The OF Blog: February 2006

Sunday, February 26, 2006

There Are Other Worlds

Chances are, most of the people reading this article will have pale skin. A great many will speak English as their first language or will have been taught the language from middle childhood. Perhaps a bare majority or a large plurality will have grown up hearing of this thing called 'the American Dream.' Possibly, those reading this will never have experienced abject poverty, living their lives in a comfortable bourgeois setting. Likely, these elements will make for a common experience among those who read this blog, those who purchase and read 'fantasy' novels, those who participate in forums devoted to such literature on the web.

But not everyone falls in that category. Quiza, hable usted español. Si yo hubiera escrito éste artículo sobre el imperialismo de los 'gringos' o 'yanquis' y como autores como Gabriel García Márquez o Alejo Carpentier escribieron cuentos utilizando ese condición malo para contar cuentos de la esperanza y la desesperación, algunos no aceptarían que estos cuentos puedan ser fantasías. After all, for some, 'fantasies' must follow certain conventions and preferably exist somewhere safe away, protected against the intrusions of our world. A great many people with whom I've conversed over the years at wotmania and elsewhere have expressed this desire for their 'fantasies' to be separate from real-world concerns, concerns such as racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, the inequal distribution of resources, or how we humans appear to conceive the world.

The genesis of this article comes from reading last month an essay by Pam Noles titled appropriately enough as "Shame." Her article exposes a raw nerve for a great many readers of speculative fiction - that of the 'other.' In this case, it is the 'other' reader, the reader who is not White, the reader who is not male, the reader who is not Anglo or who comes from the bourgeois background into which a great many of us have been privileged to have been born. Her story is that of the quest many have to find characters that they can relate to in the readily-available fictions that many of us pass around and recommend to the people around us.

Noles quotes Ursula Le Guin and her reaction to the casting of a virtually all-White cast for the TV adaptation of Earthsea:

"I think it is possible that a good many readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, maybe don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."
— Commentary on Slate, Dec. 16, 2004.
I will let that comment sink in for a bit.

There is a lot of truth to that comment, a truth, which like so many goes quietly in us and through us without leaving much of a trace. Many of us have a common world-view, a conceptualization of matters in such a way that revolves around the experiences that members of that particular society will share in common. However, this often leads to a sense of cultural myopia, the failure to conceptualize in its entirety the experiences that other groups will have. For example, taking the García Márquez example I cited above, why can't there be an intimate connection between the imagination and the 'real' world? Why cannot there be fantasies that tie in our hopes, our despairs, our dreams in such a fashion as to be both stories of imagination and of how we relate to this world around us?

Of course, a great many authors already do this, both within and outside the Anglo-American tradition. But yet the perception of what constitutes a 'fantasy' seems to revolve in the popular consciousness of this Anglo-American tradition almost solely around the twin axes of Tolkienian secondary-world stories and mythological tales of faires and sprites and other creatures drawn from Western fairytales and legends (and I'll hold off here talking about legenda). But what about those other stories, stories in which there is not that comfortable divide between the 'real' and the 'imagined'? How does one classify a story such as Ben Okri's The Famished Road? As a fable, as 'magic realism,' or as something else?

I suppose for some, if a boy is seeing 'spirits', it must be a 'fantasy,' but how is that to be received by the reader? After all, The Famished Road is a tale that touches upon the very real miseries of life for a great many in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world. It is not a 'safe' story to read, as the reader will encounter a great many examples of unfairness and cruelty in the guise of characters such as the nameless Landlord or the political parties that seek to manipulate and to terrorize the villagers. In a sense, it is very 'real' and therefore likely will be rejected by some readers for that aspect, just as others will likely reject it for having 'spirits' and other creatures of dubious origin. It is their choice, I suppose.

And now, back to the Le Guin quote. I might take a lot of heat for this, but as Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse-Five, so it goes. I think Le Guin has put her finger on a very interesting point, not just about the characters to be found within the story, but also on the readers interacting with the story. The world in which we live is not a whitebread one; differences often go much more than skin-deep. It is a naïve presumption to make that people can blend together into one 'colorblind' society. After all, whose vision of that society would triumph? Are our visions of the future really any different from the days of Kipling writing about the "White Man's Burden"? It is an open-ended and debatable question. But I will close by saying just this one little thing:

There are other worlds than this.

I hope to discover and to appreciate some of them for what they are and how they can influence me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February in the Lands of Magical Realism

So far this February, I've been caught up in the realms of magical realism, which might not be all that surprising to those of you who frequent this blog. Below are my reviews to my two most recent reads... plus a little more.

The Narrows
By Alexander Irvine, Del Ray 2005

Irvine approaches all his stories as quasi-mythic retellings of specific historical contexts, a somewhat specific version of magical realism. In this case, the story is set in World War II Detroit, specifically the war effort as put forth by the industries of Henry Ford. The twist to this story is the question... “What if folk magic worked?” We see a world striving to harness all the mechanical, physical, and esoteric resources at hand to win this second, great war. Enter the main protagonist, Jared Cleaves, who works on the assembly line of a top secret federal war effort project that is secreted in a Ford manufacturing complex. Jared is part of a team that creates Golems through the cabbalistic magic of an old Rabbi.

The story itself is an interesting retelling of the war effort for those at home. Jared has been several times denied military service because of an old injury to his hand, which left it partially lame. However, Jared, and the other workers on the Golem line, known as the Frankenline, have all been chosen for their poor paying jobs because of certain sensitivities they all posses. Jared is a depressive sort, feeling sorry for himself that he has a poor paying job, has been turned down for service, has a marriage that is slowly falling apart, a wife who actually makes a recognized difference for the war, and he’s plagued by dreams of a Red Dwarf, Nain Rouge, which is said to omen the destruction of Detroit, as it has in the past. The problem for Jared is that people are starting to take interest in him, and what he sees, including a nazi spy, his supervisor, a shape-changing Indian Shaman, and a very specialized Government Department, the Office of Esoteric Investigation (OEI).

The primary focus of the story is the internal struggle of Jared in the context of being a father, a husband, and a person on the wrong side of a secret. In such, the story is well-executed. Irvine imbues the hidden elements of Detroit, and the war, with a straightforwardness and ingenuity that allows it to work. It is both a recognizable portrayal of 1940s Detroit, and it is a story of the secret history of that Detroit. This world is interesting, and it makes a certain amount of sense. The story is told from Jared’s limited PoV, so this is also somewhat of a suspense mystery story as Jared tries to manage his way through plots and espionage.

As with other Alexander Irvine novels, this book has some flaws, which seem to be a different set in each novel. For this one, the primary complaint that I have is that the ending seems awfully rushed. The book is a great length, at about 330 pages, but it has the feel that another 20 pages wouldn’t have hurt. The Narrows has a very good build toward a climax. The final 10 pages, while trying to reflect the general chaos of the climax, does fall short of complete. There are too many holes in the action and the implications of what happens during the climatic scenes.

The Narrows is a well-told story, and the limited perspective and the flawed, but compelling, primary character makes for a satisfying read. It might not be a perfect novel, but the story is engaging, the world and setting have a tangible reality that is really quite impressive, and the characters are compelling. While the ending suffers in comparison to the rest of the novel, my overall impression of the novel is a positive one.

The Narrows by Alexander Irvine


Perfect Circle
by Sean Stewart

Published by Small Beer Press - 2004

Perfect Circle is not a standard fantasy, fantasy novel. There are no swords. There is no discernable magic. The story is set in current day Texas, Houstan in fact. However, Perfect Circle is a blend of magical realism and suspense that translates into a page-turning, pleasure to read.

William (Dead) Kennedy, DK to family, is a 32 year-old, divorced, father of a teenaged girl, an aging rebel, who is out of work yet again. Will sees ghosts, and he's beginning to see them all over the place, especially dead family. The novel begins with Will getting a call from a distant cousin with a problem... he's got a dead girl in his garage. Dead in the ghost variety. With the offer of money to get rid of the ghost, Will grudingly agrees to help his cousin.

The ensuing plot revolves around the repeated statement... Some people are haunted for a reason. The novel is about family legacy, mistakes, redemption, love, loss and pulling yourself together. One of Stewart's great achievements is that he manages to make the black-and-white ghosts as dynamic and integral to the shape of the story as the rest of his living characters.

Stewart is a very talented writer. He strings together images and sensory decriptions, inter-weaving believable dialogue, humor, suspense, and intrigue. The results are engrossing and entertaining. Perfect Circle comes in at roughly 270 pages, which is the perfect length for this story. The pacing is balanced and the plot is full, and it brings a complete conclusion, though not a completely tied up one of course.

One of the aspects that surprised me the most when I was reading the novel was how it could be both suspenseful and down right hilarious at the same time. Stewart does a deft job balancing both aspects.

Being somewhat slim, for a current speculative fiction, helps the novel in the fact that the story doesn't weave through a lot of extraneous material. One aspect that does take a little getting used to is the fact that story is told in a reflective manner, the single PoV moves back and forth between about 28 years of the William's life. The challenge is to pull together the character and his background from the seemingly random scenes and history. It's somewhat of a mosaic affect, but the results are well worth the style.

So, to sum it all up. If you see the novel on a shelf somewhere, I highly recommend that you pick it up and give it a read. Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

I was captured by how both authors were able to harness the gritty feel of a specific real world locality, time and place, and were able to push beyond the boundries of common perception. The true treasure of Magical Realism, well done MR, is the stories' ability to carry the reader beyond the known while still maintain all the edges of real world experience and feel. While, Stewart and Irvine are working at different levels of skill, both achieve a level of tangibility in the novels reviewed, that make them both successful.

What do you find are the challenges of reading magicial realism? What are the challenges of switching between magical realism and other speculative fiction genres?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

José Saramago: Un hombre no duplicado?

Recently, I've been finding myself recommending José Saramago to readers at various forums, urging them to consider his body of work and occasionally mentioning (knowing this to be a double-edged sword with some) that he won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. I just thought that I would briefly write about some of the reasons why I've been urging readers to try Saramago, not to mention explain why I classify Saramago among the greats of 'speculative fiction' rather than just leaving his name safely esconsed within the oddly separated 'Literature' section of a bookstore.

I have read Saramago's works in both English and Spanish translation (his native language being Portuguese, with translations into Spanish being handled by Saramago's wife, Pilar del Río) and thematically, there is a lot that will alternately appeal to and repel the unsuspecting reader. A great many of his stories revolve not just around 'what if' situations, but 'why not' scenarios as well. One example would be the controversial 1989 novel, El Evangelio según Jesucristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ). In this novel, Saramago explores the possibility of a Christ being not just fully human and divine but fully human and divine in a way that includes a bit of resentment toward God the Father and a more sympathetic version of the Temptation than what is contained in traditional Christian accounts.

Another example of his fertile mind at word can be found in the 1995 masterpiece, Ensayo sobre la ceguera (Blindness). Imagine a whole nation losing its way, its sight...literally. A word filled only with a white blindness and human stumbling. What would such a world be like? How would the people change? Are there allegories for our world, for our understanding of what is transpiring? What ultimately becomes 'real' and what is consigned to the realm of the 'irrational' in a world without sight? Saramago here challenges the reader to consider this as the tale moves on and more and more people lose their sight and perhaps, themselves.

A third novel of his that I enjoyed was La caverna (The Cave), published in 2001. This is a more straightforward tale, one dealing with a Wal-Mart-like shopping/commercial center called simply The Center and how its rapaciousness affects the lives of a simple potter and his family. Yet within this tale, there is a mystery, a symbolism that is more than just a simple allegory. For the title refers to another, more famous cave that has been hypothesized and argued for millenia...

And the last novel of his that I've read is 2003's El hombre duplicado (The Duplicated Man). It is on the surface a relatively simple tale of a doppelgänger and one man's quest to meet his duplicate, but as tends to be the case with Saramago's stories, there is a wealth of speculation and doubt that bubbles under the surface. The conclusions reached are interesting, the impact rather disturbing to this reader, who enjoyed this book greatly.

But these brief paragraphs only speak of the surface features of Saramago's work; they do not address the originality contained within each page. Saramago does something very risky with his prose, something which I believe was done in part to match what is transpiring within the text: He abandons almost completely typical sentence/paragraph/punctuation style, favoring instead page-long sentences with a myriad numbers of clauses to substitute for sentences. Oftentimes, the paragraph breaks represent complete changes in thought and there are no quotation marks or emdashes to represent dialogue; all is found contained within a labyrinthine forest of commas. But yet oddly, this does not ruin the pace of the reading at all - no, the punctuational/syntaxical structure serves to focus the reader's attention on the text at hand, lending indeed an added sense of 'otherness' to the tale being consumed.

It is for this originality and how it plays out within his tales that I consider Saramago to be one of the greatest living novelists. How odd that this 83 year-old author did not become famous until his 60s. But yet there is a vitality there that belies the author's age, leading to works that I believe will be timeless and challenging for as long as one human being harbors doubts about the hows and whys of this quaint universe around us. Hopefully, there will be others who will try to challenge themselves and their readers' perspectives of themselves and the universe(s) around them the way Saramago bends and warps all around him.

For an interesting interview (translated into English over his latest novel, Las intermitencias de la muerte), go to this link to read more.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mid-February Capsule Reviews

The month so far has brought some more excellent reading, again split almost equally between English and Spanish-language works, and both inside and outside the traditional spec fic realm. So with that in mind, time to review in brief the books I've read through last night:

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day; naked - Sedaris is a hilarious commentator for NPR, commenting on the weird and the wacky of everyday American life. In these two books of his (both Christmas gifts from a dear friend of mine), he explores various aspects of his own life, from childhood lisping problems to his parents' interactions with their children (the chapters in naked about his older sister's first menstration and the mom discovering this porn book that he had found in the woods are particularly revealing) to coming to grips with his homosexuality. The stories are in turns hilarious, delightly mean-spirited, and for the most part convey a sense of bemused wonder at just how silly a mundane life can be. The writing is clear and to the point, with a dry wit that makes the intersection of the Silly and the Boringly Serious all that more fun to read.

Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de la vida y esperanza - This is an omnibus collection of some of Darío's best known works. This Central American poet started to write just before Walt Whitman died, and in many senses, Darío is one of the few poets that can challenge Whitman's status as being one of the best and most inventive poets of the free verse style to ever grace the Western Hemisphere. The stories within the poems range from the Classical to the Sublime, with more than a little political commentary thrown in (the poem directed toward Theodore Roosevelt is most revealing about the attitudes that a great many south of the Río Grande had toward the encroaching power of the United States during the first decades of the 20th century). There is a sense of vitality evident here, especially in some of the poems toward the end of Cantos, and certainly Darío will be a poet that I will re-read quite a bit in the coming years, as he just dazzles at time with the clarity of his verse.

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find - Years before, when I read Kelly Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen, I remember thinking that I had read a short form author that had a similar emotive appeal to me. After I picked up this story collection while waiting for George R.R. Martin to sign my book at the November 8th booksigning in Nashville, I realized that it was something connected to O'Connor's work (as I had to read a couple of her other short stories in a College Lit class, back in 1992-1993). As I read on in this collection, I was just left being stunned by the conclusions. Whether it be the Misfit and his ultimate choice in the title story or the 4 year-old child of neglected parents and the aftermath of his forced Baptism by a travelling minister to a skeptic confronted with an earnest Bible salesman or the story of a hard-working Polish immigrant on a Southern farm that was the most damning of them all, each of the stories here contained a power, a message of Redemption or Hell that was contained in the choices the characters would make. Just as the conclusions of Link's stories tied together event and choice, so does O'Connor's tales. It is a real pity that she died in her early forties back in the 1960s, as she just might be one of the best short form writers that the modern times have ever seen. Truly a book that crosses genres back and forth with ease, one that will move most any....and possibly just leaving them feeling crushed, drained, or ecstatic for days afterwards.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Capitán Alatriste - Pérez-Reverte has often been compared to Alexandre Dumas (peré) for the swashbuckling passion that his tales have, the intricate plots within plots, and the fast-paced action. It is a comparison that the author has never shied away from, even going so far as having one of his works being titled in English The Club Dumas. In Capitán Alatriste, Pérez-Reverte introduces the eponymous lead character, a veteran of the Flanders Campaigns of the early 17th century. Europe is engaged in the Thirty Years' War and Spain, France, and England are involved in their own court intrigues, as the heir to the English Throne, Charles I, is searching for a wife... In this backdrop, Alatriste and crew take over the D'Artagnan/Muskateer roles and interject themselves into this labyrinthine tale. To tell more would probably irritate those who hold 'spoilers' to be sacrosanct, so suffice it to say that if you enjoyed Dumas's tales, you'll likely enjoy Pérez-Reverte's. However, if you get fed up with subplots within subplots and the 19th century-style of narrative storytelling, then this book might not be for you. However, being a Dumas fan, I enjoyed this one quite a lot and certainly will be buying the other tales that are out in Spanish. And yes, this book is also available in English translation as Captain Alatriste and was just released a year ago.

Isabel Allende, Paula - This was a difficult book for me to read. Not because it was poorly-written, because it wasn't, but because the book was developed out of the writings that Allende did while her daughter Paula was in a coma due to porphyria (from which she later died). In this book, Allende talks in both the then-present and the past, deciding that if her daughter were to awake and had forgotten her upbringing, that she would relate to her, in book form if necessary, the history of the Allendes and the power that the spirits have had in shaping the lives of Granny, Allende's mother, and Allende herself. Important events such as the rise and fall of her uncle Salvador Allende's UP party, the Pinochet dictatorship and Allende's exile, the passions and the cruelties of a love grown cold - all of these and more are narrated in a style that reads as much like a dream as it does a memoir narrative. Although I had to read this slower than usual when reading in Spanish (and there is an English translation available for this as well), it was well worth the read, especially for the ending which contains quite a bit of hope. If you've read and enjoyed Allende's works, then this will be a book well worth reading.

Manuel Puig, El beso de la mujer araña - Available in English in book (and movie/play) form as The Kiss of the Spider Woman, this story was a play off of more ancient themes of love and friendship being formed by the unlikeliest of people. In this case, the two unlikelies are Molina, a homosexual and a dreamer, and Valentín, a revolutionary who regrets having left a woman for the Cause. Both sentenced to six-month terms in a Buenos Aires jail, the two begin talking and it is the dialogue contained within that possesses a power that moves the story in ways both predictable and surprising, as each of the two begins to take on aspects of the other. Puig did an excellent job with the characterizations and using a minimum of detail in Part I to make the reader focus on the characters and this pays off in spades in Part II. Some of the subject matter might not be appealing to younger readers or for certain others, but on the whole, I would recommend this book for most to read.

Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before - For some unknown reason (perhaps it was hearing too many people saying that they didn't enjoy this book as much as The Name of the Rose or Foucault's Pendulum), I delayed reading this book for years, despite having read and enjoyed each of Eco's other four full-length novels released in English. That is a shame, because in some ways, The Island of the Day Before is at least as important as the others. Perhaps the nature of the tale, revolving around 17th century notions of how the universe was constructed and its meanings, was a stumbling block for many, but I found it to hold an extra appeal based precisely on that construction (sometimes, being a cultural history major has its advantages!). The story of Roberto and the abandoned ship and the search for the mythical Islands of Solomon, not to mention the race to develop the reliable concept of Longitude, read like a fevered dream, but a dream that approaches the 'reality' of the times more than that of our technical world. I believe Eco did a good job in highlighting these differences in viewing the world and this certainly was not a 'weak' book by any stretch. However, due to the difficulty of processing these images, this might not be the most-accessible work of Eco's for others to read.

And in a few weeks, I'll post more on the late February readings. Let me know if there are any thoughts/questions/etc. that you might have about these books.
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