The OF Blog: 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Part II of My Admin Votes for the 2006 OF Awards

OK, for brevity's sake, let's just say that I will not be giving my choices in all of the categories for various reasons. For example, I am not a movie-watching person, having seen an average of 1-2 movies a year, so there won't be any choices there. Another is that I feel uncomfortable discussing rationale behind the more 'community' type categories here, so don't expect to hear how I voted for those categories. But below are my choices in a few categories that interested me, with brief explanations for most of them:

Best New Author of 2005:

This was a tough category to choose a particular winner or runner-ups to, in part because I haven't read that many authors that have two or less books out. But reflecting back on the books I've read in 2005, there is one story that I enjoyed most:

1. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - Although this is her second novel, Sweet has been a virtual unknown outside of Canada, which is a shame, as she writes some very good tales that envoke all sorts of emotions when the reader stops to consider what she is writing. While her first story, A Telling of Stars, isn't as much of a novel as a fable in many aspects, The Silences of Home (a prequel of sorts), is a fully-realized novel with interesting characters, a plausible and interesting plot, and an underlying theme about the fragility of truth and the lies that bend it. All of these elements combine to form a story that was one of my favorite reads for 2005.

2. Tim Pratt, Little Gods - Pratt is a really good short story writer. Although I have yet to read his first novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, he gets this high position based solely on this one volume of collected short stories, which are excellently told and with a depth of meaning to them that many, more established writers fail to bring to the table.

3. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives - Despite my choosing of this book as being Most Disappointing (due to technical/editing problems, not with his potential as an author), I believe Esslemont has the potential to develop into a solid, entertaining author whose stories should complement quite nicely those of tag-team partner Steven Erikson.

Most Hyped Event of 2005:

1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The numbers don't lie - millions of books sold in 24 hours, hundreds of people discussing the book in a one-week period over at OF. Love her or hate her (and I tend to like her), Rowling knows how to turn up the hype machine and get the ball rolling with her releases.

2. George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows - Again, a no-brainer, as fans have waited for 5 years for the fourth volume to the popularly and critically-acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series to be released. While early returns might have been somewhat mixed, it seems that the wait helped drive hundreds-long lines of people at his booksignings in November and December 2005.

3. Serenity - Although this is a movie and not a book, it seems that geeks and otherwise 'normal' fans of the cancelled Fox series Firefly made this movie a cult-like hype event. Although I've never seen the TV series and have no desire to see the movie, I thought I might as well acknowledge the hype that its fans gave to it and the numerous posts about it in 2005.

Most Underrated Book of 2005:

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Although I could praise Eco's latest to the heavens, it seems that for the local reading public, Eco is a treasure waiting to be discovered. This would be a great book to start with, as it's one of Eco's most accessible and yet thought-provoking books, a tale that deals with memory loss and what it means to live only with a superficial relationship to the outside world via comic books and adventure stories, among others. A must-read book that sadly hasn't yet received the ink here at OF that it has elsewhere.

2. Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners - Link is one of the best short fiction writers out there. She's been nominated for all sorts of awards and was one of Time's Five Fiction book choices for 2005. Yet hardly a word about her here at OF unless I or Drkshadow03 (and maybe Jake) mention her. Almost a crime, that is. Hopefully, she'll get more ink here in the near future, as more people read her excellent stories.

3. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - I've already said plenty above about this novel. Let's just hope as her reputation grows, that this book and others of hers will find a wider audience outside of Canada and the few lucky Americans such as myself that have read her.

And those are the categories that I choose to reveal my votes. Perhaps this will encourage some to discuss them here or elsewhere. The true value of these things really deals with persuading people to think about the excellent fiction there is available and perhaps to buy some of the works mentioned here or elsewhere because of the praise received.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Skeptical about the Singularity

This post isn't meant to be a very detailed, researched response to what I perceive as problems with the concept of the Singularity, but instead just an introduction to possible questions/shortcomings about this belief. So there won't be extensive citations or even elaborate explanations behind my statements. But hopefully this will encourage some discussion, either here or elsewhere.

The term Singularity refers to an expected near-future event (some futurists have stated that they believe it will happen during the 3rd decade of this century) in which future rates of technological development will have accerlated to such a point as to make predictions of human society and its development practically impossible. The term comes from the physics realm and is meant to mirror the uncertainties that happen around a black hole. Supporters of this concept cite things such as Moore's Law (where computational abilities double around every 18 months) and anecdotal evidence about how technologies have developed at an apparent exponential rate throughout human existence.

All well and good, I suppose. There seem, however, to be certain constraints that haven't been taken into account by most proponents of the Singularity model. Now once upon a time, I was training to be a cultural historian and I can't help but wonder at the near absence of references to the cultural dimension. Yes, some have claimed that society today would be almost unrecognizable to someone from a century ago, but that's just a misleading statement. Yes, technologically, the farmer from 1900 might be amazed by the computers, cell phones, radios, TV, airplanes, and mass transport systems, but after taking a few minutes to orient himself, that hypothetical farmer would see a lot more in common. From the language being nearly the same to witnessing a similar social organization scale into the Haves and Have Nots (and yeah, some things about historical Marxism are valid in this context - deal) to how human paralanguage is basically the same, there is still quite a bit of a lag between technological concepts and societal reorganization. In a world in which we use words formerly associated with horse-drawn transportation to describe our manipulation of motorized transportation, it seems that a linguistic Singularity at least is still in the extremely distant future.

Oh, perhaps proponents might argue that at some near-future point that the very concepts of communication will change, perhaps with bio-mechanical augmentation. Perhaps, but then comes the issue of availability and public acceptance. Just as the ancient Greeks invented a working steam engine or the Mesopotamian civilizations had the concept of a battery (as witnessed by what was found within some of their idols) but did not develop related technologies, what advantage will there be for societies to develop these technologies if it would mean a widespread change in societal organizations in the decades or centuries to follow? Will we see renewed attempts to limit the spread of new technologies, such as what Great Britain attempted to do in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution? Will there be benefits (such as age-related research) that will be denied to a certain population, with the possible risk of societal revolt?

On these fronts, I have seen very little mention from the Singularists. Maybe I'm just too much of a skeptic here, but I can't help but see quite a few issues that just haven't been addressed to my satisfaction. But perhaps others here can point out counterarguments to what I said above?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Larry's Choices for the 2006 OF Awards, Part I

Again, like we've done in previous years, we're going to post separately what some of the Admins over at Other Fantasy believe are the best (and occasionally) the worst of what we have read or seen in the sometimes-wacky world of speculative fiction for 2005. Perhaps this list (mine will be posted about a week or so before Jake's) will spark some interest among those trying to decide who to vote for, while others might just be curious to read some of the books that I will mention.

Now my top 3 will not coincide necessarily with the Finalists for the 2006 Awards. I read many different things this year and if some of these don't happen to be in English, don't believe that I'm being a snob or anything. If anything, hope there's an excellent English translation available or that you will be able to find and read the books mentioned in the original. The more exposure books from outside the 'traditional' markets get, the better in my opinion, as I am convinced that the world out there offers a much larger palette of expressions and meanings than which can be painted using the English language alone.

Anyways, I've blabbed too much, so here are my choices for some of the categories (I'm leaving out community and movie-based options, as I would prefer to focus on the book world here):

Best Book Released in 2005

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
- This was one of Eco's better efforts in my opinion. I've been a fan of his writing for ten years now and outside of The Name of the Rose and possibly Foucault's Pendulum, I believe this is Eco's strongest work. As I said here, Eco reveals more of his keen wit than he has before in his previous four novels, plus the level of introspection that the protagonist, Yambo, experiences just adds such a layer of depth to this story of a man who can remember the artifacts of his life, but not the actual memories of the people and places behind those artifacts. Although the story of an amnesiac has been done before by a great many authors great and small, Eco's twist to the story provides a unique depth and poignancy to this tale.

2. Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion - This tale within a great many tales of an Ukranian writer/gadfly who mysteriously disappears during a conference in Venice is an exercise of speculation and intrigue that quickly devolves into an intertextual exercise that engages the reader while the oft-funny segments will entertain. The translation was just published in English this summer and if Andrukhovych is any example, then there should be some very excellent works coming out from Eastern Europe into English translation in the coming years.

3. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - Sweet has written a tale within a tale that revolves in part around the ancient question of "What is truth?" A story of revenge and longing, The Silences of Home is a prequel of sorts to her earlier The Telling of Stars, but each book can be read independently of the other, plus the order of the reading can affect greatly how a reader perceives the connections between the two tales. The writing here was not as lyrical as in her first novel, but the characterizations and plot developments were done very well, leaving the reader to ponder at the end what exactly Truth was after all.

Honorable Mentions: Isabel Allende, Zorro; China Miéville, Looking for Jake

Best Book Read in 2005 but Published in Prior Year:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes (Spanish)
- It is no secret that Borges is likely my favorite author and after having read in Spanish for the first time this year this wonderful, wonderful collection of his, it is no surprise to those that know me that I would choose this for my favorite book read this year. The stories are thought-provoking, full of double intent and the imageries invoked will make the incautious reader wonder what is real and what is artifice. Of special note is the story of Pierre Menard, who seeks to recreate without copying the actual Don Quijote, with results that are surprising. A must read for fans of deep speculative fiction of the sort that Gene Wolfe loves to write.

2. Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño (Spanish) - This early 17th century play revolves around the interstices of Dream and Reality, as the players within begin to question which is which. One example of this is a monologue almost 2/3 of the way into the play, in which one character says this memorial soliloquy:

¿Qué es la vida?: un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida?: una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño,
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

(What is life?: A frenzy.
What is life?: An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction,
and the best good is small,
that all life is a dream,
and dreams, dreams they are.)

Enough said, right?

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) - After reading this book, I could see better why Locus Online and other genre publications were eager to claim this book as their own. A story revolving around this mysterious, eponymous book and one child's almost fanatical devotion to the book he 'adopted' as the scene revolves around a mysterious man that seems bound and determined to eliminate all copies of this book from the face of the earth, La sombra del viento is in turns a fascinating mystery and a thoughtful look into the meanings that printed words hold for us and our imaginations.

Honorable Mentions: Alejandro Dolina, Crónicas del Ángel Gris; José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la ceguera; Gabriel García Márquez, Del amor y otros demonios; Jorge Luis Borges, El libro de los seres imaginarios; Laura Restrepo, Delirio

Most Disppointing Book Released in 2005:

Like last year, this category is very hard for me to remark about, because virtually all of the books I read this year, I enjoyed in some form and fashion. So just because I mention a book here does not mean that I believe it is a horribly-written or executed book. Instead, in most cases, it would just mean there were a few annoyances that kept me from enjoying the story as much as I enjoyed others this year.

1. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives - Before some of the Erikson Reading Cult™ try to gang up on me and toss me out, I should note that this book makes it for the editing and typographical errors that plagued the book. These little annoyances kept me from enjoying Esslemont's story as much as I would have wished, although there is certain more than enough promise there to warrant future publications of his planned five books in the Malazan world.

2. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - While I certainly enjoyed this story a lot and believed it was a stronger effort than 2003's Order of the Phoenix, I just was left feeling that there was a bit too much exposition at times in the middle and that the ending was a bit rushed. While Rowling deserves most of the praise that she's received for the Harry Potter series, compared to the other readings I've done this year, this was relatively weak in comparison. Consider this a backhanded compliment of sorts, I suppose.

Most Disppointing Book Read in 2005 but Published in Prior Year:

Only one book came to mind here and this one was chosen as much because I felt it was a ripoff of much of Jorge Luis Borges than for any perceived deficiencies of writing. Yes, Paulo Coelho's El Alquimista just read as a trite, somewhat more shallow take on much of Borges's oevre than anything else. It just soured me on the tale told within, which wasn't that bad, but not good enough to help me overcome my initial distaste to the story.

I will add some of the other categories either later this weekend or sometime next week. Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions here.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Amusing oddities

In the 4+ years that I've been an administrator over at wotmania, I've seen quite a bit of behavior that is in turns amusing and baffling to me. I just felt like writing a short, light-hearted post here devoted to the quirkiness that seems to make the SF/F fan what he or she is, so please don't take any of this personally, although I suspect a few of you might. C'est la vie and all that.

The first thing about the obsessed fan is the near-fanatical devotion toward matters of cover art. Judge a book by its cover? Perish the thought...or rather, perish the publisher that changes the art or those which print 'garishly SF/F art' on their covers. From the multitude of comments about how the Darrell K. Sweet WoT covers compare to the British ones to how people hate that the SOIAF covers have changed three times over four books to differences between the Canadian/American and British covers for R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing series, it would seem as though the 'typical SF/F fan' has to have the cover art JUST so.

Related to this is book size. Gotta wait an extra 8-24 months to own the tradeback/paperback edition (with the same cover, of course!), because the books must be of the same size and appearance! Heaven forbid if there's a hardcover that comes in the end part or that the composition of the paper used is thicker/thinner than before (you may think I jest, but considering the 'complaints' I read about George R.R. Martin's A Feast for Crows having 'thinner' paper than before, you'd be shaking your head as much as I am, perhaps), because we might have a few more heart attacks around this joint.

Then we have those amusing people who just have to have all of their books ordered just so on a bookshelf. Just reading a few posts around the web in recent months, it seems as though there is a legion of obsessed fanatics that arrange their shelves by book size, color, texture, etc. and therefore would become crazed if this said order would be compromised if an author were to release a book with cover art that is incongruous to that which has come before!

I guess whoever said that maxim about not judging a book by its cover never met a truly dedicated SF/F fan! I probably am leaving out more oddities, but I thought I'd just post this little bit in lieu of writing a more 'serious' article. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments box.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Looking for a Story

One of the problems of being a voracious reader is that sometimes stories told by wildly divergent authors seem to merge and flow into one half-remembered mess. This is further compounded when the reader is bilingual and has read stories told in both Spanish and in English translation. I found myself today just sorting through some of my books, trying to reorganize my double-stacked bookcases and seeing what memories I had of those tomes and the stories told within.

Glancing at shelves where a Jorge Luis Borges sat beside an Angela Carter, or where China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer shared space with a Thomas Wolfe or an Ernest Heminway, a world of literatures encapsulated within a five-shelf bookcase in which there were no distinctions made by genre or even language. As I glanced at this seeming mélange of various fictions and non-fictions (and even Derrida's Of Grammatology, fittingly enough), I started to find myself lost in thought.

I wonder if there were a story out there, one told in a first (or perhaps even a second person view) of a world in which some of Borges's ideas on labyrinths had been explored. A story which utilized the wit of a Jane Austen or perhaps the deep sympathy of a Charles Dickens. A tale in which humor abounded, perhaps not like Terry Pratchett's satirical works, but mayhap more akin to that of a W. Somerset Maugham. Such a story, if it exists, might have the beautiful flow of a Gabriel García Márquez, with his magical butterflies and tragic tales of tenderness to be found in the arms of a humble whore, or maybe the polemic of an Upton Sinclair.

Surely such a historia exists, somewhere, if not in English, perhaps in Spanish, German, Latin, or another language known or unknown to myself and others. I envision such a tale to have something, that je ne sais quoi, that would spark a reaction from its reader. Perhaps this story is found in prose form, or in a poem, or maybe even within a song lyric. I do not know. But I am looking for it. Have you seen a story, whether it be long or short, rich or poor, happy or sad, or all of the above and then some? If so, please share that story (or stories) with this humble reader, as he is looking for a part of himself that seems to be missing, out there.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Wondering about that Emotional Punch to the Junk

Over the past year or so, I've slowly become less and less inclined to read a work of overt speculative fiction, as I have become more and more enamoured recently with the works of a great many Latin American authors, from Jorge Luis Borges to my current read, José María Arguedas. I never really sat down and thought about why this was happening until I read a couple of pieces that made me wonder about what possibly could be missing from most contemporary speculative fiction.

I think what I miss most is that sense of connection, as if the plight of the characters were somehow important to me. Reading Arguedas's Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers) has made me think about the oppression of the indios of Peru, of those impoverished, yet proud, descendents of the Inka, whose rich cultural tradition has had a layer of European architecture and values superimposed upon it as the streets of Cusco have Inka foundation and European storeys. Where is this sense of loss, this sense of an utterly human tragedy in most fantasy or science fiction stories? Where is the connection between the lives that the characters have lived (or died) and that of my own? Where is the realism that underlies our fantasies?

Is it because it is so very difficult to write a scene set outside our perceived world and have it become 'meaningful' to us? Can we truly experience such a sense of shared triumph or communal loss as some have while reading works such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises?

Recently, I was reading the comments over in wotmania's WoT messageboard in regards to the apparent 'insensitivity' that readers were showing toward a moment in the just-released latest WoT book, Knife of Dreams, that the author himself said should make people "gasp." The relative blasé attitude toward that stuck me as rather interesting - was it due to people being desensitized, or could it deal more with a greater difficulty in becoming emotionally attached to a fantasy world and its peoples and their struggles?

Is there something inherently lacking in the way that most fantasies and science fiction works are written that prevents us from associating ourselves, perhaps in cathartic fashion, with the characters being represented? It is a question that puzzles and troubles me.

Perhaps others reading this will have thoughts on this issue. Perhaps they can think of exceptions to what I have mentioned, or perhaps other ways of viewing this. Shall be interesting to see what the Blog readers here will make of this.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Well, time to get this blog active again vol.2, yes?

Seems to me there has been little to no activity here over the last few months. Too long for my liking...

Some of you might know me, others don't. I've come here partly to speculate and partly to complain.

Those of you, who recognize my name should remember I often expressed my strong opinion about the state of Western fantastic fiction. Negative opinion, I might add. For the last few years the number of interesting new writers and interesting ideas has constantly been decreasing. At the same time, I have been reading a growing numbers of opinions that Western scifi&fantasy writers are burnt-out. That of course, is the common opinion here, in Poland or perhaps in general to the east of the river Oder.

We strongly believe that Eastern European authors have more to offer today than those you are accustommed to. The reason? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves... I don't want to elaborate this, I'm not the right person for that, but if I were to speculate, I'd go with different historic experiences, different cultural background or even ethnic origin. This all adds up to a unique blend of critical look at the modern society and its future and our own past. This doesn't mean typical, low-quality pulp is not available here. On the contrary. But we do get many interesting texts that wouldn't have any chance for being published where you live folks. And that brings me to what I intended originally.

I really loathe Western publishers. Oh, I do realise they need to earn a living and should publish those authors that offer a chance of good return on investment, but who said only Westerners have monopoly on profits, huh? While investments in foreign writers certainly require some spending, they may in turn result in income. As the example of Spain shows, different culture does not necessarily mean readers will be discouraged. In truth, a certain Polish writer (who happens to be the most popular fantasy writer in Poland), Andrzej Sapkowski, has recently gained huge popularity there and his books have been a great success (winning him some of the most important Spanish awards). Success of the first writer resulted in a decision to sign publishing deals with other authors from Poland and Russia.

Unfortunately, this doesn't even seem to be a light in a tunnel when it comes down to American and English publishers, two of the biggest book markets in the world. Given all the information I gathered, it looks that it's damn hard for Poles to find a publisher in the USA or even UK. It didn't even help a young but great Polish writer Jacek Dukaj, that a short animated film based on his fantastic novel, "The Cathedral", was nominated for Oscar two years ago. Translated by renowned Michael Kandel (the excerpt of the novel can be found here) together with another great story by Dukaj ("The Iron General", which in turn is available as an excerpt here) despite efforts couldn't find a publisher.

If a good translation and an Oscars buzz didn't help, what else will? Will the same happen to an interesting Russian writer Sergei Lukyanenko and the chance for international promotion he's having? A blockbuster hit, "Night Watch", based on his very good novel by the same title should hit cinemas in the West very soon. Will the merchandising oppportunities surrounding the film help to promote the book? Time will tell. I can definitely recommend this book to you.

Back to merchandising and Sapkowski I mentioned above. Some Polish computer games company is working on a possible major hit for computer games. The game called The Witcher is based on his hugely successful series of short stories and novels on witcher Geralt, a warrior trained from the early childhood to combat monsters. The early rave reviews suggest the game itself may be really successful, but I'm interesting in whether this would mean a chance for promoting Sapkowski. Again, time will tell. As of today there is no word on a possible translation of his works into English...

*sigh* Anyway, thanks for reading my ramblings. Perhaps anyone of you out there, who happens to read this post is on familiar terms with a publisher interested in new discoveries. If so, let them know there are great writers abroad waiting for a chance.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Ian Cameron Esslemont Interview

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to interview Ian Cameron Esslemont, author of the recently published novel, Night of Knives. NOK is novel set in the world first made popular by Steven Erikson in his novel Gardens of the Moon. NOK is a Malazan novel that focuses on the events of a single night in Malaz City, a night that reshapes the empire. For a full review of the novel: Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont: A Review


Please, tell us a little about yourself. The blurb from NOK mentioned that you’re a Ph.D. student in literature. What are you working on for your Ph.D. dissertation?

I am a Winnipeg lad, though I have lived abroad from Canada for many years now. My (part time now) Ph.D. research could, generally speaking, be categorized as Victorianist. I am looking at the writings that come out of European expansion into the South Pacific, specifically by sailors, missionaries, traders and travelers. I am interested in stories of “culture contact” and this region offers particularly interesting, and challenging, narratives of European and indigenous contact, clash, and exchange.

I think interest in such questions can readily be seen in the world Steve and I created where we tell the story not only of the Malazan Empire, but also the stories of numerous peoples – the choices they have made (or have been inflicted upon them) and the consequences that follow.

What current novels/authors are you reading? These can be either related to your Ph.D. work or in your general reading, or both.

Currently, for my research, I am studying Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee. By way of secondary sources, I am looking at Nicholas Thomas’s Colonialism’s Cultures, and Victor Turner’s classic anthropological text, The Forest of Symbols. Naturally, all this work in research limits my recreational reading, but recently I have managed to get to [Harry Potter and the]Half-Blood Prince (and enjoyed it), a collection of Orwell essays, and Roger G. Kennedy’s Hidden Cities, an account of the systematic erasure of indigenous high civilizations in North America – fascinating and indicting.

What about the fantasy genre in specific or speculative fiction in general, draws you as a reader? As a writer?

What is it about the fantasy genre that draws me? Hmmm… A hard question to answer. I think an openness to the genres of fantasy or SF come from a childhood nurturing of imagination. The Little Prince is a space traveler, as is Peter Pan. This is not to belittle the literature, but rather to acknowledge it as a prerequisite, a foundation for an open and imaginative mind. “What if…?” is the question basic to all genres of speculative fiction. Being well nurtured in this regard I read voraciously then came to see within the genres the potential for addressing essential questions and concerns that mainstream literature is simply unsuited to grasp – eternal questions that in a secular culture must still be spoken to – questions of meaning and myth (myth has not gone away, it has simply morphed, as has meaning). All of the above makes up my attraction to the genre(s) both as reader and writer.

Do you have a set writing routine?

I used to have a writing routine but lately it has been disturbed by family and work. Ideally, I would have a good chunk of time – say four hours at a stretch – during which I would “write myself into the world,” to work on a scene. Usually, I prep myself for a writing period by reviewing & editing what I did last, then looking ahead to what scene or scenes are required next.

In your estimation, how has the response been to Night of Knives in both the critical and the general reception? Has the response been what you expected or hoped for?

Generally speaking, from what I have seen on the net, the reception of Knives has been just fantastic – better than anything I could have hoped for. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to give their feedback. It took a lot of encouragement from Steve to get me to take the step to try to get published (after all, what an act to follow!). Now that I have a book out in the public domain I hope this will lead to more of my contribution getting out there.

What has been the primary challenge of writing a shared-world novel? What is the primary benefit?

This question allows me to wonder about just what constitutes a shared world. This category of novels, as currently understood by the publishing industry, seems to mean a shared milieu in which any author can be contracted to write. As a consequence it is also a category that suffers from an image problem (though this does seem to be slowly changing).

This is not what Steve and I have created in Malaz. I understand that a “world” cannot be copywrited, only individual works of creative art. Our milieu, the world of Malaz, came into being through the work of the two of us at the same time and so I think falls more within the definition of the usual single world--single writer, such as Lieber and Lankhmar, or Banks and the Culture, except in our case there are two creators.

The primary benefit of this, at least in my case, was tremendous creative synergy. I liken the process to that of jazz: two musicians, or writers, getting together and jazzing around, creating new sounds but always remaining in tune and on the melody. Oddly enough, no one seems to have a problem with shared creativity in a jazz group.

How do you approach this complex and rich world? Are there aspects of the cultures, locations, people groups, history, that particularly interest you? How does your approach differ from Steven Erikson’s?

Naturally everything in the world of Malaz interests me. The world reflects Steve’s and my shared interests: history, realpolitiks, cultural innovation, but above all, storytelling. We hoped to create narratives that were interesting and emotionally compelling in a world that felt as real as our own; one with a history that (for Steve and I) is in many ways more fascinating that the “present.”

As to whether my approach differs from that of Steve, in truth it doesn’t differ so much at all. Knives is something of a one-off in that it is very narrowly constrained in time and place; my other projects in Malaz are more similar to Steve’s broad canvases.

Having seen the success that Steven Erikson’s books have had over the past few years, has that created more pressure or expectations to get your writing published as well?

Has seeing the success of Steve’s books created more pressure or expectations for my own publishing? If anything, I would have to say the opposite. His work is just so damn good (in my so-unbiased opinion), how can I or anyone follow that? Yet I have stories to tell of this world as well, and they won’t get told if I don’t offer them so, with his encouragement, I will soldier on – with the understanding that my work in no way aims to compete against his – but rather that the world was made big enough for the both of us. As to getting any more of them published, that is largely out of my control but of course I hope to be allowed the opportunity to tell more of the world’s many stories.

What are your future plans for writing in this world? Can you give us any hints as to where or what you might write about? Is Night of Knives at all related to some of your other possible stories?

As to future projects of course I cannot be specific here. Steve’s books, and Knives, are all stand-alone. So too would any future books from me. We hope that before Steve finishes his series of ten books I will also have ones coming out, but this is in no way guaranteed. Whatever the situation, he will of course sculpt his ongoing books so as to extract the maximum he can from the world (with my blessings). The hope is that I will also be contributing for an even higher octane mix. However, I can say that Knives was one of five Malaz novels, all of which were sketched out alongside Steve’s ten. Three of the remaining four also use the Malaz Empire as the route of entry into the world, while the last is more of an epilogue to many of the main story threads in which remaining questions are answered (and surprising revelations are made, of course!).

This final question is a long-standing Other Fantasy tradition: If you owned monkeys, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Pet monkeys? Funny you should ask this seeing as I have two! Two mischievous boys who empty drawers, pull down books, and mangle toys. The number of times I’ve found one of them happily bashing away at my computer keyboard is beyond count – the stuff I’ve lost! Aargh! In any case, the answer is two: aged five and two.

From everyone at Other Fantasy and Wotmania, thank you for your time and your thoughtful responses. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

Many thanks for the opportunity to talk more about Malaz. Always a pleasure. Keep those emails flying to Bantam!! Yours, Cameron.


If you haven't yet and find yourself interested in buying Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont, you can look at the PS Publishing web site, in the links section of wotmania, or check out Clarkesworld Books

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Is J.K. Rowling becoming the next Charles Dickens?

After finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night, I was struck more and more by the reactions that readers at wotmania had regarding the final chapters. There was a mixture of surprise, alarm, sadness, and anger. Almost the whole gamut of human emotions were on display in these posts relating their interactions with the story. For those readers, Rowling's book was not just a well-told story, but something more, something more important to them than the words printed on paper and bound together.

Every so often, books appear that capture national or even international attention. Although the stories and characters may be different, although the setting and style may bear scant semblence to one another, there is just something, some je ne sais quoi, that links the story, the readers, and the time the story is written. Whether we are talking about the decadence of the Jazz Age/Weimar Era and how Thomas Mann (in The Magic Mountain), Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), or especially F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night) or if we focus on the Victorians or the Beat writers or even 'children stories' such as Where the Red Fern Grows, some of the best authors have managed to create memorable and moving scenes that last beyond their immediate times to create immemorial images that have burned their way into our collective consciousness.

Judging by the way Harry Pottermania has struck the globe, from the books, the movies, the action figures, and other miscellaneous objects, one would be hard pressed to think of an author who has managed to have such a cultural impact on the world. However, there is one author from the past who comes to mind, one whose importance has only grown as we draw ever further away from his Victorian abode: one Charles Dickens.

When I thought about Rowling in conjunction with Dickens, I was not thinking about sales figures, the quaint turns of speech both employ to draw in the reader, or even the sometimes brilliantly insightful commentaries buried within large amounts of dross, but instead on how well each has managed to connect the reader to the events taking place in the book that he or she might be reading at the time. One Dickens story in particular reminds me so much of the current discussions involving the latest Harry Potter book: The Old Curiosity Shop. While this story is not as famous as Oliver Twist ("Please sir, I want more.") or A Christmas Carol, in its day, this serialized novel about a picturesque shop and the little girl Nell moved people. Whether it was due to the quaintness of the shop settings or the humaneness of Nell or something else, The Old Curiosity Shop was a runaway bestseller not just in Dickens's native Britain, but also in the fledgling United States. Every month at ports along the American Atlantic seaboard, there would be large crowds of people gathered around one reading scenes from the latest installment of Dickens's latest masterpiece. They would laugh at the oddness of some of the characters, or smile as Nell's sweetness came on display, but one day they received a shocking installment: Nell had become sick.

While they waited, there were debates as to whether or not Nell would survive and if things would continue along their merry way toward a happy ending. But Dickens surprised people by having Nell die. From London to Scotland to the American frontier, tens of thousands of people read her deathbed scene and her passing away and they just bawled. Imagine grown men today just breaking down and crying because a little girl died. Yet somehow, her fictional death, when placed amongst the greater backdrop of what was transpiring in a rapidly industrializing Britain, with its exploited boys and girls dying in great numbers from work injuries or from diseases such as cholera or smallpox, came to symbolize just how cruel and capricious this world could be.

It was this image that popped into my head as I read the final 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. While I will not spoil what happens there, I can say that it appears that Rowling has taken quite bit of Dickens's purpose to heart: she has worked very hard over six books to create something that moves the spirit. It is as if she was holding up a mirror for us to gaze into, letting us see again, as if anew, just how unfair this world can be. The Harry Potter series is rapidly becoming much more than 'just' a series for children. There are moments in the past two books that invoke a much darker, more worried world behind the whismical fantasy backdrop. Perhaps we are reading a series worthy of the post 9/11 or post 3/11 or post 7/7 world, one in which children and adults can suffer, can grieve, and yet still can love and carry on.

Maybe it is time to just come to terms with the notion that J.K. Rowling has created something that is much more than the sum of its parts. And in that, she might truly become like Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sometimes, There's No Alchemistry in Dreams

I just finished reading a book that disappointed me a lot, Paulo Coelho's El Alquimista: Una fábula para seguir tus sueños (The Alchemist in English). The premise seemed interesting, a quest-type/dream tale of a shepard following a dream from the plains of Spain (minus the rhyme about the rain) to the pyramids of Egypt, because he had been promised that he would find a treasure there. According to what I had read elsewhere, Coelho's story was a combination of a Borgesian dreamscape with Blake's aphoristic/visual style, with touches of Hemingway thrown in as well.

However, the story just didn't work for me. The use of proverbs to relate truths just seemed to hinder the flow of the narrative and it neither had the power of Borges's great stories about the power of dreams nor did it pack the punch of Blake's wordplay. I was just left feeling that while individual sections read well, the story as a whole just was not strong enough to carry the story. Also, I couldn't help but feel that Coelho relied way too much on his influences and that this story at least fails to show the author possessing a strong, unique voice of his own.

While the story is adequate to even good at times and the moral tales worth considering, I just cannot recommend this story to those who like myself were hoping for something more transcedent.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Mysterious Flame Sparks a Mysterious Mark

Sometimes, a reader manages to be treated to two wildly different and yet equally good reads in the span of a weekend. This indeed was the case for myself, as I completed on Friday Isabel Allende's latest work, Zorro (published this past May simultaneously in English and Spanish editions), and Umberto Eco's newest work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (the English translation was published around the first of June). These two works by two widely-acknowledged masters of prosery are very different in theme and focus, and yet there is a connection that binds them deeply together, at least within the recesses of this reviewer's heart.

Allende has made a name for herself, both within the US and in Latin America, for stories that invoke a sense of magical realism, yet while containing fully realized characters. She continues this blending of elements in her retelling of the Zorro myth from the vantage point of how Diego de la Vega became the Masked Zorro. Hard as it is to believe, this is the first full-length written novel devoted to Zorro and Allende has taken great pains to make the experience a vivid one for the reader. Now I read this book in the original Spanish so I have little idea how the translator might have rendered this into English, but Allende was very detailed and yet brief with her descriptions of the plains, mountains, and arroyos of Alta California during the Mission Era of the 1790s. The scenery either glows or is dank based on the needs of the plot, and the places just seem so alive. Her human characters, however, are a fitting match, from the couragious Toypurnia, who meets her match (and makes a match of a different sort) in Alejandro de la Vega, to the dastardly Rafael Moncada to Diego himself. Allende has breathed life into all of them, placing motivations into their actions that go far beyond mere swashbuckling and which touch upon how utterly human these legendary characters really might have been.

The plot moves quickly, but do not be disappointed if there are few scenes involving the masked man with the Z logo. This is, after all, a prequel of sorts, explaining how Diego de la Vega became Zorro and why his struggle for justice for all resounds so much with our imaginations, nearly two centuries after his legendary exploits were supposed to have begun.

Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana reveals a much more introspective Eco, one whom seems to be concentrating more on the mysterious of one's own membrances rather than on contextual wordplay which was his hallmark in tales such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino. The story is an interesting one, as an antique book dealer, Yambo, suffers a mysterious ailment and is left suffering from partial amnesia. While he can remember quite clearly the things he has read, he has absolutely no memory of his personal life.

While I'm not going to spoil the plot of this story (and to say much more than what I'm about to would ruin all sorts of surprises for the reader), I will note that Eco displays a very keen wit here, one in which the protagonist's partial memories of the stories read, the loves forgotten or transmogrified, or the experiences buried in the tales of comic books and children's poetry are all somehow blended into an exploration of what makes one a human being. It is by far the most moving of Eco's stories that I've read and underneath the veneer of harmless retrospection, one of the most penetrating and even frightening looks into what makes us us. The closest tales I can think to what he tales are some of Borges's tales (especially the inversion of Funes, the Memorious) and Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist duology, not to mention a possible connection to the movie Memento (which I haven't seen, yet have heard that it covers some of the same themes as this book). But Eco doesn't copy any of these authors; if anything it's more of a coincidental convergence of ideas, as Eco's exploration of the Self goes in different directions than the authors I've read before.

Now I've said that there is a common bond between these two authors, tenuous as it might appear at first glance. What struck me most after completing both of them was just how well the authors used their abilities with the written Word to invoke reflective responses on the reader's part. Whether it be by enabling us to imagine a young Zorro in action or finding ourselves reliving vicariously our childhood memories of action-packed Saturday matinees through Yambo's struggles to make sense of himself, both Allende and Eco invoke that "mysterious flame," that je ne sais quoi, that unspeakable and yet utterly heartfelt something, that causes us to dream the dreams that we dream, to feel the fears that we feel, to love those whom we love, to be just what we are - human beings.

In short, these authors' works reflect the very best of what fiction of any sort, whether you want to call it speculative or not, can inflict upon the reader's emotions. These are stories well worth reading and re-reading, if only for the memories and the often-futile grasps for understanding that we might have as consequences of having read them.

Friday, July 01, 2005

My Half-Year Reading List

Hard to believe the first six months of 2005 have come and gone and that we are now beginning the backstretch of the year! I know many of the readers here at OF are competing in the 50 book challenge. While I'm not aiming to read 50+ books this year per se (schoolwork and worky-work are combining with my need to devote hours to exercise each week to keep me from having much free reading time), I thought I'd list the books I've completed so far this year. Of course, I might be forgetting a few by accident, but I know I've read and completed these books in 2005:

Jorge Luis Borges, El Hacedor; Ficciónes (English); Ficciónes (Spanish); El libro de arena

Eduardo Gonzalez Viana, Los sueños de America

Julio Cortázar, El autopista del sur y otros cuentos

Carlos Fuentes, Inquieta Compañia

Harriet Beecher Stowe, La cabaña del tío Tom

Umberto Eco, On Literature

Xavier Velasco, El guardián diablo

Ciro Alegria, El mundo es ancho y ajeno

Caitlin Sweet, A Telling of Stars; The Silences of Home

Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño

Jon Stewart, et. al, America (the book)

Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (Spanish)

Alison Croggon, The Naming

Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion

So yeah, not that many books so far this year, 18 in total, but considering that 11 are in Spanish and only 7 in English, that's not too bad, is it? And after this week, I should have almost two free months to catch up on my reading and here are the planned reads for the next few weeks/months:

To Finish Reading:

Isabel Allende, Zorro (Spanish)

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

To Start Reading Soon:

Kevin Radthorne, The Road to Kotaishi (Parts I & II)

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives

Isabel Allende, La Casa de los Espiritus

Later, Possibly:

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Gene Wolfe, Starship Strains

R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought (but that depends on a few things, such as whether or not I get an ARC copy before December 31st)

Dan Simmons, Olympos

Possible Re-reads:

Bakker's first two books

Erikson's Malazan series and the two Korbal Broach novellas

Dan Simmons, Ilium

And possibly a few dozen more books in Spanish, as I plan on focusing more on Spanish than I will on English-language books this year. Hey, gotta learn the language, written and spoken, as well as I can if I want to work the job that I'm aiming for when I finish school in the next year and a half or so, right?

So what books have you completed this past half-year and which do you think you'll finish in this second half of the year?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Have aliens really taken the place of angels?

Guardian Unlimited | Arts Friday Review | 'Aliens have taken the place of angels'

In Friday's issue of The Guardian, Margaret Atwood tackles issues pertaining to the importance of speculative/science fiction in contemporary society. It was an interesting read and I found much with which I could agree, even if I do still disagree with her definitions for speculative and science fiction, as I see speculative fiction as being much more than just writing fiction based on plausible technologies.

But there's an interesting point she makes in her article, that of meaning. In a world where it seems like each discovery alternately excites and confuses us, where fundamentalists of all stripes have come clamoring for their voices to be heard as a clarion call to something concrete and specific in a world where it seems such certainties are chimeras, there is something about speculative fiction (or if you prefer, science fiction, fantasy, etc.) that reaches out to us, something to which we could grasp and hold tight in a sea full of undefinables.

Recently, there was a post over at SFF World dealing with the issue of whether or not the Bible could be considered a Fantasy. While the purpose of this post is not to debate that point (and my own opinions can be found embedded in that huge thread), perhaps it does serve to illustrate certain deep connections between our cultural religious past and our current society that serves us good and evil in Star Wars cups sold at fast food restaurants. Maybe the aliens will be our angels, but will there be a shift in the meaning that these potential creatures might hold for us? Perhaps, all we can do is just speculate and wonder.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I Narrator

I might as well splash my first posting here, half a year late at the very least. Anway, I've been thinking over the past several weeks about the power of the narrated story, somewhat like Larry's post about the power of stage plays on the audience.

Over the recent weeks, I've been reading Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight, Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars, Matt Stover's Heroes Die, and Dan Simmons' Olympos. These very different novels and authors have each added to my thoughts on the power of perspective storytelling. Many of us are familiar with the pull of stories told in the typical 3rd person format. Some people are truly drawn to 1st person narrative for the obvious reasons of the immediacy of the story and the main character's reactions. For me, I've realized that I enjoy types of "Telling", to borrow Caitlin's term, a narrative within the larger narrative. This "telling" can come out in different styles and forms in written works, but they all have in common the sense of a deeper sharing of the story, readers and the characters.

Much like a play unfolding before an audience, certain aspects of this "Telling" style draw the audience into plot, setting, development, suspense, more directly than many other forms. Gene Wolf's Sir Able, in Wizard Knight, is writing a letter to his brother, a letter that we are reading. Through the process, the character has to contextualize his experiences, his gained understandings of the events going on around him. He also happens to underexaggerate, smooth over, forget, avoid and lie about certain details. The telling here becomes a living thing. The entirety of the novels exist as this letter; however, Wolfe has managed to create a story that is somehow larger, more complex than the entirety of the written work... he managed to put his letter-styled novels into a larger context without even writting it.

Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars is both a telling and a story about a series and intersection of many tellings. The novel is tied together in a weave of different characters stories, partially revealed for the most part, that bring a greater understanding and deeper feel to the overall story, which turns out to be a Telling of it's own. While the novel is not directly a first person account, it does force to reader into multiple and ever-changing understandings of characters, events and situations as each new element and telling brings in a new texture to the main chracter's world. The interesting thing is that these interconnected tellings seems to be the power behind the reader's connection with the characters and the story. There is a kind of power in the constructed words of the characters in this novel that allow us to sit next to the characters for the revealing.

Both Simmons and Stover use "Telling" in more conceptual ways in the noted novels. In Ilium and Olympos, Simmons is working with a multi-part story, one part revolving around a re-telling of the epic battle for Troy, Homer's Iliad, from the perspective of an on the field scholar. This part of the novel also happens to be in 1st person narrative. Thus, we get commentary on actions, characters and developments from an observer. This device allows the reader to enter into the novel in a different way... with specific context and conversation as much as a simple reading of the plot elements. Simmons explores the ideas of "Telling" in other ways as well... the events of the war of Troy enter into another arc of the story, but as a form of media entertainment... also as an intended means of education. This gives characters not involved with the Troy arc an odd connection and interplay with the other section of the novel. As events unfold, the reader finds themselves in much the same situation, holding "observed" information from the Troy arc as new characters and events unfold. Finally, Simmons' has created a society where history has been lost, for the most part, and the power of the story has been reintroduced. So in one book, you get a narrated story of a war, a complex interaction with that narrated story, and actual stories of events and developments that happen off the page. All in all, this creates the sense of a much more developed and complex world and story than simply spelled out on the pages.

Stover goes at this in even another way. In Heroes Die, Stover creates a world that watches actors transport to another world for the purpose of adventure. It is like reality tv and fantasy high adventure combined. The interesting aspect for the reader is that Stover places us on both sides of this "Telling". We are sometimes in the PoV of a watcher of events, the PoV is actually coming from a person virtually "living" the main character's events. At other times, we are getting a more standard style of story, though the character will break into monologue for the benefit of those watching his "adventure". In this way, the reader gets involved in several different levels of the story, from the main characters personal thoughts, his carefully crafted and contextualized telling of events, and a completely removed and almost secondary connection to the story. It is an interesting concept, and it was used to great results in the novel.

What captures you when reading? Are there times when you feel more connected to a story than at others? Is there a narrative style that makes novels more immediate to you when you're reading?

For me, an author's ability to involve me in the story by changing my typical relationship to the words on the page makes all the difference. "Telling" makes me feel involved in a novel in ways that are different... I can be further removed and seeing the story through the lens and context of a character, or I can be so far into the events and actions of a character that it's difficult to make out a larger story. The styles and techniques are different, but I enjoy the results.

Anyway, I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Postmodernist Bulgakov?

I just had the pleasure of finishing a novel recommended to me by Maciek/Vanin called Perverzion. The work of an Ukrainian novelist/poet/essayist/translator, Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion is a great many things all bundled up into one paperback volume of 326 pages. It is in turns a murder/suicide mystery, a exploration of morality and the interstices that take place in human lives. It is a farce, a prosy poem full of allusions to other allusions. It deals with religious matters of the soul; it is concerned with the postmodern decline and fall of the Carnival. It is also a love story, and a story of love misled. It is all of these things and many more.

The story revolves around the last days of one Stanislav Perfetsky - poet, gadfly, one-time stripper in a club catering to older women. He is a romantic and yet utterly beyond this. His travels across Europe, from Lviv in the Ukraine to his apparent end in the canals of Venice, are the stuff of legend. But just who is Perfetsky? Andrukhovych explores this with a series of chapters written apparently from the perspective of those who knew him, who were baffled by him, who were sleeping with him, and who were spying upon him. It is a fascinating mosaic quilted together with a deft comic touch.

Now I mentioned Bulgakov in my title, because the translator in his introduction refers to similar thematic elements present in both, combined with a mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful. While I need to re-read Bulgakov to ascertain just how accurate these claims are, I do recall a certain sense of devilish glee in both works, as the authors tweaked the noses of the pretentious (the chapter on the conference regarding post-Feminism is something to behold, intersplicing the "saintly" Perfetsky's making out with Ada with the speaker's Andrea Dworkinesque denunciation of almost all sex as rape) in their satirical ramage through their tomes.

While this book certainly contains elements of the supernatural (as does Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita), it is very difficult to classify Perverzion as belonging to any one school or genre of writing. It is simply sui generis, which certainly would be pleasing to Perfetsky himself to know. If you are a reader who likes challenging books that have a high reward potential, then I highly recommend that you buy Perverzion.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Life is but a dream?

To be, or not to be, - that is the question -
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? - To die, - to sleep, -
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and teh thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, - 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, - to sleep; -
To sleep! perchance to dream: - ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause...

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

Those who know me well will tell you that I am a huge lover of plays. For me, plays constitute the boundary between the Written and Spoken worlds. So much can happen in a play that cannot happen elsewhere. Unlike movies or television shows where the viewer is only a passive, non-essential part of the performance, the play often requires active audience participation. It is our applause, our interest, our own emotional baggage that the playwrights seek to attract, and in some cases, to deceive.

The actors are truly in action, moving about, morphing our perceptions with just a few well-placed words and a timely twinge of emotion that might flicker across a performer's face before it is replaced with another, possibly mysterious sign of feeling. A play is staged, but yet it conveys deep truths about ourselves when it is performed well. As Shakespeare had Hamlet's character say later in Act III, "The play's the thing."

What power in such lines as that or in Hamlet's soliloquy! I have found that good playwrights can create a world full of Feeling and Meaning just by allowing us audience members to do exactly that, to listen and to react to what is being said, and even more importantly, to how it is being said. One of the main weaknesses that I believe speculative fiction has as a whole is that this genre has failed to capitalize upon the power and beauty that is inherent in the play form.

In many ways, plays provide people with the avenues for emotional/personal escape that lovers of speculative fiction claim for that genre of literature. While watching Hamlet's dilemnia, or perhaps pondering the often-sad realities found in Thorton Wilder's Our Town, or even considering the notion that Life itself may be just only (and so much is this only!) a dream, as Segismundo does in Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño (Life is (a) Dream), the playwatcher can be caught up in such a way that is virtually impossible for any written work to perform unaided. For words to have true power, I believe they must resonate within the hearts of the recipiants, which means they must be spoken as well as read.

But yet plays are not as important as they used to be in everyday life. From television, movies, and video usurping some of the exciting visual moments, to radio and the above extracting the auditory elements, plays have been pushed into the background of posh theatre groups or rinky-dink high school performances. Where are the Georg Taboris daring to rewrite histories such as Hitler's youth into dreamscapes of the human psyche? Where are the Henrik Ibsens, reminding us of the often sad truths to be found within the doll's house? Where have they all gone? Is there any future left in the play format?

I believe that there might be. For as I tried to say above (and fear that I might have failed at my task), plays just offer something more meaningful for those people who "get it." There are more direct connections, as the actors and actresses may appear at the end and bow for our applause. We give immediate approval or disapproval to these performances. Seeing sometimes our hopes and fears presented in a play can just be so rewarding, that it is a wonder that we don't see more plays being written today, in this world of dislocation and alienation. Perhaps that is a field that someone with a keen interest in the speculative can explore to greater extent. Because I suspect that the play form can be paired quite well with the speculative. But maybe I'm just only dreaming. It wouldn't be the first time.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Well, time to get this blog active again, yes?

So it's been a long, strange trip since I last updated this Blog back around New Year's. Since then, I've returned to school full-time as a Social Work major and I just haven't had the time/energy/desire to immerse myself in speculative fiction like I did the year or so before. But now that summer is fast approaching, I should have some free time coming up to making at least occasional posts here.

Considering that this is basically a blog for some of the OF Admins to comment on whatever floats their boats, hopefully there will be more variety in the posts. After browsing through a few other blogs, I thought maybe we could better integrate this Blog of the Fallen with OF as a whole. So I'm going to try to do these things with my future posts here:

1) I'm going to provide more short reviews here, especially of works that might not fit exactly within the parameters of speculative fiction but which might be of interest to the reading public.

2) More comments about discussions, debates, etc. within and without the field that I encounter in my personal life or elsewhere on the Web as a means of provoking thoughtful discussion.

3) Less links to places like this.

In the coming weeks, I plan on kicking things off by reviewing books I recently received from publishers, such as Alison Croggon's The Naming, Kevin Radthorne's The Road to Kotaishi, Julie Czerneda's Migration. Also, expect reviews shortly over Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Yuri Andrukhovych's Perverzion, and Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño.

If there are other things you wish to see from this blog, please leave a suggestion here and I'll see what I can do. The more that reply, the better!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Caitlin Sweet Interview

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Caitlin. If you don't mind, could you give us a brief biographical sketch to give us a clearer image of the person behind the pen?

I was born in 1970 in Quebec, where my father was a university English professor. We moved to Lausanne, Switzerland when I was two and stayed there until I was four. After these four years of French living (apparently I was bilingual when we came back) we returned to Canada - this time to Toronto. My parents still live in the house where I grew up: lots of stability there!

I was not an active child. I willed myself to get nosebleeds every time we played baseball in gym class, and I generally attempted to be sick for swimming lessons. I read books while I walked to school - which was, luckily, very close to my house. I read books at family gatherings, in the car (Lord of the Rings on a summer trip to Maine), in my bed in almost total darkness. I burned my biology and math notes at the end of grades 10 and 11, respectively, when I officially finished with these courses. There was no resistance by my parents to this course-dropping. My father taught Latin and Greek mythology as well as English (my bedtime stories were Greek myths, with most of the gory parts removed or toned down). My mother had a degree in Library Science. (Incidentally, my six-years-younger sister is currently doing her PhD in English lit.) They never seemed to doubt that I'd have some sort of writing success someday. If they did doubt, they never let on. I was extraordinarily lucky to have such support, right from the beginning.

I did a BA in Humanistic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Humanistic Studies was basically a liberal arts thing: I had to take a certain number of credits in English literature, literature in a language other than English, music and art history, geography...It was fantastic. It was because of this degree that I discovered Spanish literature. These books changed my life - seriously. Coming in contact with literature that was utterly surreal (Borges and Lorca) and magic realist (Márquez) was like discovering an entirely new form of fantasy. It's likely no coincidence that I started writing fantasy again, after a long hiatus, near the end of my degree.

I taught English in Mexico after graduating. I'd been accepted to a comparative literature MA program, but decided (along with my then-boyfriend, now-husband) that I wanted to go somewhere and actually use the Spanish I'd learned. Living in Mexico was a strange, wondrous, fraught experience. After we returned to Canada I kept teaching English, to mostly Korean and Japanese students. A few years went by; I needed a change; I applied to the University of Toronto and got a job as an administrative assistant at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. I had this job for five years, during which I also had two children (meaning much of my time at U of T was spent on paid maternity leave!). After I returned from my first leave I decided I needed to haul my long-neglected A Telling of Stars manuscript out from my basement - which I did. I found a literary agent, thanks to the lovely Internet connection at work, and printed out several dozen versions of the manuscript - and then, after getting my second Penguin contract in 2003, I quit.

I'm now a full-time mother (my daughters are 5 and 3) who writes every afternoon from 1:45 to 3. This schedule will change next year, when I should have a bit more time every day in which to write - but it's worked so far.

You said that your father taught English and mythology. By any chance were you exposed to Irish mythology, at least in passing? Because when I was thumbing through my copy of A Telling of Stars, I couldn't help but notice how a few names (the Alilan in particular) seemed to have close parallels with Irish mythological heroes, such as Ailil (from the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows).

I was indeed exposed to Irish mythology, mostly thanks to my maternal grandparents, who made many trips to Ireland and always brought me back books (knowing me well, as they did!). But I'd definitely classify this influence as "in passing," since I haven't done any re-reading of the myths as an adult. I may have echoed the name unconsciously, or entirely randomly - but I'm very glad you noted it. I really enjoy the points readers make about my books - points I myself didn't know I was making. Deirdre of the Sorrows seems an entirely appropriate myth for Telling to evoke!

We were talking earlier in email about the character of the Keeper, found in A Telling of Stars. Without spoiling too much of the story, would you like to tell the readers here about how you came to construct that character and his role in the story?

I'd just finished my BA when I started on the Keeper section of the book. I was still reeling from the experience of reading the Latin American greats - and I was living in Mexico. I now think of that part of the book as an homage to the concept of time I'd encountered in Borges and García Márquez. "Remember the future and imagine the past" - Carlos Fuentes said this in a lecture he gave at McGill, and it stayed with me. Time loops as much as it flows; it circles back and leaps forward, and humans just don't understand it very well. Keeper is a character who does understand it. He, and the fortress and gardens he tends, are alive in moments of all time - moments Jaele, the protagonist, becomes entangled in. She considers him a prisoner - but she also begins to see that he has a sort of power, as he slips them both in and out of the present. I liked the ambiguity of his role, and of the setting.

Keeper's fortress and gardens were influenced by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, too. I was deeply affected by Peake's depiction of Titus Groan's castle: a sprawling, vast, decrepit place where you could always stumble upon a room or indeed a wing you'd never seen before. This sense of a place that's not exactly fixed, that could never really be rendered on a map, was precisely what I wanted to capture in the Keeper section.

Very cool! I was wondering about the exact nature of Keeper's power and to learn that you were thinking in part of what Borges, García Márquez, and Fuentes were describing in their stories is an added touch. But I'm curious about your comments regarding Peake: Are there any other elements in your stories that you would attribute to a fond reading of the Gormenghast stories?

I mentioned the sprawling, labyrinthine, apparently chaotic nature of Gormenghast castle; these adjectives also apply to Peake's narrative. I frequently refer to the plot of Telling as "organic" - meaning I didn't set out the details of the story beforehand, but let characters and setting lead me. This was the feeling I had reading the Titus books. Peake knew his places and people intimately, but the plot in which they were involved didn't unfold in linear, strategic fashion. (The third book in his trilogy, Titus Alone, is a really, truly problematic book in which chaos overwhelms any vestiges of plot.)

I too have read Borges, Lorca, and García Márquez and have recommended them to the readers here. But if you had to sum up in a few words the direct influence that these three authors have had on your writing, what would you say that you've taken from them?

A passion for the tangible power of narrative. Words, written and spoken, are incredibly transformative (in both wonderful and horrible ways) in Latin American fiction. I've also been influenced by the power of place in these stories. Houses, rooms in houses, towns, trains, the pampas of Argentina - these locales are rendered with care and intensity; they're vivid, often surreal, always essential to the lives of the characters in them.

You say that you learned a passion for the tangible power of narrative; that words, both written and spoken, are transformative - how would you say that you've applied this to your stories and the characters within?

In both Telling and Silences, the most obvious embodiment of the transformation-through-narrative idea is the Alilan. They are the capital T "Tellers," whose spoken words conjure images that seem entirely real to their audience. The Alilan are aware of the dangerous potential of this gift: Tellers are forbidden to use their words to make changes in the world. Of course, rules are made to be broken...

In Telling, Jaele often uses stories and words to significant effect. She utters words in the Keeper section that provoke a devastating (if ambiguous) change; her conversations with Ilario allow him a measure of peace and acceptance he hasn't ever had. He, in turn, teaches her how to write and urges her to write of things that matter to her; this ends up being extremely liberating (though also very difficult) for her. Lastly, Jaele herself becomes a Teller of sorts, as she recounts her story to an audience desperate for words and change.

In Silences, the words that aren't spoken (or, more specifically, written) are frequently more powerful than the ones that are. This is the distortion side of the transformation coin: when the truth is altered or simply not recorded, the stories that remain will of course be false. There's power and peril in this kind of narrative, too - though there remains the possibility that even untrue stories can be a vehicle for positive change (as is the case with the legend of Queen Galha and its effect on Jaele).

What was it, if "it" can be defined, that led you into reading and later writing fantasy?

"It" was an imprinting thing - something that happened so early I can hardly pinpoint time or place. That it did happen is thanks to my parents, who read me fantasy before I could read it myself, and certainly before I realized it was "fantasy." (Everything was just "story" then.) And thanks to my childhood friend Debbie, who gave me a copy of Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron for my seventh birthday. That moment I remember, probably because I was so intrigued by the cover (the one with Taran, sword drawn, peering anxiously at the nasty cauldron and its three witchy keepers). As soon as I discovered that this was the second book in a series, I nagged my mother to buy me the first, which she did - and that was that. I devoured the Prydain Chronicles, and shortly after that, I started to write stories. Really, really long stories. Too long, in fact, for my grade two teacher (who was probably just plain tired of reading them, and of supplying me with more and more Hilroy notebooks!).

My reading of fantasy began early, before genre definitions apply - and so did my writing of it. I wrote "once upon a time" stories, and stories in which someone has all sorts of surreal adventures, only to discover they've been dreaming (I thought this a very sophistical literary trick when I was seven). By the time I was about 11, I had become aware that fantasy was its own genre. By the time I was 14, I was aware that fantasy had zealous detractors and zealous defenders. "Read Judy Blume," my friends demanded, and I tried, but I just didn't get it. "Read Dickens," my English prof father urged, and I tried, but again didn't get it (until several years later). Which isn't to say that I read and enjoyed only fantasy. But fantasy was most definitely where my heart was, as a young adult.

Something changed when I got older. I moved from y/a to adult fantasy, and started finding that the adult books just weren't satisfying me in the same way that the y/a ones had. It seemed there was less wonder, less care taken with language and characterization. I started understanding what fantasy detractors meant when they claimed all fantasy was "escapist." Lots of battles, lots of complicated lineages and magic systems - but, to me, very little real magic. I stopped reading fantasy, mostly. And I stopped writing it. I'd written my first novel-length work at 14, another at 15, another at (yes!) 16 - but after that I wrote only historical fiction for a few years, and after that (late high school, first two years of university) nothing at all. I didn't write again until my third year at McGill, in 1991 - not coincidentally, just after re-reading the Prydain Chronicles yet again. It was amazing, the rush I felt: the reinvigorating sense of wonder and possibility. I decided to begin something. A fantasy story I'd attempt to imbue with the sensibility of the y/a books I'd loved, but a story for me, at 21 years old. This story became, over the course of six long years, A Telling of Stars. It was difficult, slow going - but it was also such a joy. I'd returned to fantasy - the reading of it as well as the writing - and it felt good.

Does that answer your question?

Which authors have had the most influence on your decision to write fantasy?

I've already mentioned Lloyd Alexander. Early on there were also Eleanor Estes, E. Nesbitt, C.S. Lewis (the box set with the Pauline Baynes covers!), Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner. Another huge influence on my early writing was Rosemary Sutcliff - not a fantasy writer, exactly, but her historical novels were as beautiful and awe-inspiring to me. As were Mary Renault's, which I read a bit later.

I've found through many conversations with other authors that they are as much readers within (and without) the genre as they are writers. As a reader, what sorts of things have you found in fantasy/science fiction writing that have appealed to you and which they would you wish to see more authors use in telling their tales?

I've always found a distinctive use of language very appealing. Obviously, there has to be a compelling plot to go along with the words - form over function definitely doesn't do it for me. But what I find so inspiring about the genre is that form can mirror function in a way it just can't in mainstream literature. Magical events can be described using magical language. (It's almost a kind of narrative-sized pathetic fallacy.) I certainly don't think that stylized prose is a requirement of fantasy story-telling - but I do think that the language of fantasy can and should be used with just as much polish and care as that of any other type of fiction.

When you state that the language of fantasy can and should be used with as much polish and care as any other genre of fiction, is this in reference to critical reviews of the genre and the styles (or possible lack thereof) that is perceived as being inherent in the genre?

I tend to attempt to defend fantasy against pejorative "critical reviews." Sometimes, though, I find myself straddling a tenuous line: I defend fantasy to its detractors, but I also understand some of the detractors' criticisms. One of these, as you've mentioned, is the low quality of genre writing. Now, there are certainly enough examples of badly written mainstream books to go around, and I'd extend my "polish and care" demand to them, too - but, frankly, it's the ghettoized genre stuff that gets blamed the most for sloppy writing. So I insist, "There's wonderful writing in that crazy section at the back of the store!", and also, "More fantasy should achieve narrative polish, panache and rigour!" It's a pretty bipolar existence.

In your first book, A Telling of Stars, you introduce a group of people, the Alilan, who seem to make the world come alive with their stories. Any insight as to the connection this might have with stars, or would that be spoiling the story too much?

The Alilan (who worship twin Goddesses of Earth and Fire) believe that stars are the fires of their dead ancestors. The connection between storytelling, memory, grief and redemption is extremely strong in the book - and that's all I'll say!

I recently read and really enjoyed your second book, The Silences of Home. I noticed it was markedly different from A Telling of Stars in both form and content. In which ways were these differences the result of the story being told and what other ways were more due to authorial development?

I started A Telling of Stars when I was 21, broken-hearted, mad at bad fantasy and desperate for all kinds of catharsis. The language I needed to use to tell this story was intensely poetic. The story itself was simple, plot-wise, but complex in emotional ways.

Fast-forward 12 years. Telling was finally done (i.e. edited, bound, on shelves!) and I was ready to write another book. I knew it would be connected to the first - but I also knew right away that its tone and content would be almost completely different. The story was not going to be related to my own cathartic needs. It would have to be complicated: lots of characters and shifting points of view, lots of tension and different kinds of resolution. I needed to plan this one. Minutely. I needed timelines and chapter synopses and point form lists of all sorts (hardcore fantasy readers who've read Silences may be thinking, "She thinks her plot's complex??" But it was. For me!). When I finally started writing, the language I used was different too. Less poetic description; more dialogue. The book ended up being longer than Telling, but it was also somehow less wordy.

So, as to your query: The kinds of stories Telling and Silences were determined the language I used to tell them. They were also written many years apart, meaning my "voice" was bound to have changed. I love that the two books are set in the same world, but so different; and I love the reasons for this.

Related to the above question: How do you respond to reviews and criticisms of your work? Have there been comments on your style and content that you've addressed in The Silences of Home?

Reader reaction to Telling was pretty polarized. Re: style: "What a joy to read such beautiful writing!" and "What a load of quasi-poetic twaddle!" Re: content: "How great that there are no wizards and battling armies!" and "Where's the plot?" I expected this polarity, and the negative responses didn't devastate me (too much!).

While I was writing Silences, I was aware that my different approach to content and style might make the book more accessible to more fantasy readers - but this wasn't what made me write it the way I did. I won't be disingenuous and claim that the prospect of reaching more readers didn't excite me - it did, and does. But the differences in approach were not the direct result of negative feedback to Telling.

Relatively simple question: What are some of the silences referred to in The Silences of Home?

The empty spaces left by absent friends and family, and by words that might (or should, or could) have been spoken. The sudden strangeness of a place that was once beloved and familiar.

You said above that reviews of your books have been rather polarized. I'm curious, what would you say to those readers who seem to have been very quick to dismiss your approaches toward telling your stories?

I'd say: If the kind of fantasy I write isn't the kind you like to read, don't trash it - try a "not my thing, but it's a big genre" approach and move on. Or at least be considered about your criticisms: give me something reasonable and respectful to react to.

More and more fantasy/science fiction authors these days appear to be depending upon internet sites such as wotmania to get the word out about their books. What are some of the good and bad things that you've noticed about sites such as these?

My first online writing experience was becoming a member of the Del Rey Online Writers' Workshop - something that galvanized me into starting the search for a literary agent. I "met" people on that workshop who are friends of mine today (Scott Bakker and Karin Lowachee, to name two). They gave me confidence, convinced me that the first three chapters of A Telling of Stars actually made them want to read more. Who knows how long it would have taken me to get my query letter written if I hadn't found this forum.

I've recently dipped my e-toe back into the vast genre pool that's out there/here on the Internet (via my forums at and - and again, I can say that I've felt welcomed, supported, encouraged. It's tempting to feel isolated as a writer - artistic, driven, misunderstood - whatever. But after a few minutes and days on a respectable online forum, you realize you're most definitely one of many. It's a comforting feeling.

And yet...for me, anyway, it's possible to feel too comfortable - and overwhelmed by all those other voices. About three months after I'd joined the Del Rey workshop, I left it. I was working on agent-requested revisions at that point; on a practical level I just couldn't keep up with the demands of the site (I was supposed to critique every writer who'd critiqued me). My head also felt like it was on the verge of exploding, all the time. I was getting so many different reactions to my writing, and I felt I had to navigate through them: choose the ones I wanted to act on, dismiss others. This became really, really confusing and time-consuming. Three months in I had to say, "Enough: now I have to get back into my own brain and just write." I'm feeling the same sort of semi-explosive sensation now. It's wonderful, talking and writing about my books, hearing about other writers' books - but I'm also feeling the need to burrow away somewhere and get on with the next one.

As usual, the Delphic oracle gives the best advice: "Know thyself" and "All things in moderation." (There's a bad "moderator" pun in there somewhere!)

Speaking of Scott Bakker, and because I know he will be reading this interview, are there are any funny/weird stories involving him?

Funny/weird and Scott Bakker in the same question…Hmm…

I can honestly say there’s been no weirdness of any sort. Except perhaps for that incident at TorCon involving him, five girls, and the “hey, chiquitinis!” comment. And the infamous “so hot, so smart; whaddya say?” encounter at the autograph signing at last year’s Ad Astra. And the time last summer when his sweet illusions/delusions about the essential goodness of the female mind were rudely shattered at the Fran's Diner on College Street in Toronto. And there’s been an awful lot of beer, and goofiness of the most erudite kind. So funny and weird, yeah – but mostly just cool, cool beans.

Other than that, my lips are sealed!

*whistles innocently*

And moving on now...

What questions, if any, would you like to have the readers here consider, whether it be about your works, your writing, fantasy in general, or even life, the universe, and everything?

(42's the answer, of course!)

Is "magic system" an oxymoron?

Who are/were your Fantasy Greats? Has your love of their work limited as well as inspired you, as either reader or writer?

What has surprised or intrigued you about the work of any new fantasy authors you might have come across recently? Do you like to be surprised by the books you read, or do you prefer familiarity?

What kind of escape do you look to fantasy to provide?

How does fantasy inform your "real" life?

And now for something completely different: The traditional wotmania "Monkey Question" (Aren't you just thrilled right now that this is the last question?):
If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I'll go with the monkeys. I'd have three. (Three is a mystical number, especially when it comes to non-human primates.) Their names would be Gurgi, Chewbacca and Animal, in honour of my favourite childhood hirsute creatures. Or, going with the Star Wars theme, I might call them Sidious, Vader and Maul - because those are kick-ass monkey names.

Thanks, Larry. Not just for the monkey/midget question: for all of them. You've put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into crafting this interview, and you've made me think really, really hard about a lot of things. Gracias.

And thank you as well, Caitlin. Been a real pleasure working with you on this.
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