested with each passing chapter. While Redick isn't a bad writer, this story utterly failed to engage me...or rather that I couldn't bring myself to engage myself further with this book. Read into it what you may.

224 Ursula Le Guin, Powers - This concluding third volume to her Annuals of the Western Shore trilogy was much stronger than her first two volumes. Winner of the Nebula Award this year for 2008 (crazy, huh?), this volume reminded me more of her Earthsea series than the first two, as it contained more interesting characters, a more subtle weaving of plot and theme, with an ending that was very satisfying.

In Progress:

Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima

Chris Adrian, The Children's Hospital

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

Katsushi Ota (ed.), Faust 2

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Future Plans:

Andrzej Sapkowski, Camino sin retorno

Ysabel Wilce, Flora's Dare

Sunday, June 21, 2009

When do you ever stop whoring yourself out?

Lately, I've been a following quite a few blogs. This isn't about 1 or 2 or even a handful of blogs, but more about some that are in my blogroll, others that are not. At times, I find myself wanting to take on the role of the reader, of the person who receives book suggestions rather than providing all sorts of info on the books old and new worth reading. But too often, I'm not finding that when I'm browsing through a couple dozen blogs a day.

Instead, I'm finding more and more space devoted to this contest or that giveaway. For a few blogs, that is virtually all of their content. They don't ever say much of anything about the books being pimped out. When a review is written, too often it feels rather vague and as if the punches were pulled back some. Just this sense of CYA, I guess.

Not that I've been much better lately. Been avoiding being online as much recently, in part due to my new job keeping me at work until after 5 PM and in part because of the start to a typically torrid summer here in the US South. Occasionally I'll post pictures of the books I've received and/or bought, but is that really much better than just pimping out whatever I'm asked to consider? True, I do note in fairly polite terms that a good many of the books sent to me for review purposes don't interest me any and that I might be the wrong person to send these books (usually urban fantasies, but occasionally epic fantasies). I haven't had the energy/desire to write a review in about two months now and there are few 2009 releases that I want to praise right now.

Ennui is a terrible thing. Makes the lighter-natured sites look even more like "sellouts" than perhaps they are. Leads to dropping off on what might be interesting stuff here as well. Perhaps it'll clear up soon. Otherwise, that vague sense of whoring one's self out, whether it be for review copies or to host contests just to spike reader visits for books that many don't really know if they are worthy of being read, will just continue. Hopefully, I'll regain my mojo shortly. Right now, I'm going to try and get a few things done for the next few days, but no promises on interesting posts for a while.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apparently Andrzej Sapkowski has won the first Gemmell Award

Or at least that's what Ken from Neth Space is reporting, as he received word via twitter from people who apparently are in the know.

This makes me rather happy, as out of the finalists, his Geralt novel, Blood of the Elves, is the only one that I liked without reservations. Nice timing on learning about this, as I received my copy of his second series, the Hussite Wars trilogy-opening Narrenturm, yesterday afternoon. While it'll have to be a while before I review it (I have another Spanish-language book I'm reading and reviewing, as well as me being in the midst of translating a recent interview with that second author), I do plan on reading it this weekend and early next week.

But still, it's good to know that this work of "heroic" fantasy was chosen to be the winner. I guess the millions in Europe and the thousands in the Anglo-American sphere have spoken, huh?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Brandon Sanderson on Warbreaker and his newest project, The Way of Kings

I was sent this interesting book trailer by one of Tor's publicists this afternoon. In this one, Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn, soon-to-be completer of the Wheel of Time series) talks about his just-released (and NY Times bestselling) Warbreaker, as well as revealing at the end of the video his next project, The Way of Kings, which was glorified in this post.

Shared Worlds program and fantastic cities

Over the past couple of days, many people have been blogging about the upcoming second annual Shared Worlds program, hosted by Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Here is some of the information on this program for teens, which I would have loved to have been a part of when I was younger:

Shared Worlds asked Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Michael Moorcock: “What’s your pick for the top real-life fantasy or science fiction city?”

At Shared Worlds our students create fantasy and science fiction worlds to fuel their art and writing projects. But even the strangest made-up place can have some real-world spark, and some of the real world’s cities can be stranger than anything found in fantasy and science fiction.

With this in mind, we asked some of speculative fiction’s brightest minds to tell us their own picks for real-life fantastic cities, and you can read their answers here:

“Our own planet is often surreal, alien, and beautifully strange—and cities tend to focus our fascination with these qualities,” said Shared Worlds Assistant Director Jeff VanderMeer. “Sometimes the exoticness comes from finding the unexpected where we live, and sometimes it comes from visiting a place that’s foreign to us.”

Want to join the discussion? Help one of the most unique teen "think tanks" in the country by posting the above link on your site or blog and asking your readers what cities they would choose.

Shared Worlds is also proud to announce Tor Books, Wizards of the Coast LCC, and Realms of Fantasy magazine as major sponsors. Thanks to them for their enthusiasm and support.

More information about Shared Worlds:

Now in its second year, Shared Worlds is a two-week unique summer camp for teens ages 13 to 18, held at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This year the camp runs from July 19 to August 2, with registration still open to the end of June. Creative and fun, Shared Worlds emphasizes writing fiction, game development, and creating art—all in a safe and structured environment with award-winning faculty. Participants in this “teen think tank” meet like-minded students and learn how to work together and be proactive on their own. The first week, the students form teams and create their own worlds; the second week, they create in them. Faculty for 2009 will include Holly Black, co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles, Hugo Nominee Tobias Buckell, White Wolf game developer Will Hindmarch, World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer, Weird Tales fiction editor Ann VanderMeer, and more.

Relevant links:

Main Shared Worlds page:

Registration page:

Video from last year's camp:


But as for the question posed at the beginning of this piece in regards to places that I would consider to be the most fantastical, I would like to point out to potential writers and others alike that sometimes the "most fantastical" can exist in the least-imagined places. There are three places, two of which are in my home state of Tennessee and all in the American South, that I believe exhibit qualities of the "fantastical."

The first place that comes to mind is not even a city, but rather the dilapidated remnants of a former iron-working village. Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee (where my father was born in raised) is located in northern Dickson County, about 40 miles west of Nashville, TN. It is a place full of ruins. Driving along Highway 48 from either Dickson or Clarksville, one will see kudzu overtopping barns with warped planks and gaping holes. Rust coats many beaten-metal roofs. Faded paint on shuttered stores advertises soft drinks and beers for extremely low prices.

It is a place where my dad spoke of his adventures on Dog Hill and its environs, where he once saw a man who had the talent of cleaning each nostril without pinching the other or using a handkerchief or finger. Where farmers would fart into an earthen jar and then play a sort of perverse Spin the Bottle. A place where the old foundry that made the cannonballs used in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 had recently shut its doors, while the tobacco farms were fading due to the aftershocks of the farm collapse of the 1920s. Today, whenever I think of Cumberland Furnace, I think of a place where its few remaining residents live in a sort of a time warp, a Southern version of a Twin Peaks that contains strangeness within its rotting self.

The second fantastical city that comes to mind is Nashville, TN. Music City USA. It is in many ways a more deceptive and more cruel version of New York or LA. So many dreams come here to die. Driving along (walking is rarely recommended in Nashville) Printer's Row, Lower Broadway, or 2nd and 4th Avenue areas, one can see all sorts of rhinestone fantasies exiting or entering the buildings there. Some will strike it rich and become a Nashville Star, while others will continue to dream their fantasies for a while. There are so many faces to Nashville, some that draw tourists in, while others are snagged like flies in its Venus Fly Trap of a reputation for string music. It is a city where being a native is almost an anomaly, where so many accents and languages are now heard, not many of them being truly "Southern," at least not how many elsewhere imagine "Southern."

The third fantastical place I've ever seen is actually a stretch between two towns in southern Georgia, Cordele and Tifton. Here one expects to find Flannery O'Connor's South to still be fighting for its soul and resisting its damnation. For nearly 40 miles along I-75 from just north of Cordele through the middle of Tifton, one is bombarded with billboard signs proclaiming the wonders of the Magnolia Plantation (itself a miniature plantation house visible from the interstate), where one can buy pecans!, or educational signs letting the passer-by know that Cordele is the Watermelon Capital of the World or that Tifton is a High-Speed Internet City that is also the Turf Grass Capital of the World as well as being the Reading Capital of the World!

Each is renowned for their friendliness, as noted by their "award-winning hotels." Many stores will sell that Georgian speciality, the boiled peanut. While neither town, as far as I know, offers the legendary Porn Motel that an anthropologist friend of mine told me about, doubtless there are other local attractions that are almost as seedy. Frog jigging is very popular in this area and the flat plains of red clay, when baked with the humid 100ºF heat, add a sense of delirieum for the travelers who might pass by them.

While I highly doubt any of these three would appear anywhere near the top 3 of most people's minds, I would note that if one wants to create a vivid, "living" fictional "world" or setting, then one might want to look around them and see the strange, lurid features that surround us each and every day. And hey, boiled peanuts certainly would count as "strange," right?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Valuing agents provocateurs

Been busy the past week with getting my department caught up (almost there!), so I neglected linking to this bit on M. John Harrison's blog:

Meanwhile, Larry at OfBlog has a quote from Richard Morgan with which I agree very wholeheartedly, although I’d add that despite their subject matter many “mainstream” novelists, from Nemirovksy to Eggers, have less a bleak view of life than a subtle one, which tends to take in its ups & downs. A knack that many “mainstream” readers have also cultivated, using ordinary life as a model. Good luck to Richard with his arguments for a realistically human view of humanity. I’ve been making them for many years & no one in f/sf has paid the slightest attention.
It's this last part that Morgan responds to first (as would I, if I had something to say there at almost 2 AM other than "thanks for linking to my post that copy/pastes Morgan's excellent points!". Maybe later...):

Kind of you, Mike – thanks.

I think you underestimate the impact of the arguments you spent so much time making, though. Attention was duly paid, and ploughed in – and the fruits of it are there hanging low for all to see in the orchards of Farmers Banks, Mieville, Robson, Hand et al. I have in fact grown the odd row of strawberries from it myself – the Altered Carbon harvest would have been a good deal thinner on the ground without fertiliser out of sacks marked The Centauri Device, Viriconium and The Ice Monkey…..

And that (as well as MJH's following comment which links into another post of his), is what made me stop and think for a little bit (dangerous when again I've been awake for 19 hours and will have to be awake in a little over 5 hours) about the value of being an agent provocateur. Generally, such people are not viewed with extreme kindness by many, in part because in a legal sense, they don't play fair with the ethical side of the law. But when it comes to long-held assumptions about certain things, whether it be how a story ought to function or how the authors and readers mix, mingle, and produce bastard interpretations willy-nilly of the resulting textual interpretations, aren't these agents provocateurs valuable because they make us stop and question if what we are doing is kosher, or if instead there might be another way to look at matters and that we damn well better at least consider it before our brains start to rot from a lack of mental exertion to question the whys of the universe around us?

Much has been made in certain circles this week about China Miéville's latest comments on Tolkien, where he praises five specific things about Tolkien's works. Some people are hyping the praise that Miéville gives to the dead old white guy that he once called "the wen on the arse of fantasy," but when I read it, I found it to be fulfilling another part of being that provocateur - the challenging of assumptions and getting others to react in such a way as to draw out their "true" feelings. Just as his 2000 article (since pulled, I believe) that contained the "wen on the arse of fantasy" quote antagonized and led many devout pro-Tolkien people to pour out all sorts of invectives against Miéville in support of "their guy," if this latest comment isn't an about-face (entirely possible, I'll admit, but I doubt it), then what does it say about those who suddenly want to use Miéville's comments to support their assertions in regards to Tolkien and those who model their writings on his Middle Earth setting?

Every so often, an author or blogger (even someone as obscure as myself) will say something that will spark a reaction. Usually, it leads to a vociferous rejection of that author/blogger's point of view, but isn't that very reaction just the sort of thing that is needed to generate some sort of dialogue in a literary mode that some fear might be too complacent and dependent upon formulae? The usual fate of a prophet or a voice crying in the wilderness is a short life and violent death. But don't their followers tend to take strength from the violent reactions and build toward something worthwhile to consider, at least on occasion?

Gotta love these agents that do what their name means - driving the action forward and making for some lively fun.

P.S. If any of this is fuzzy or unclear in wording, blame the sleep and I'll edit in the evening if possible.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16 Book Porn...and Squirrel Porn

Here are the latest books that have arrived over the past week or so:

Left: Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima (will be reviewing this in a week or two); Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow y la bruja de la estirpe (second volume in this international bestselling YA series. Liked the first and after reading this one, liked it even better. Probably will wait until the English translation appears next year before I review it, however); James Thurber, Writings and Drawings (Thurber is a must-read for short fiction fans. "He said puppy buscuit!"); Javier Negrete, La gran aventura de los griegos (non-fiction, professional historical work by Negrete about the ancient Greeks from the Minoan collapse onwards. Very well-researched and highly readable); Javier Negrete, Amada de los dioses (Negrete's worn many hats; here he writes erotica/classic mythology tale involving Pan, among others. Pretty good, since he's a talented writer, although this isn't my preferred reading genre, to say the least...); Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (early Pynchon is still quite good); Fritz Leiber, The First Book of Lankhmar(pulp fiction done right); Indro Montanelli, Historia de la edad media (Spanish translation of a very influential Italian work from 1965 that tells the narrative history of the early Middle Ages. Very readable and even I, who've had some classes in the period, am learning a few things); Marjorie M. Liu, Darkness Calls (second volume in an urban fantasy series. I've heard good things about her, but as is usually the case with these review copies, I don't have the first volume, so...).

And now, a little something that I bought for my office cubicle and to annoy my boss just a little bit more, as he doesn't get the history of the in-joke involving this lovable creature that I and a certain young lady have had over the past four years...

I present to you...

Squirrel porn, in the form of a 2009 wall calendar. Enjoy?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The dangers of showering in the humid South

Yes, I had the lovely experience of getting in the shower the other day, only to see something that shouldn't be there, just a couple of inches away from my left shoulder. While I didn't freak out and I did finish my shower before taking this picture, thought I'd just show pictures of creatures more alien than most anything ever depicted inside of a SF story, a creature that can feed on even the most hardy of fungi.

Yes, there are two pictures of a common garden slug here. How the damn thing managed to crawl into the house (one that is just above a wetlands area, so there is sufficient moisture there for these creatures) and into the shower is beyond me.

What happened to it after this picture was taken? It is now part of the local septic tank ecosystem. I'm not that bleeding-heart, you know...

June 8-14 Reads

Lots more books read this week, due in large part to my reading of several while riding the exercise bike (after a three week shutdown to recover from tendinitis in my left knee). Short, brief descriptions since I really need to sleep some before work in 6 hours:

203 Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage - Already blogged about. Enjoyed it quite a bit.

204 Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor - Don't have the time now to elaborate on how much I loved this novel. Might be the best of the four Nabokov novels that I've read to date.

205 Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea - Shamefully underrated novel about a poor fisherman on the Channel Islands. Once the narrative began, it contained some scenes near the equal to his Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

206 Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works (Library of America edition) - I'm hoping to have the time to write a lengthy piece about her in the near future. One of my favorite writers. If you haven't sampled her work, do so ASAP.

207 Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale - OK, but nowhere near as good as his latter works (this book was originally published in 1936 and the narrative power is relatively weak compared to his more "mature" works).

208 Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow y la bruja de la estirpe - Second volume in the bestselling Spanish YA series that was just released over in Spain. Stronger than the first in the pacing and prose. Might write a piece closer to its North American release, presumably in the next year or so.

209 Fritz Leiber, The First Book of Lankhmar - Omnibus of the first four volumes of the adventures of Fafhred and the Mouser, this was glorious pulp fiction reading. Already have ordered the second half of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of Leiber's stories.

210 Michael Moorcock, Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe - This first omnibus volume of the Corum aspect of the Eternal Champion was not as good as the Elric stories, but I enjoyed them for the pulp stories that they were.

211 Michael Moorcock, The History of the Runestaff - This omnibus of the Dorian Hawkmoon stories is infamous for Moorcock's extremely rapid output (three days for a single novel, if I recall) and it really, really shows here. Yet despite that, the notion of the British Empire being evil and the Germans being the "good guys" made it entertaining enough, once I accepted that the prose was going to be mostly filler due to the conditions behind its writing.

212 Javier Negrete, Amada de los dioses - Erotic fiction crossed with Greek mythology. Negrete writes well, even if erotic fiction generally isn't my preferred reading, to say the least.

213 Ysabel Wilce, Flora Segunda - This first Flora novel has one of the best narrative first-person voices of any YA fiction that I've read recently. While the pacing and plotting were spotty in places, as befits a first novel, Flora's PoV was consistently engaging and I'll be reading more of her tales in the very near future.

214 Jonathan Rosenberg, Goats: Infinite Typewriters - Print version of one of the most well-known webcomics. The craziness and the adroit use of pop culture made this a real delight to read. Book comes out in stores on June 30, with two more volumes to follow in the next few months. I'm certainly going to be reading more of these, for the Chaos Pope, for Oliver, and all the other wild and zany characters!

215 Michael Moorcock, The Dancers at the End of Time - Homage of sorts to the dandies of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras of English literature. Interesting plotline, with the characters' ennui being portrayed almost perfectly.

216 Brian Evenson, Fugue State - Evenson's latest short fiction collection, just released in the past week. Excellent and certainly will make my year-end list of the best Short Fiction Collections.

217 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 - Pynchon's earliest novel and in it, the seeds of what germinated with Gravity's Rainbow are sown. Not enough time or energy to elaborate on what I enjoyed about this short 152 page novel.

In Progress:

Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima

D.H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

José Saramago, El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Stuart Archer Cohen, The Army of the Republic

Future Plans:

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

James Thurber, Writings and Drawings (Library of America edition)

Interesting discussion on fantasy writers

Saw this exchange over at wotmania the other day and thought I'd reproduce part of it to see what others here make of this. This discussion began with some concerns about how well Brandon Sanderson would do completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, before broadening into discussing certain perceptions of newer (epic) fantasy writers:

I think Sanderson's case is different. Unlike Anderson is he is intelligent and a good storyteller, though since he writes in secondary worlds with some scope, he would do well to learn to take a step back from the action and actually look more into the characters, the setting and the issues in his secondary worlds. It's not something unique to Sanderson. The present generation of Fantasy writers differ in one crucial way from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Kay, Jordan, GRRM etc. Fantasy used to be a genre where the best writers were men and women who had seen and experience the world, met tons people from various cultures, lived a bit, quite often had seen horrors and war firsthand - often they also had decades of reading about anything or everything, or actually working in intersting fields - and then they translated all this into a rich, fascinating secondary world. Nowadays, it tends to be written by very young 'professional authors' who often studied 'creative writing', have grown up loving Fantasy and reading in general. They are creating their worlds, their cast of characters, the issues in their story not from the heart and experience, but from book knowledge. It's exceptional for people so young to have enough experience, have had enough relationships of all kinds (or witnessed enough of other's) and a personal enough perspective on the world to be able to translate this into good fantasy. This is a bit what I see in Sanderson. He has obvious talents, interesting ideas. He will probably be a great writer when he's a bit older, but he might want to slow down writing and get out of his Utah basement to live a 'real life' a bit. KJA is a bit like that too - there doesn't seem to be much more to his lifestyle than writing, reading, hiking and promo tours. Worse, his wife is the same. If we look at the greatest books of SF/Fantasy - those that stood the test of time etc., that's not exactly the sort of situations from which they arose.
Never really considered it from that angle before, but after reading it, I have to say that I've noticed that many of the authors that I enjoy most today (among them, M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Ford, Michael Moorcock) all have had something interesting in their backgrounds, whether it be being exposed to various cultures at a young, impressionable age, or working at some interesting "blue collar" or experimental labor jobs, or working in publishing/editing at a young age, or just participating in what today might be called "extreme" sports. Regardless of their disparate approaches to writing, one thing that I've learned about each of these authors (and several others) is that, as the quoted bit alludes to, each has "lived a bit" and experienced something in life that might be a bit "unusual" or at least would hold some sort of influence on their perceptions of life and how to write fiction.

But does the inverse hold true? Is "book knowledge" really a pale substitute, or does it too constitute some sort of positive influence on the creation of "meaningful" fiction works, especially those of a speculative nature? What do you think? Who would you cite to support your point of view?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cover copy for Ildefonso Falcones' La mano de Fátima

Just received Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones' second novel, La mano de Fátima, on Thursday. This book has received quite a bit of attention in Spain, where the initial print run for this historical novel set in the 16th century is 500,000 for Spain alone, an extremely large number for any work of fiction, much less one published outside the Anglo-American markets. I am planning a review of this novel sometime in the near future (the North American release, in Spanish, will be on August 18 and I believe the English translation will be about a year from now). But for the time being, here's the cover copy for the book (I'm going to bed shortly, so it might be a few hours before I edit this to provide the English translation):

En 1568, en los valles y montes de las Alpujarras, ha estallado el grito de la rebelión: hartos de injusticias, expolio y humillaciones, los moriscos se enfrentan a los cristianos e inician una desigual pugna que sólo podía terminar con su derrota y dispersión por todo el reino de Castilla.

Entre los sublevados se encuentra el joven Hernando. Hijo de una morisca y el sacerdote que la violó, es rechazado por los suyos, debido a su origen, y por los cristianos, por la cultura y costumbres de su familia.

Durante la insurrección conoce la brutalidad y crueldad de unos y otros, pero también encuentra el amor en la figura de la valerosa Fátima, la de los grandes ojos negros. A partir de la derrota, forzado a vivir in Córdoba y en medio de las dificultades de la existencia cotidiana, todas sus fuerzas se concentrarán en lograr que su cultura y religión, las de los vencidos, recuperen la dignidad y el papel que merecen. Para ello deberá correr riesgos y atreverse con audaces y muy peligrosas iniciativas...

Los lectores de La catedral del mar encontrarán en esta segunda novela de su autor las mismas claves que llevaron al éxito a la primera: la fidelidad histórica, que se entrevera con un apasionado relato de amor y odio, de ilusiones perdidas y esperanzas que dan sentido a la vida y la lanzan por los caminos de la aventura. De ese modo, su autor construye una trepidante novela que pretende reflejar la tragedia del pueblo morisco, ahora que se cumple el cuarto centenario de su expulsión de España, y que también relata una vida singular, la de un hombre fronterizo y enamorado que nunca se resignó a la derrota y luchó por la convivencia.

And now, in not-so-stunning Technicolor English:

In 1568, in the valleys and mountains of the Alpujarras, the cry of rebellion has exploded: fed up with injustices, plundering, and humilations, the Moors confront the Christians and initiate an unequal struggle which can only end with their defeat and dispersion from all of the Kingdom of Castille.

Among these rebels is the youth Hernando.   Son of a Moorish woman and the priest who raped her, he is rejected by his own people, due to his origins, and by the Christians, because of the culture and customs of his family.

During the insurrection he knows brutality and cruelty from everyone, but he also encounters love in the figure of the valiant Fatima, she of the great black eyes. After the defeat, forced to live in Cordoba and in the midst of the difficulties of daily existence, they will concentrate all their forces to ensure that their culture and religion, those of the vanquished, will recover the dignity and role that they merit...

The readers of The Cathedral of the Sea will encounter in this second novel by its author the same elements that brought success to the first: historical fidelity, with glimpses of an impassioned narrative of love and hate, of lost illusions and hopes which give sense to life and which throw it along the roads of adventure. From this mode, the author constructs a intrepid novel which tries to reflect the tragedy of the Moorish people, on the four hundredth anniversary of their expulsion from Spain, and also recount a singular life, that of a enamored and frontier man who never resigned himself to defeat and who fought for coexistence.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Spider bite, three days later

If it looks bad in this photo, think how it looked like before I received medication yesterday morning!

Interesting comment from Richard Morgan

Buried within the brouhaha of the past week surrounding the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics definition squabble on SF Signal and elsewhere (including here), Richard Morgan raises an interesting point that I think might provide grist for the mill:

Hmm - this again.

I missed out on the thread about taboos, and thus the chance to engage with those contributors who seemed to think that we've entered some mired slough of moral relativism in which dark editorial forces force out the notion of "good" characters, admirable heroes and positive outcomes. But luckily for me, here we are once again wondering why our fiction tends to lean towards dealing with the negatives of the human condition. And once again, it seems to me we have this question utterly backwards; ask not why our genre tends to see the human future in bleak terms - ask instead why we suffer this constant cry within the genre to make room for cheap, plastic, rosy 'n' cosy models of human development appropriate to a Disney movie for five year olds.

Let's just take our bearings here. If we look outside the confines of the genre for a moment, what is it we think is going on in the broader field of fiction? Let's take a few notable non-genre books off my (and my wife's) shelf at random and see what their subject matter is:

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: a young woman suffers through the brutality of the Nigeria/Biafra war.

The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell: the Nazi Holocaust, told from the point of view of one of its more enthusiastic perpetrators.

Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy: brutal and blood-soaked (and painstakingly researched) fictional account of filibuster scalp-hunting in the American west circa 1850.

Andrea Levy - Small Island: two educated and dedicated Jamaican immigrants suffer casually brutal racism at the hands of their white British and American counterparts in London during the second world war and after

Cancer Ward - Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: no commentary necessary, I imagine.

Brick Lane - Monica Ali: a woman suffers within the stifling confines of a repressive sub-culture in London's east end.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami: an ordinary man is brought into confrontation with a powerful corrupt force hidden beneath the placid surface of contemporary Japanese society and inside his own family. Along the way he revisits war-time atrocities committed in occupied China.

Snow - Orhan Pamuk: religious fundamentalism clashes with militaristic state repression in eighties eastern Turkey

The Quiet American - Graham Greene: catastrophic political innocence and arrogance march hand in hand into Vietnam from America and cause nothing but misery in their wake.

Beginning to see a pattern? Need we go on to Rushdie, Pynchon, McEwan, Proulx, Roth, DeLillo? Or the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition? Back to Shakespeare, maybe?

We award accolades to literature when we feel it has reached into the human condition, laid it bare or provided a fresh angle on it, when it has told us or made us feel something true about that condition. Bleak comes with that particular territory as standard. Humans are a dodgy, brutal lot and the project of human civilisation advances slowly and haltingly at massive human cost in blood and pain, with many retrograde steps and absolutely no guarantee of success. This is who we are. If you care about what you're writing (beyond wanting to pay the bills, that is), then you must confront this in your work and do something honest with it. Anything else is pandering.

In mainstream literature, this assumption is so much a part of the landscape that it goes largely unremarked; anyone who thinks of SF&F as adult literature should not find it sticking in their throat either.

If I had the time to sit around to think of ways to poke holes in this, I suppose I could, but I'm a bit loopy now with the allergy meds for the spider bite, so I'll just open it up for people here to examine what he says. Is "genre fiction" (however that may be defined) too prone to look for the consoling comforts, with the occasional aghast look presented when a hard, "difficult" work that dares to examine the "human condition" in unflattering lights is published?

After all, people die all the time, often in prosaic fashion, sometimes in spectacular, gut-wrenching tragedies. This wide spectrum of death, destruction, and suffering has been presented in innumerable stories and fictions over the years, but why is it a big deal when a SF/F author utilizes tried-and-true methods to explore the darker elements of human existence? It is an interesting point that Morgan raises - what do you have to say in response to it?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A good 24 hours

Starting a little after midnight CDT Wednesday and ending a few minutes before midnight CDT, I have completed the following books:

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor

Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea

Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works (Library of America)

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté

Finished reading/gazing over Max Ernst's 1934 surrealistic collage/novel, Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness). Very impressed with the images, which he derived from Victorian era illustrations that he cut up and mixed together to create the following images:

What are your impressions of these images or your thoughts on Ernst's work, if you're familiar with it?

Monday, June 08, 2009

New poll on Flannery O'Connor up

Just a few words for those who read this blog via RSS Readers (apparently there's quite a few hundred of you each day now) to let you know that I changed the poll to focus on Flannery O'Connor for the next week.

Bought her Library of America edition of her works and almost 400 pages in, I'm having a blast. I had read some of her short stories for my university English Comp courses, but I didn't read her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection until four years ago. Outstanding collection that I'd highly recommend to anyone. But until I bought the Library of America collection Saturday, for some reason I had never gotten around to buying her other works (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge). A shame, as the first book listed is excellent and the second is promising 60 pages in.

So if you have read her works before, would you mind commenting a little bit here sharing your opinions of her works? Thanks in advance.

June 1-7 Reads

Nine books read this past week, all of them first-time reads. Two are 2009 releases, one from 2008, with the rest being older stories. Three are in Spanish, plus there are three more that are short fiction collections or anthologies. Most of these I'd recommend to others, depending of course on whether or not you are reading fluent in Spanish.

194 John Barth, Chimera - This comic retelling of several Greek myths was brilliant. Will need to re-read several times before I could elaborate further, as it's one of "those" novels, the ones that you know that you love them, but find it hard to articulate just why that is so.

195 Juan José Arreola, Confabulario definitivo - Interesting mix of short fiction here. Available also in English translation. Will re-read in a year or two to make sure I got all that Arreola was trying to convey here.

196 Boris Vian, Heartsnatcher - Fucking brilliant. Or fucking as "psychotherapy." Your choice. Just read it ASAP, if you haven't already.

197 Laura Restrepo, Demasiados héroes - This 2009 novel revolving around a mother and a son returning to Buenos Aires in 1997 after the mother's lover (and boy's father) disappeared during Argentina's 1970s "Dirty War" is excellent. Hopefully this will be translated into English in the next few years, as I could see this being another one of Restrepo's works that could reach a wider audience. Certain to be part of my year-end lists.

198 Michael Moorcock (ed.), New Worlds: An Anthology - If I still had my copy of the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer-edited The New Weird with me (it's on loan to a friend of mine), I'd love to re-read it to compare the stories there with the ones culled from that seminal 1960s mag. Some excellent stories here, with several outstanding entries from J.G. Ballard and M. John Harrison, among others.

199 Tomás Eloy Martínez, Purgatorio - Another story revolving around Argentina's "Dirty War," this time featuring the return of a presumed desaparecio into the life of a former lover. However, he hasn't aged and what follows is in turns poignant and heartbreaking. Very good 2008 novel.

200 China Miéville, The City & The City - I struggled to finish reading this novel, which was surprising since I don't mind crime/noir novels and that I had loved most of his earlier work. When I have more time, I'll try to write out a post exploring what went wrong for me.

201 Milan Kundera, Identity - This 1998 novel of his showcases some of his hallmarks, namely his penchant for using introspective comments by his characters to explore human human emotions. Very good, but not as good as his earlier, more well-known novels.

202 Clark Ashton Smith, The Emperor of Dreams - This SF Masterworks edition containing most of his prose fiction was entertaining and at times very well-written. Some of the stories, or rather their elements of characterization and setting, felt a bit dated, however. Zothique as a setting, though, was well done.

In Progress:

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works (Library of America edition)

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor

Ysabel Wilce, Flora Segunda

Future Plans:

Alexandre Dumas, The Last Cavalier

D.H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A question of ethics, negative/positive reviews, and Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur

Writing reviews is a nasty, dirty business. When one really gets down into the material, a reviewer becomes like an autopsy doctor, scraping the entrails and sorting through the offal and the meat of the dissected book, looking for problem areas as well as explanations for certain reactions. It can be grueling, fetid, stinky work, but it's work that generates quite a bit of shit flinging even after the book gutting is done and the reviewer has washed him/herself off and has moved on to the next target for book probing.

Sometimes, the offal overwhelms the meat of the work and the autopsy doctor/reviewer just has to conclude that the story stunk so badly of shit that it might be indeed too shitty for other potential readers to consume without at least some risk to their literary digestive tracts. So a negative review is written. Sometimes, such reviews are full of vitriol, asking, as Marcus Greil once did of Bob Dylan's 1970 album, Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" Occasionally, writers or other readers get offended by this and they opine that they'd want something that is a bit more "positive," whatever "positive" might mean.

Enter the newly-created author group blog, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics. Their mission statement is as follows: "The aim of this site is to promote positive reviews of books, movies and comics. There are some writers involved. It's that simple." Umm...if it were really as simple as that, dare I say it being so simple that a caveman could (understand) do it, then why have there been several posts questioning just what in the hell is this blog about and whether or not "ethics" is the right word for this desire for "positive reviews?" Are those inquirers "motherfuckers," as one of the SFFE bloggers, Andy Remic, claimed (in a rather strange and poor choice of words, I might add) in a recent SF Signal Mind Meld?

I would argue (of course) that they are not. While it is easy to say negative comments that have no merit (for example, if I called you a filthy unclefucker, if you'll pardon the crude quote from the South Park movie), it is interesting to see just how difficult it has become for anyone to make negative comments of any substantive sort in certain corners of the reviewing blogosphere. One case in point is the recent brouhaha surrounding the Strange Horizons review of Mark Charan Newton's first wide-release novel, Nights of Villjamur. That negative review certainly can stand as an example for some of the expectations readers and writers alike may have for the time and place for a negative review (if, for some, there ought to be a negative review in the first place).

The first paragraph of Martin Lewis's review contains an interesting argument:

Mark Charan Newton is clearly a writer who is still finding his voice. This is a fairly mealy-mouthed criticism but Nights of Villjamur is a fairly mush-mouthed novel. After a small press debut, The Reef (2008), Newton now joins China Mieville, Hal Duncan and Alan Campbell at Pan Macmillan/Tor UK. It is fine company to be in, the vanguard of British fantasy: urban (although not "urban" fantasy), flavoured with science fiction, horror and the weird, not scared of the odd literary flourish. The comparison is not flattering though. Newton obviously sees Mieville as a major role model, but I was reminded instead of Duncan, if only because of the stark contrast in their writing styles. Whatever else you might say about Duncan—and I have a thing or two to say about Vellum—you would never accuse his prose of lacking an identifiable personality, indeed the manic and instantly recognisable gush of it can be overwhelming. Newton has the opposite problem. His prose has no personality of its own and is consistantly underwhelming, with the result that his world lacks colour and clarity.
After I read Newton's book in March, I had a similar reaction to what Lewis notes in his first paragraph. Newton did at times seem to be struggling to find his voice. There were times in reading the novel that I found myself wondering why he didn't compress certain scenes or to reduce the number of PoV characters. There were times that the references back to M. John Harrison's Viriconium novels, especially Knights of Viriconium, seemed a bit too transparent when Newton was trying to establish the changing relationships of City and Character. While I can understand Lewis's point about how Newton's voice is much less confident than Hal Duncan's, I thought that there were times in this novel that Newton had begun to develop a stronger, less mimicried prose style. But this is a fair criticism, even if it isn't one that I would support in full, in part because I remember thinking (there will be no direct quotes from me, as I read this book three months ago and will be re-reading it this week) that through the early mistakes with the pacing and rhythm of the prose, that Newton was beginning to show signs of developing his voice. But developing does not equal mastery and at times, the setting and the characterizations did seem to be more like a pastische of Harrison, Gene Wolfe, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, with occasional flourishes reminiscent of Miéville's first Bas-Lag stories.

Villjamur is the seat of an archipelago empire. It is a fastness against the encroaching snow of a miniature Ice Age, and its walls are already girded by an army of refugees seeking sanctuary. It is a city of bridges and spires, home to humans and rumel, banshees and garuda (those last imported directly from Mieville's New Crobuzon). It is a city with thousands of years of history, and yet somehow it never comes to life. Fantasy, more than any other genre, thrives on colour, but vibrancy is sadly lacking here. There are odd flashes, of course:
The streets were filled with priests from the outlying tribes, allowed in on a one-day permit, but watched closely by soldiers from the Regiment of Foot. Sulists gathered around their shell reading priests. Noonists were standing semi-naked in a circle, smeared in fish oils, holding hands and singing a melisma while a bunch of city cats tried to lick the oil off their hands. Ovinists were holding up pigs' hearts, as was their custom, allowing the blood to drip from them slowly into their mouths. (p. 48)

Such passages are few and far between, though, and Villjamur is not conjured into our hearts and minds. Rare is the moment when you think you can smell the streets. Newton concentrates on a thin stratum of middle-class cafes and bars, but even this is rather perfunctory. The upper and lower classes are painted with even broader strokes. The city should be packed, tense, and heaving, but it feels curiously empty and the raw mass of humanity is largely absent. It is noticeable that the refugee camp outside the city walls is barely glimpsed, despite playing a significant part in the plot. This lack of attention is a recurring theme of the novel.

This is an interesting criticism, as I seem to recall that while certainly there were times that Villjamur as a setting seemed to be rather sketchy, on the whole the novel contained more "visual" stimula than many other novels that I have read recently, notable especially since it is a first wide-release novel. While I see Lewis's point and can understand it, I think I found myself being a bit more forgiving here, in part because I'm not a very visual person, preferring instead to focus on how the prose "sounds" to me over how the images might appear or "taste."

The text just does not hang together very well. You can see when the author is trying and when he is just being functional but often when he tries, he fails, and often when he is functional, he is just plain bad. God knows there are worse prose stylists out there, but usually they are bad because they have limited horizons. This is not the case with Newton. Instead the variance and dissonance of his narrative voice makes reading it similar to listening to the swinging register of a boy going through puberty, and I can only hope that it settles down, matures, and rounds out in a couple of years.

Unfortunately it is not just the way Newton says things but what he says. As I've said, he never really immerses us in his world: his unnecessary prologue offers no hook and unwisely separates us from the city at the heart of the empire and the novel. We then move forward several years and arrive in Villjamur just in time for the Emperor to commit suicide. A headless state threatened from without, not just by the coming freeze but by reports of strange creatures, tribal raids, and genocide in the outer islands offers a potent opportunity for political intrigue and unrest. Unfortunately, the story opens out to encompass myriad viewpoint characters, most of whom should not have been allowed this privilege, and continues along the diffuse, meandering path hinted at by the prologue. Throughout the book I often found myself wishing Newton had concentrated on just two: Inquisitor Jeryd and Commander Brynd Lathraea. Jeryd is investigating the murder of several prominent councillors and it is through this thread that the internal threats to the empire are exposed. Conversely, Lathraea is roving the islands investigating external threats. This covers the majority of what actually happens in Night Of Villjamur and would have been ample for the first novel in a series. Instead, we are repeatedly distracted or, worse, threads are deliberately put on hold.

This is the strongest part of Lewis's criticism for me. Perhaps it was reading the uncorrected proofs three months before its release, but there were places where the prose did seem to be a bit uneven. The metaphor of the boy reaching puberty does describe the shifts that take place well, although I did find the story to contain more good prose than the bad. As for the characterizations, I agree that it may have been a mistake to be overly ambitious and try to cover more than the two most-developed characters, Jeryd and Lathraea. While I understand that the others' were done in part to set the stage for future volumes, it is frustrating to begin a character arc and then to see it suspended for most of a novel, waiting for a future volume for it to be resumed. This was actually my chief complaint about the novel when I read it, as I recall thinking that there are too many characters being juggled at once, making it difficult to get to know any of them. Hopefully, this will be something that will be resolved in the near future.

The last third of Lewis's review was a bit weaker than the parts quoted, but he makes some sound points, supported with some evidence, about how Newton novel at times didn't seem to rise to the level of the associations he was creating with other well-known works. However, my main impression of the novel differs from his. Despite the inconsistencies in Newton's prose and despite the half-baked features of several of his characters, I ultimately enjoyed the book. It did have a discernable atmosphere. It had a plausible mystery surrounding the events that made me want to read on. It didn't have the feel that this story had been told thousands of times, even when I found myself thinking that Newton's ambitions outstripped his abilities to illustrate what images he had in mind. It was a good to very good early novel, one that I will try to judge better on a re-read in the very near future. But Lewis's review has made me think about the novel's areas of weaknesses and how they could impede for many readers the enjoyment of the novel. For that, his negative review proves to be worthwhile.

But despite keeping his focus solely on perceived weaknesses in the novel, Lewis's negative review attracted all sorts of vitriolic reactions (as evidenced in the comments section to the SH review). While certainly it wasn't as positive as several of the reviews I'll link to here, at least there was a honest attempt to examine the work for its faults as well as its strengths. In several of the reviews I just linked to, there is such an effusive praise that it becomes hard to detect if there were any perceived faults that those reviewers might have detected in the work. Such reviews, positive but devoid of any examination into what "worked" and what didn't, to me would seem to be more useless than all but the ad hominem negative reviews that would call a writer a "cum-guzzling gutter slut" before ever considering appraising that author's work in a professional manner.

Which is more "ethical," to discuss a book's deficiencies openly and (presumably) honestly, or to promote "positivity" in such a way as to risk creating a Lake Wobegon Affect, where each succeeding book being reviewed is somehow "better" than the one before, leaving some readers to wonder if sunshine shines out of some people's assholes and if certain writers fart, that it would smell of roses and incense? It certainly isn't "easy" to write negative reviews. I myself rarely review books that I depise, in part because I don't want to be like that autopsy doctor mentioned in my opening paragraph, scraping through all that offal. But I do try to note at least a few things that bothered me, as to do otherwise would be "unethical" of me, as I wouldn't be providing my own honest, considered reaction to a book. Also, it is perversely entertaining to see what happens when someone does dare to state his/her own opinion and it runs counter to others.' Many of the comments to Lewis's review failed to address the issue of how opinions differ. While certainly there were elements that were misinterpreted (or so my not-so-humble-opinion might think) and while yes, some phrases could have been parsed better, I found some of the criticisms to be of a personal nature, as in "How dare he disagree with my take on the story!" Makes me wonder if reviewing and the reactions to it are just strictly about personal opinions and very little about engaging with the review and seeing how it affects your own takes on the story.

But it's now Sunday evening here. A new week is dawning. I wonder what new tempests will arise, which new "movements" will arise to stamp out that which is depised. All I know is that I did like Newton's book and that some of the praise and much of the criticism was deserved and I suspect that Newton will improve in his craft, just as all of us do. I'm very eager to read his second volume, as I suspect that one will build upon the successes of the first, while correcting the shortcomings of the same. And perhaps, some of that is due to someone just being honest enough to say that there are problems that need to be corrected.
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