The OF Blog: August 2007

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fantasía 'Made in Spain'

As I do on occasion, I occasionally browse through the sites that I have bookmarked and just now I was reading through some of the posts over at Los Espejos de la Rueda when I saw this article from the Spanish newspaper El País.

Since I do not have the time to do a word-by-word translation from Spanish to English, I'll just summarize the gist of the article. Over the past few years, perhaps due in part to a generation of Spanish youth being exposed to the forms and conventions of heroic fantasy (Tolkien in particular, recently Rowling), home-grown fantasy and now science fiction is starting to make in-roads with the book buying populace who wants something more than just a pale xerox of the Anglo-American authors.

There are many forms and styles that the authors are experimenting with these days: epic fantasies, historical fantasies, tales of the paranormal, old-style SF, etc. Influences are also diverse, ranging from Julio Cortázar to the ancient Greeks and all steps in-between and around these two. At one of the largest Spanish-language imprints for SF, Minotauro, the number of native Spanish writers has gone from 15% to 30% of the catalog in the past four years, a remarkable achievement. Print runs are still small by American standards (averaging around 2,000 copies), but are growing rapidly.

The article concludes with the rather commonplace explanations for this expansion (desire to explore vistas outside of today's ordinary routines; there has been a long tradition of combining the magical with the ordinary in works by Gabo and Juan Rulfo, among others), before listing some of the Spanish-speaking authors that are starting to make a name for themselves in Spain and in Latin America. One of those, Liliana Bodoc, had an interesting book description for her first book in an epic fantasy-like trilogy, so I decided to take a chance and see how it would be alike (and different from) English-language epic fantasies, especially since her setting is in the aboriginal Americas and combines elements of historical fantasy with the epic, according to the Publishers Weekly summation of it. I'll try to read/review that in the coming months.

Just thought this was an interesting article that many of us might want to read. Remember you monolinguals: The machine translations can help you just enough to understand the bare basics of the article, which ought to be reason enough to try reading it even if your mastery of Spanish isn't all that great, no?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review of Margo Lanagan's WFA-Nominated Collection, Red Spikes

Margo Lanagan is an Australian storywriter with two previous story collections, White Time and Black Juice, to her credit (in addition to some YA novels). Red Spikes, recently nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (single-author), is her third collection of short stories and after being released in Australia and the UK in 2006, is due to be released in the US in October 2007.

Although this is the only book of hers that I've read, from what I can tell from other reviewers is that this collection continues Lanagan's focus on the "normality" of the quite strange. The opening tale, "Baby Jane," involves a rather typical teenage boy, a figurine of a queen wearing "maternity armor" that comes to life, and oh, there's also this bear that pokes its head in every now and then during the course of the story. The queen has a certain situation that she has to handle, while we find ourselves within the mind of the boy, wondering if Immigration would be after the Queen. It is this juxtaposition of the fantastical with the very mundane that makes for an interesting opener and which serves to set the tone for the remaining nine stories in this collection.

As I read through each of these, I noticed certain themes reappearing in various guises. In most of these stories, Lanagan's narrators are not all that confident in themselves or in the outside world and the shadings of dialogue and internal thoughts reveals this ambiguity that colors the settings with a sense of mystery, dead, and wonderment all rolled into one. Or in other words, she often captures the feel of our own confusion about the world and our "place" within it. The characters generally are wanting more in these stories, perhaps a sense of fulfillment or maybe a desire to understand just what it was that they had in the first place. These stories are deceptively simple in appearance, as Lanagan's direct prose serves as a Trojan Horse for all sorts of mischievous interpretations to enter our brains and to become lodged there.

Summary: As a collection, each of Red Spikes' stories stand well by themselves and there are not any really weak or "off" stories. These are stories that find the characters questioning themselves, not always finding answers, but yet still moving on in hopes of a greater resolution off-stage. A fine collection that is worthy of its nomination for the WFA.

Release Date: Available now in the UK, Australia, October 9, 2007 in the US. Hardcover.

Publisher: Knopf Delacorte Dell

Friday, August 24, 2007

So it's awards time again...

A few weeks ago, the nominees for the 2007 World Fantasy Awards were announced, while in the next 10 days, the winner for the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel shall be announced at the 2007 Nippon WorldCon being held August 30-September 3. Since I am uncertain as to whether or not I'll have the time to read the novellas and the novelettes (while praying that my just-ordered copies of Eifelheim and Glasshouse will arrive in the next week), I do hope to have reviews of at least three of the finalists for Best Novel, Temeraire: Her Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik), Rainbow's End (Vernor Vinge), and Blindsight (Peter Watts) by the end of the month.

After I've read all of the finalists, I'll weigh in with my personal ranking of them all, with perhaps a future post or three about the novellas and novelettes (provided that all are still available for free online). I figure that now that I have some disposable money again (hurray for new teaching positions that pay me over $40K/year!), it is only fair that I read the best of what's been nominated and give an informed opinion as to their merits/weaknesses, rather than just bitching from the sidelines.

I'll be doing the same with the World Fantasy Awards in September and October, leading up to the November 1-4 convention in Saratoga Springs, NY. Although I have read three of the five finalists (Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, and Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Sidon), I already have and do plan on reading Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword and Stephen King's Lisey's Story as well as re-reading the previous three in weekly reviews that also perhaps (time permitting) will include reviews of other fields (I know there'll be a review of Margo Lanagan's Red Spikes in the next day or so here, perhaps other collections and anthologies shall be reviewed as well, time/money permitting).

And after that, I shall try to keep abreast of some of the more intriguing 2007 releases, so on the last day of the year, I can have a very comprehensive Best of 2007 post highlighting all sorts of fiction that I've read this year that is worthy of consideration (although some of this will end up being posted on my personal, non spec fic blog, Vaguely Borgesian). Looking forward to this and I hope there shall be other bloggers out there doing much the same (send me a link if you are, so I can make sure to mention your posts on occasion).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Interview with Karin Lowachee

Here is an interview that Rohini of The Pearls are Cooling did with Karin Lowachee for wotmania. As per our agreement, I'm copy/pasting it here:

Karin Lowachee is an award-winning SF-novelist. She has published three novels - Warchild (2002), Burndive (2003) and Cagebird (2005).

For those of us not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Well, I draw a line between my background as a person and my work in general, mostly because there aren't any straight lines as to why I write what I write, at least not in the superficial aspects. I was born in Guyana, South America and moved to Canada when I was about 2 years old. I graduated from York University's Creative Writing program with an Honours degree, but what that all says about me as a writer is pretty slim. I do tend to prefer that people read my work without knowing anything about me as a person, because frankly I don't think it's important, or should be, to understand the books themselves. I can say that for some reason in early high school I became very interested in issues of war and devoured a lot about Vietnam and WWII in particular, and that probably carried through to when I began to write publishable stuff. I'm interested in all aspects of history, science, art, name it and I'd like to learn about it, generally. I suppose that makes me the 'right' personality for a writer. You have to find fascination with the world from all angles. That may be, perhaps, the most important aspect of me that's relevant to my writing.

Without giving away major spoilers, could you introduce your three novels for those of us unfamiliar with your writing?

The 3 novels - Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird - chronicle the beginnings of an arduous peace process between warring species, from 3 different points of view, one per novel. It's a macrocosmic tale about the ramifications of war on children told through the very specific and internal experiences of 3 young men who have been impacted in different ways. I sometimes think of them as 'anthro-psychological military science fiction', with the emphasis being on the first part of that phrase.

What literary influences might have shaped your writing? And - this might be the same question, really - do you have any particular favourite novels and authors as a reader?

The 'marker' books that I remember being influenced by, consciously, were books like: The Outsiders (and all the works by SE Hinton), The Chocolate War, Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Psion, Cyteen, Tigana, For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Lay Dying, China Mountain Zhang, Ride With the Devil, Lonesome Dove, Fight Club, Shakespeare, as well as many poets...the list goes on. I was drawn to them for different reasons and at different stages in my development as a writer, where I was noticing technique and things like that. I still do that, I'm still influenced by great writing and try to learn from them. All the works listed above are favourites of mine.

Your first novel, Warchild, won the Warner Aspect First novel award back in 2002. I believe this means a shortened wait before the novel was published? How was the experience of writing and publishing different for your next two novels?

The WAFN contest really allowed a young, unpublished writer like myself to get their novel read by a big house publisher, with no agent and no contacts. It's really incredible for me to think, to this day, that my book won and was given the opportunity to be read by the public. I'm really grateful it happened, obviously, because it's so difficult to get your foot in the door. I began to work with some fantastic editors who have faith in me. The process was pretty much the same for all three novels, except there was a lot less stress in the last two because at least I knew the process through the first book. Doing anything for the first time can be harrowing and though being a published writer has pretty much been my dream since I was a kid, it was still nervewracking because I didn't want to screw up. Once I realized that as long as you hand things in, communicate, and work hard on your stuff, it turns out all right. It excites me still. I love the process of writing, from my computer to publication. I'm not one of those writers that actually really hates any part of the process, maybe because I still walk around in wide-eyed wonder that I'm given the chance to do what I love. It's hard work but I love it.

Of the three novels you've written, do you have a personal favourite?

I don't. This is cheesy, perhaps, but they really are like children and I love them all for different reasons. Burndive and Cagebird took longer to warm up to, though, I have to admit. Probably because they put me through hell. I often need time and distance from my writing to actually see it objectively enough to appreciate it for what it is at the time. I always think I can improve but I don't think any of it is total trash, mainly because I did the best that I could do with what I had at the time, and I have to accept that. That balance seems to keep me motivated and sane.

Cover art is, in some ways, a major hot topic at the moment. What did you think of art for your three novels? And now that (if I understand correctly?) Orbit has taken over the Warner Aspect imprint, do you have any concerns about new cover art? (My personal favourite would be Cagebird - Yuri was so beautifully rendered!)

I liked the cover art for the novels; Warner was pretty open in the second and third books to ask me my opinion which was very gracious and an interesting process - though of course the final word came from the Art Department, Editor, and artist (Matt Stawicki). I understood how Warner was marketing the books. I think if Orbit reprints them I really won't have any issues with the art because so far all of Orbit's covers are absolutely beautiful. They are swaying away from the 'typical' SF artwork and breaking new ground, and I think it's fantastic.

I've been noticing a trend in your three novels to, well, examine the male body as something that can be wounded, invaded, trapped - the male body as vulnerable. (As someone on wotmania put it, Why a Graphic Male Rape Scene?) I found it interesting that each of the three novels looks at this issue from such a different point of view. It makes for phenomenally thought-provoking reading. I'm trying to make this as open-ended as possible, so I'll just ask for your thoughts on the matter? Is this an issue you consciously decided to explore through three (and more?) novels, or was it a side-effect of the world and the world-views each character represents?

I've read your commentary on that 'issue' and I suppose in general the reasons were a bit of both and a bit of other things. It began to be conscious by Cagebird, the fact that I was drawing contrast among the three protagonists (Jos, Ryan, and Yuri), but I never put agenda before story/character, so the things that they went through grew organically out of their lives and points-of-view. For me, I was very specifically writing or exploring 3 very different people in a microcosmic way in order to tell a macrocosmic story. And because of that there could be no excessive puppeteering from me. I write from a psychological standpoint, I plot from a psychological standpoint, and if there are any 'themes' or 'issues' that manifest from that I run with it on the second or third pass of the book, but I don't go into it thinking I am Making A Point, and I certainly didn't go into it thinking I was Making A Point about the male body.

What happens when you decide to write about young men in war? Or disenfranchised children in general? Many common themes will manifest no matter what. I did have in mind that I needed to be as honest as possible with these guys and not cut corners just because it's unpleasant or just because it's science fiction and the focus tends to be on whizbang. This is stuff that happens in real life, science fiction for me is a metaphoric literature, and in fact through my research it seemed that reality was far more horrendous than what I was even writing. By the second and third book I was conscious of the fact that I was interested in examining specifically young men in a way that I did not necessarily see a lot in science fiction, but that didn't mean that the realization dominated what I was doing from a character standpoint. Rather than say they are young guys vulnerable or survivors or any sort of label, I approached them as human, reacting as humans do in those specific situations, and taking into account that their gender holds specific complexities...just as writing a female would.

As a corollary, I wonder if you have any thoughts on what it is to be a female writer, writing about male sexuality, and how it relates to the male victim of rape. Do you think that female authors address this issue more readily than male authors do? (Would it be fair to ask why?)

I don't think of myself necessarily as a female writer; I think of myself as a writer who has specific interests, many of which have yet to be explored. I think as soon as I start boxing myself in and thinking of outside issues then those outside issues might influence what I do unduly. I do not want to be the Female Canadian Writer Who Writes About Male Sexuality. Because that isn't true, really. I write about aspects of humanity as I see it. My protagonists so far have been male; I wrote about war. War tends to be a male sphere, but I wasn't interested in writing gung-ho, alien slaughtering, macho men. Whether my choice to explore further than that is because I'm female, who knows. I rather think it's because I'm the sort of person who prefers to dig way beneath the layers of people, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or geography, and be as honest as possible with what I might find.

I understand the need to classify or label themes or things that are found in my books, but I didn't write a male rape because it was something simply interesting to examine for whatever reason. In fact I really hated writing those scenes. They are not things you do for fun or on a whim or just because you might have an agenda, or heaven forbid because it's 'edgy' -- at least that's not me. I dealt with the issue because it was important in order to tell the character's story, for people to understand what they went through, and perhaps to realize that this isn't fiction in that sense. This happens to people: males and females. It happens in war, it happens to exploited children, it impacts those children into adulthood. If I was going to write about a child slave ring and didn't at least discuss that rape happens it would be insulting and dishonest. But these realizations were all byproducts to the character exploration. I begin with the character, always. This is his story, this is her story. This isn't my story.

I don't know why female authors in particular do anything. I can only speak for myself and I've always felt a little off-center to what others generally do. I really don't tend to pay attention to what others do either, at least not in a comparative way. Of course I read female writers and appreciate them but I'm not going to necessarily clump myself in with them as some sort of subset. I'd rather concern myself with myself and be as individual as I am. Other people do a fine job of compartmentalizing my writing, which is inevitable and not wholly unappreciated, but it's not something I think much about beyond being aware of it.

I hesitate to make generalizations about other writers of whom I know nothing of their processes or their interests and approaches to their work. Everyone is different and I respect that in other writers. I have rather strong views about how I approach my work, but not so much about others because I simply don't know enough about other writers and their approaches. Perhaps if I were writing a dissertation on female writers in this particular 'issue' I would feel the need to explore it. It's interesting but it's not something I overly concern myself with; if there is a trend of female writers exploring male victimization, well...I wasn't aware of it when I wrote my books and it doesn't influence what I choose to write. If women tend to deal with these issues more readily than men, I'm sure I could conjure some psychological generalizations as to why, but I'm not convinced that would be all that helpful or even enlightening coming from me.

Speaking of children in times of war, I’ve been wondering about the three protagonists’ relationships with their chosen and unchosen mentors - Jos with Niko the Warboy; Ryan with his bodyguard, Sid, and his mother; Yuri with Estienne who is both sexual peer and mentor; and all the three of them with Cairo Azarcone - and I’ve been thinking about the delicacy of a relationship where a child depends on an adult, the power dynamic where an adult can betray you, exploit you. How much of such betrayal factor into the war situation? Would the violent personal exist without the violent political?

The relationship between an adult or anyone who is older and holds that mentoring position (unconsciously or not) with a kid has the potential for damage on the younger person. Though it wasn't wholly conscious at the time of writing, in the first draft anyway, I think there is a parallel that can easily be drawn between that personal, microcosmic situation of the characters and the macro situation of the war, where vast governments direct things that ultimately filter down to individuals and affect them for good or ill, especially in a war situation. There is a responsibility that oftentimes gets forgotten by the dominant power, when selfish needs (like Falcone's) override the good of people in general.

All three novels feature Battlemech Bear in some form or the other - books, toys. In some ways it feels like Battlemech Bear is the only form of entertainment the children get, Soldier Barbie for the children of war. Is this the commercialisation of war, or the politicisation of commerce, or “just” the infiltration of both into playspaces that should stay innocent of either?

If it came across as the only form of entertainment, that was unintentional. Ryan does play sports, go to 'movies', and that sort of thing, but Battlemech Bear was supposed to be a pervasive toy or children's cultural icon that spanned genres: art, games, vid, plushies, robots, books ... sort of like a war-influenced Winnie the Pooh with a continuing saga behind him and his friends (there were other characters in his platoon, after all). It's definitely a character that EarthHub would support, but in my mind there were subversive aspects to him too, depending on which part of his marketing you looked at. In the manga or some of the vids, there would be underlying messages that hardly supported the war. As the kids grew older they might've picked up on that.

The EarthHub government is at war with the striviirc-na, ostensibly over an inability to share resources and acknowledge territorial rights. And it’s fairly obvious that in the most important of ways those are not the things that are being fought over at all. The three novels seem to chart for a middle course, but negotiations with the other can be very difficult when half your own species doesn’t want to negotiate at all. Jos, Ryan and Yuri aren’t all technically “symps”, but they all do stand on the margins. Is marginalisation the key to sympathy? To looking beyond “Otherness” into communication?

It's very true what you said. On the outside it seems to be about territory and the like, but there is a deepseated xenophobia, resentment, and perpetuating revenge that is driving much of the war as we see it in the books. And this is speaking for both human and alien sides.

I think standing on the outside of anything can give you a better perspective and hopefully garner compassion. This isn't always the case, of course, because Falcone and pirates in general are also outsiders who look on things in a very different way -- they feel entitled. I think for people like Falcone, standing on the outside of something just perpetuates a cold distance and with that a lack of compassion. But I think there is something to having the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, or walking in someone else's shoes. That was very much the thrust of Ryan's narrative. He had a very limited view from where he was, but put into the middle of something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, he gained a better understanding. And that understanding isn't about dismissing your own situation, but putting it into perspective. This was his father's hope by hauling him onto Macedon, aside from keeping him safe. This was the captain's way of educating his son in some harsh realities in as much of a controlled environment as he could manage, as a parent.

They all went through specifically terrible things, and because of those trials they saw the wider situation from a different angle, a more enlightened one. Because I do believe if you're open to it and get out of your own sphere, you can better understand things and through understanding hopefully gain some compassion. And with compassion does come a desire to make things better for people. People like Falcone wouldn't necessarily gain that enlightenment, it's an individual thing...which of course is manifested in any war. There are plenty of people who may understand the plight of others because they've been through the same thing, but they simply do not care. Then again, the line of that thinking has its own specific origins. There is personal damage in some way with people when they stop caring about the needs of others in even the most broadest sense. Who knows where it begins?

We see the striviirc-na from three very different points of view in the three novels - the reader needs to filter the striviirc-na through these individual lenses (and obviously it is easiest with Jos) - to walk that delicate path towards compassion. What was it like, writing a well-developed alien species through the eyes of young men who weren’t fully assimilated within that alien culture? (Or their own!)

That was a lot more conscious of a process than some of the other things. Early on I really was aware that I was writing an alien species through some specific filters, and that was the point. They're aliens and unless we see things through Niko's eyes or someone similar, there wasn't going to be any grand, near-complete understanding of the striviirc-na. They're alien in every sense of the word, from how they look to the reasons they do things, and I pretty purposely did not explain some of their actions because I think, realistically, even with Jos who had the most contact, he simply would not understand and maybe even more realistically, he or Ryan or Yuri wouldn't always want to. Not everyone would go around with a burning desire to be empathetic toward aliens. This was reflected in how Jos interacted with Niko as well. Some things about Niko he didn't get and would never get, and understandably so, because Niko grew up among the striviirc-na and Jos simply doesn't agree with how he does things sometimes. Without spoilering the first book, we see that illustrated specifically at the end.

It was a fun challenge to write because it was like dealing with an extra layer of distance. We're already filtering the story through the point-of-view of the character - we are always in their heads. So seeing an alien species through those specific biases was a lot of fun, it requires writing and thinking in layers. You are still trying to project to the reader a general, truthful impression even if your point-of-view character doesn't know what you know and won't see what you see. How do you tell a macro story through a micro point-of-view? I found that extremely fun to write. It makes the reader work, to leave their own biases at the door the best they can. Some people do and others don't, and that to me is an interesting thing to elicit in readers. Hopefully it makes them question their own points-of-view about some of the issues raised in the books.

Will there be more novels in the Warchild universe set around the lives of young men? Or will we be looking at the ways in which war can affect, and be affected in the exploitation of young women as well?

Ideally I would like to, but that is not for certain.

That last question was a cheating way of asking what’s next in the works, to be honest. Will your fourth novel be set in the Warchild universe? Or will you be looking to break new ground from what you’ve done before?

I don't like to talk too much about works in development, but it is safe to say that my next book won't be in the Warchild universe. I will be breaking new ground with myself and hopefully it will also be something interesting and fresh for readers. If it's not apparent already with what I've written so far, I don't like to take the easy ways out. My next stuff
will challenge me and hopefully challenge readers too.

Thank you for being so kind as to answer these questions for us! We wish you the best for your future work.

Review of Best American Fantasy

Fantasy is a strange bird, with an etymology that stretches back at least as far as the Greeks and with more shifts and changes than what poor Proteus himself ever could manage to do. From its earliest roots of phainein (to show) through phantasia (appearance, imagination) to its current bifurcating pathways of meaning today, the word 'fantasy' haunts us, filling us with images and visions of things that could have been, should have been, might never have been, and what thankfully cannot ever be - yet we cannot pin it down with a single, pithy expression.

In 1988, Ursula Le Guin wrestled with trying to describe all of these possible meanings ascribed to the word 'fantasy' when she was asked to write the Introduction to the English translation of a quaint 1940 anthology that Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares edited, a volume called The Book of Fantasy. That collection, which was revised in the 1960s, contained all sorts of stories involving imagined horrors, what-ifs, things we would today call "magic realism," and every sort of miscellanea that often gets crammed into that little box called 'fantasy.' Borges and his friends did not agonize over any real definition of what constitutes 'fantasy' - they just sat at a dinner table and added to a list the types of stories that they enjoyed which couldn't have happened.

Fast-forward to 2007. There is a new anthology series being released called Best American Fantasy. Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, with Matthew Cheney serving as the series editor, this collection of 29 tales begins with an echo of sorts to Le Guin's introduction to the Borges, Ocampo, Bioy Casares anthology. Each of them notes the difficulty in trying to define what fantasy is (if such things could ever be defined, of course), instead focusing on what these stories of the fantastical does.

I mentioned this earlier collection because in many ways this new anthology reminds me of the spirit of this older one. Good anthologies tend to have some sense of purpose or unifying theme behind them and while Best American Fantasy differs from The Book of Fantasy in many ways, each has this perception of fantasy as being more than just "child's play" or "worlds in which dragons, elves, and orcs roam." Harking back to the Greek etymology, phainein is in full display, showing us via imagined tales and dreamscapes some elements about ourselves and our hopes and dreams that "realist fiction" cannot accomplish.

In reading these tales, I was struck by how many of the tales contained elements of separation from family, how there were hurts and pains that existed within the stories, and how the resulting sense of alienation played a major, albeit largely unspoken, role in the development of stories such as Nik Houser's "First Kisses Beyond the Grave" or Julia Elliot's "The Whipping." This is not to say this theme occurs in the vast majority of the stories, only that it is something that occurs from time to time to highlight how fantasy can serve to illustrate our own deep social problems and fears in a way that doesn't scream preachiness at the reader.

Another thing that I noticed about this collection (if I'm scrimping on analyzing each of these stories, it is because I'm focusing on looking at the very broad picture here, as it would take multiple reads of each of the stories to outline each of their own unique perspectives) is that one is not going to find a single preferred story style here. Some authors will use a juxtaposition of the mundane with the extraordinary to highlight the tensions contained within their stories, while others will bury this tension within a fairy tale-like mode, as Geoffrey Landis does with "Lazy Taekos." Still others, such as Peter LaSalle, might opt for a Borgesian approach of constructing their stories. Regardless, in virtually all of these tales, I felt this underlying sense of play, between images, words, and assigned meanings.

As an anthology, Best American Fantasy was a pleasure to read. The stories were dissimilar enough in style and approach as to avoid boring the reader with repetitiveness, while the perceived themes of disassociation, alienation, and exploration of the boundaries of our relationships with each other are strong enough to make this anthology unified enough to work. High recommendation.

Release Date: August 15, 2007 (US), tradeback

Publisher: Prime

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Review of Tim Pratt's Hart & Boot & Other Stories

Tim Pratt's first story collection, 2003's Small Gods, was a very enjoyable read for me, with the title story's bittersweet undertone setting the tone for a collection that dealt with many issues that were in turn uplifting and sad. In his latest collection, Hart & Boot, Pratt has expanded his writing repertoire to use a variety of milieu, from the Western to a riff off of Greek mythology, to tales that involve dreams as being the core substance. Most of these 13 stories have appeared elsewhere, but all are collected for the first time in this edition put out by Night Shade Books.

The collection begins with the title story, "Hart and Boot," which according to the author's story notes was based upon historical characters, with only a few narrative liberties taken to describe the historical events. The characters, themselves, have been reimagined by Pratt and Pearl Hart in particular takes on a spunky, feisty personality that might seem to be a bit too much at first, until one notes how Pratt uses this personality type to convey lots of things about gender relations and about the conflict desires that we have. It made an appearance in The Best American Short Stories: 2005 and it certainly was one of the better stories in this collection.

The second story, "Life in Stone," at first did not attract my attention as much, but its ending and its relation to the character makes for a nice tale, although I still believe it to be one of the weaker tales in the collection, perhaps due to a character that is not as sympathetic as those that appear in the majority of the other stories.

"Cup and Table" reads more like a fragment of a another, much deeper tale, something that Pratt alludes to in his story notes. The very notion of the Cup and what it symbolizes makes for a chilling conclusion to the tale, with many unspoken mysteries surrounding the events before the conclusion.

The fourth story, "In a Glass Casket," is told from a kid's point of view and his earnest desire to do the right thing is portrayed in the perhaps-expected awkward way that confused kids trying to do the right thing might view the situation and the world around. While entertaining in places, it was not one of the stronger tales.

The next tale, however, "Terrible Ones," mixes elements of Greek Choral Plays with the ancient concept of a just revenge to tell a story about how confusing the line between "reality" and "fiction" can have devastating consequences. One of the best stories in the collection in my opinion.

The next two stories, "Romanticore" and "Living with the Harpy," were my two personal favorites, as there is this mixture of the mundane with the otherworldly that serves to highlight human confusion, hurt, and desire in ways that makes these stories stand out. In many ways, these stories best illustrate some of the ideas that Pratt plays with in this collection.

The final six stories continue this exploration of human emotion and sometimes of misplaced desire. Each were strong, complementary pieces to the seven mentioned above, making in the end for a collection that ought to be highly sought by lovers of well-written short fiction.

Summary: Hart & Boot is Tim Pratt's second short story collection. These 13 tales touch upon the most powerful of human emotions and desires in ways that highlight our sense of loss, confusion, and of wanting to belong to something that perhaps isn't best for us. Highly recommended for readers, one of my favorite single-author story collections of the year so far.

Release Date: January 2007 (US), Tradeback

Publisher: Night Shade Books

Review of The Flash, edited by Peter Wild

Flash fiction, with its extremely pared-down structures due to the authors' aims of writing stories of less than 1000 words, makes for a very difficult review task. Compound that with 100 flash fiction stories by 100 different authors and you end up with a collection of stories that will often take multiple reads in order for them to yield all of their secrets. The Flash, which contains stories by authors such as Shelley Jackson, Daniel Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Di Filippo, Jeffrey Ford, and Aimee Bender for those whose stories I've read and enjoyed elsewhere, is one such example of a collection whose diversity of styles and focuses will make any such cursory review of them to be just that, a cursory, first take on something that really needs multiple reads for more than a surface-level reaction-type commentary. But since I do not have that time and since I want to note some of the recent short fiction that is out there, I shall do my best to talk about this collection as a whole.

Despite proceeds from the sale of this book going to Amnesty International, you will not find much in the way of unity between these 100 stories in The Flash. What you can find are many stories that look at alienation, of discontinuities between the past and present, tales that come to a sudden close and permit us to fill in the blanks in the same fashion that Hemingway's famous "For sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn" causes us to imagine all sorts of explanations for what has transpired or what might be going on inside the thoughts of the off-stage character(s).

Sometimes, the effect is that of a beautiful moment caught in just a few words, such as in Christopher Coake's "Vibrato." Other times, there is a sense of a deep hunger lying below the surface, as illustrated by the end of Jeff VanderMeer's "The Magician." But regardless of these tales of hope, despair, I-can't-give-two-shits, and yearning for something other than the here and now, these very brief tales contain plenty of haunting moments to make this a worthwhile collection to consider for those of us who prefer stories to be told with a premium placed on the words and not on the exposition.

Summary: The Flash contains 100 stories of less than 1000 words each by 100 authors writing in a variety of styles and with their own takes on the world and the people that inhabit them. This is not a collection to be skimmed through or to be read only once, as these stories are constructed in such a fashion as to encourage multiple re-reads in order to glean as much from them as possible. Very enjoyable read, recommended for those who prefer short fiction.

Release Date: January 2007 (UK, US), paperback

Publisher: Social Disease

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Renegade Priests and Treacherous Young Witches

Reading Pat's post about the "changing of the guard" tonight reminded me that I have been meaning to write a bit addressing the other facets of fantasy fiction. This is not going to be one of those posts where I denigrate another's reading preferences or authorial writing styles, but instead I'll be looking at certain things that I've noticed in several recently-released books that I feel ought to be praised more. Perhaps this is akin to movies in some ways, with the usual summer blockbuster franchises going through their cyclical trilogies that serve more to just tweak the cinematography and replace the franchise name rather than to explore any substantial ground, and the more "underground" or "art house" films that try to capture substantive new shifts in perspective and meaning. Perhaps, although of course all such analogies are inherently flawed.

While I read and enjoy epic multivolume fantasies on occasion, they never have been my preferred style of fiction. Living through some of the most incredible changes in a 33 year span, from computers becoming household items in the 1980s to the fall of communism to the full impact of Title IX on American varsity sports to the 1989 Revolutions to a growing acceptance of "alternative" lifestyles, change has been a constant in my life. I can remember not knowing that "gay" meant "homosexual" or "queer" (more pejorative then than now), but now I have many openly gay and bisexual friends and am learning much from them about how many different ways there are to perceive the world. There were relatively few Latinos in the US when I was a child, now people feel threatened at all the "undocumented immigrants." Divorce is so common now, with around 50% of all US marriages ending in divorce. The nuclear family is but one of many living arrangements in a rapidly graying and diverse population.

In the face of this, I can understand why many would want to read something that seemed to hark back to a perceived simpler time, where there were honor and family codes and that things just seemed to make more sense, especially since threatening changes were embodied by external, materialized "dark lord" threats rather than by a complex and nebulous web of occurrences. While I sympathize and occasionally do enjoy this sort of tale, I think there's a whole host of fantasy being written today that is addressing either obliquely or directly many of those social issues that I mentioned above.

When I look at the books that have come out in the past few years, many things strike me as being different from earlier releases. There are more open and honest examinations of issues such as homosexuality or gender relations. Authors such as Nalo Hopkinson, Hal Duncan, Sarah Monette, among others, have tackled these issues in a way that neither condemns or cheers them in a false rah-rah spirit. Instead, their homosexual characters are presented as being just as real and just as important as straight relationships. They are not perfect people, but neither are they demons.

Child abuse and family estrangement are two of the most difficult issues to address today for many people. It is one thing to mention it in passing for "shock" value, but another to internalize it into the text and making these sensitive topics take on a life of their own that makes their stories so vital. Karin Lowachee with her trilogy of novels dealing with boys who have been abused and have suffered much in a war setting, so similar to the reports of 9 year-olds in West Africa being armed with AK-47s and sent out as cannon fodder in the 1990s civil wars there. Tobias Buckell with a character such as Jerome, who has become a refugee fleeing a sudden invasion. Jeff VanderMeer, addressing familial concerns and disagreements in a sometimes raw but always powerful way in his last novel. So much hurt and anguish expressed in these fantasies, belying Tolkien's famed comments about the consolatory nature of fairy tales/fantasies.

Race relations are starting to be addressed more. Although Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany among others addressed this in their YA or SF works, race as being a source of internal and external tension has been downplayed in this genre until recently, when there have been signs of increased awareness that the "other" is not necessarily some bug-eyed alien but those lines that fail to intersect, those that do not draw us closer together as human beings. David Anthony Durham is one who has started to address this lack of dialogue between the various readers of the speculative. His fantasy debut, Acacia, dares to examine how a social structure could permit not just widespread chattel slavery but also a rampant drug trade. How do those things affect a society? Not often have such issues been raised in fantasy, so it is rather refreshing to see them being raised again. Hopkinson, Buckell, and others such as Nisi Shawl have addressed similar issues of how race/ethnicity interact with character entanglements with others and with the world/environment around them. I believe these increased efforts to have more than just a single dominant world-view look at social relations might serve as a invigorating experience for the genre.

So instead of just slowly developing in a lineal fashion as their epic fantasy colleagues appear to do in part (to be fair, many such as Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker do incorporate many of the elements that I mentioned above into their narratives, albeit the basic storyline and character development largely remains true to the epic fantasy model of the past 50+ years), I would argue that the fantasy field has become ever more ripe with a crop of "renegade priests" and "treacherous young witches" (to steal a line from Dylan's "Changing of the Guards," as irony would have it) that are bringing their own personal experiences and shared social consciousness into a field that can be as much about our dreams for more just and diverse societies as it is about glancing backwards to an idealized past. For that, there is much to celebrate.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bits and Pieces

A lot is going on, both with my personal life (job hunting, nothing too serious) and with reading/reviewing/commentary. So this shall be a catch people up sort of deal more than anything really substantive.

First off, David Anthony Durham makes an outstanding post in response to an observation of mine in a comment to an earlier post of his regarding "color blindness." Click on the link above and see discussions here, here, and here. Oh, and here and here as well. Lots of heres, but before you go there to make it "here," more below. Needless to say, you can read my opinion all over the place inside Durham's blog entry and in the first two links after that.

Shortly (as within the next hour or the next 48 hours) I'll be posting an interview at OF that Rohini of The Pearls Are Cooling has been conducting via email with Karin Lowachee (Warchild, Burndive, Cagebird). I'll post a link to it here before the weekend begins, I hope.

Also, I've either bought or received ARCs for some interesting books. I hope to have reviews up in the next few weeks/month for the following:

Tim Pratt, Hart & Boot & Other Stories (Night Shade)

Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes (ARC I received today)

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension (ARC I received last month)

Jay Lake, Trial of Flowers

Nathalie Mallet, Princes of the Golden Cage (ARC being sent by Night Shade)

Greg Rucka, Patriot Acts (Review Copy I received from Bantam this week)

Furthermore, I plan on posting una revista en español sobre Trescientos millones, por Roberto Arlt en mi otro blog, Vaguely Borgesian.

Doubtless there'll be more in the coming weeks, but this is what I have on tap through the end of this week and perhaps into next week, where I hope to get a co-written review of Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth up and perhaps start reading Karen Miller's Innocent Mage. Until next time, keep it...err, no....word to your, that's not it. Peace and bacon grease? Still cheesy.


Yes. Bye.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A little bit of that old-time magic

With the release of the second novel of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, The Well of Ascension, just a few weeks away, I thought it was time that I finally made a few comments about it here on the blog. (I know what you're thinking. Who is this guy, and why is he posting here?) Anyway...

Over the course of the past decade, or so, epic fantasy has been facing the addition of a handful of new descriptors, at least those for those stories termed "cool" by the masses. Those adjectives: Gritty, Grim, Realistic, hard-hitting, etc. It seems that in many circles that the "grim and realistic" style equate to some sort of better fantasy style. I think this might have more to do with just who is writing that type of style (Martin, Bakker, Erikson... each to some and different extents), more than anything else. But, that is a digression that I think Larry and I might just tackle in our upcoming conversation about Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth (stay tuned for that). Then, of course, Scott Lynch's debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora, hits and everyone gushes over that fun and 'light' story. I'd like to argue that there is some appeal yet for that more traditional fantasy tone... the one of adventure and high story. Lynch wasn't writing anything terribly new afterall, but he did manage to capture the attentions of many a folk. (To some extent Gene Wolfe did the same with his Wizard Knight books, though in typical stylistic Wolfe fashion).

So, what does any of this have to do with Sanderson and Mistborn? Well, for one, I think that Sanderson is quite well skilled in writing a fantasy story in that more traditional style. The two Mistborn novels are far less gritty and realistic than many of the other contemporary novels. Book 1, The Final Empire, has much in common in the setup as Lynch's novel. We have a group of extremely talented criminals setting up to pull of a big and awfully risky job. The stakes keep getting higher. The leaders of these thieving crews are geniuses, but yet are enigmatic and somewhat haunted by their pasts. Both novels have that sense of high adventure, entertainment, that is sometimes more nebulous in some of the "realistic" offerings.

Here's another bit, for my money, I think that I preferred The Final Empire, a bit more than Lynch's novel. Why? Well, for one, I much preferred Sanderson's Kelsior to Lynch's Locke. Kelsior is the sort of character that just worked for me. He seemed more dynamic, more realized, and let's just say it, more bad ass. Secondly, I like the base premise that Sanderson was working from in his created world. Here is a world that was threatened by a great evil. The prophesied hero arouse. The great evil was thwarted. The great hero was seduced by his power, broke the world, enslaved the people, made himself a god, and set up a truly tyrannical empire. 1,000 years past, and everything is still pretty much terrible. The book reads and feels like a traditional high fantasy, but one that went terribly wrong a long time ago. Sanderson brilliantly plays with this concept, building in the readers mind a recognizable history for his world. Nearly any fantasy reader who reads this novel will be commenting to themselves... "I've read that story before, but how did this all happen?" So, the ideas themselves aren't completely original, but Sanderson is crafting this story in a different way.

Finally, I have to yet again comment on Sanderson's "magic" system. Allomancy. A very limited set of the population can augment their own physical or mental abilities by consuming and then burning specific metallic elements. For most of those, they can only augment a single attribute. For a very small group, they can burn all the allomantic metals, these are the Mistborn. Think Jedi powers meets David Farland's Runelords, but Sanderson's creation is unique and quite captivating. One of the true strengths of these novels is how Sanderson uses Allomancy to enhance the story, the delve his characters, to create both benefits and negatives.

The first novel in the series is very much a caper novel. It is fast paced, clever, and captivating. Sanderson's world building isn't heavy handed but actually quite well achieved. The action is often intense. There are a handful of truly interesting characters. There is humor. There is tragedy. There are lines of gray, and there is black and white. While I felt that the ending was a bit of a cop out, it was still a fitting and satisfying ending.

The second novel is not a caper novel. We have the remnants of the first novel having to figure just what to do, how to survive, after the events in the first book. Brandon Sanderson has, a few times now, claimed that he was most worried about how he could pull of this second installment of the series. It is, of course, the transition book. He needn't have worried so much... or maybe it's good that he did. He pulled it off. The Well of Ascension delves much more deeply into the nature of that old history. Sanderson is exploring not only his characters, their motivations, weaknesses, but he's also looking at the nature of knowledge and power in the context of a fantasy story. Oh, don't worry, it's well done. Also, there is a fair share of great action scenes, and a further expansion of allomancy. It's important to note that while this novel seems to be following a little more closely the fantasy tropes known by nearly all readers, Sanderson is still playing with our expectations and concepts. There is always something deeper going on here.

While I didn't enjoy The Well of Ascension quite as much as I did the first novel in the series, I still think it's a good book, and a very good second book in a trilogy. Mistborn is not a gritty, realistic style fantasy novel. It's got much more in common with that high adventure, but it is a dark and well realized world. Sanderson has created a world and story that has a unique feel to it, one that at least lets it stand apart a little. For me, those are good things. Gritty for gritty sake doesn't sit well with me. Good storytelling, realistic or 'romanticized', is what gets the job done for me.

Basically, for those of you eagerly awaiting the next Martin, Erikson, or Lynch's third novel... why haven't you read Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn?

Question: Do you find that you have a style preference? Do you prefer the more realistic, gritty epic? Would you prefer the slightly more romanticized high fantasy style? Or, just give you a good story, you don't care either way?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reflections upon lost identity and older SF

This week is International Blog Against Racism Week. It is rather fitting that I was made aware of this by reading Sarah Monette's LJ recently, as there is a related topic that has been on my mind for quite some time. There have been many posts about how insidious and pervasive racism today is, but not so much about some of its most devastating effects, such as the wiping out of one's cultural identity.

I am a fair-skinned, dark ash blond-haired, gray/blue-eyed male. By all accounts, I would be labeled as "white" and there I'd go, free to be able to be "color-blind" as much as I could ever hope to be. But in reality, I am not completely of European descent. Like many descendants of the first settlers west of the Appalachians, I have a substantial amount (at least 1/8, perhaps closer to 1/4) of "Indian blood." Just that very term alone, quite common until the past couple of decades, ought to indicate just how the native groups were viewed by the European-descent settlers. (For the record, my mother's side is mostly Cherokee and Chickasaw, while my Irish last name comes from my dad's side.)

Growing up about 30 miles west of Nashville, TN, I heard all about the First Thanksgiving when in school, how the local tribe fed those poor starving Pilgrim souls who were hell-bent on bringing Christianity to North America. With the exception of my Kindergarten teacher (who was part Native as well, I believe Apache or Hopi, I cannot remember which), never much was said about the native cultures from which I or many of my classmates were descended in part. We knew all about what it meant to be Irish, however - wearin' the Green on March 17th, perhaps saying "Erin go braugh," but nothing about "Civilized Tribe" of the Cherokee, except a very brief mention of Sequoyah and his Cherokee syllabary or perhaps some brief bit about the thousands who suffered on the Trail of Tears (including Sequoyah), with hardly a pause in the action before we rushed head-long into Manifest Destiny and the "conquest" of the West.

I feel a bit of an ache right now, not having grown up learning about one large part of my ancestry. Diminished, not really knowing even today what customs or traditions the Tennesse Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes had. While there have been some improvements in how these are covered in the history textbooks, there is still much room for improvement. Only a single introductory chapter for hundreds of native groups, with just a few bits and pieces of information about defeats at the hands of the European settlers and life on the reservation. Hardly a word still about what it means to belong to such a group.

I often wonder if this sense of absence was one of the motivating factors for me becoming a cultural history grad student over 10 years ago. Although my research primarily focused on 20th century German religious/cultural history, I had a secondary field that focused on the disappearance of oral cultures in the 15th and 16th centuries with the advent of the printing press. Whole ways of life that had lasted for hundreds of years, mostly gone within a handful of generations. Barely a memory, outside of various superstitions or clichéd expressions that are barely worth a thought, much less a momentary pause to consider.

Time is not a friend to cultures, I know. Even the most tradition-bound societies change over time. But when there's this almost casual disregard for other cultures, this ranking of them as "advanced" or "primitive" based on one group's standards for technology and living arrangements, part of me just wonders if maybe there's a sort of covert, insidious racism that belies our surface intentions of embracing others. The American "Melting Pot" ideal of the 19th and early 20th centuries is one such example - sure, send over your poor, huddled masses and we'll melt them down, take some yummy "ethnic" foods, and recast these sons and daughters of Italia, Russia, etc. into "Americans," devoid of any past association to their homeland except for some "foreign" last names and perhaps the odd church, mosque, or synagogue. Keep a few past associations, but for the most part, it was time to follow one model, that of the WASP "American."

Things are different today to an extent and I'm happy to see this. Although xenophobic attitudes are emerging more to the forefront today in the guise of the battle over "illegal immigration," (incidentally, Mexicans were not under a quota until the 1960s, perhaps due to the fear evoked by Julio César Chávez's unionization of the migrant Latino workers) more is being learned and shared about various cultural traditions.

Even SF has seen somewhat of a shift. Much of the Golden Age SF reads like WASP propaganda being regurgitated for another generation - go forth, explore, conquer, settle for the Good Ol' US of A/Human Race. Whoo-hoo! Just zap a few bug-like critters in spaceships and we're good to go! Those darn pesky up to their etymology of being "other." If we have to mention them at any detail, well, let's look at them from our point of view, that of the explorer, the conquistador, perhaps.

There is much in that which will appeal to readers today. Not to me, however. While First Contact sorts of stories are interesting, I find myself wanting to know more about how things appear to be from the "other" side. How do "we" (speaking of those who seek to explore/conquer) look to those being threatened by this advancement? What is the risk of things being lost, of disappearing into a vortex of forgetfulness and perhaps oblivion? What fragile beauties are being overlooked just to slake the thirst of those descendants of those whose vision of culture/society won out over others'?

And what risks do we run in being so assured of ourselves and our "place" that we might just end up obliterating other cultures/groups of people without a scarce thought for them as such? If this is not one of the more callous and destructive aspects of racist thought, the presumption that one's culture is "by nature" more worthy of being preserved than another's, then what is racism?

I ask this, wondering still what all has been lost to me and those such as me...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interview with Sarah Monette, Part II

Part I

One recurring motif that I noticed (especially in Mélusine) is that of the labyrinth. From seeing the social relations inside the city, to the recesses of Felix's mind, to a very real one later on, I kept getting this sense that labyrinths occupy some sort of significance to the overall story arc. Is there anything to this, or am I but guilty of reading too much into a text?

Well, my title for the series is The Doctrine of Labyrinths, so, yes. Labyrinths are a recurrent motif throughout the four books, significant for all kinds of reasons.

One of the more personal labyrinths that I noticed while reading the first two volumes is that of the emotional conflicts between Felix and Mildmay. There were many times while reading both novels that I wondered if there would some sort of a sexual relationship between the two, but then I also was left wondering if that might be too simplistic of a reading. Is it possibly just a subtle, society-wide sexualization of same-sex relationships that is altering how we view fictional interactions of characters of the same sex (I'm thinking Sam and Frodo here, among others)?

There are two different problems here. One is society's sexualization of same-sex friendship; the other is what Felix actually wants from Mildmay and vice versa.

Felix is sexually interested in Mildmay; that's not meant to be ambiguous. Mildmay is not sexually interested in Felix; that's not ambiguous, either. It does create a great deal of tension between them, and the question of how they resolve the problem is a very important one in the narrative of all four books.

The question of homoeroticism and the sexualization of non-sexual friendships is a very thorny one, and I don't have any good answers. There's a book by Eve Sedgwick, Between Men, which argues that the purpose of female characters in much Victorian fiction is to negotiate the homosocial and homoerotic tension between two men. What seems to be happening in more modern fiction (at least, this is one trend) is the excision of the mediating heterosexual female figure, whether because the two male characters move from a homosocial/erotic relationship to an openly (or covertly) homosexual one or because their friendship is privileged by the narrative to the extent that there's no perceived need for mediation. Partner-stories (as beloved of TV and movie cop dramas) are homosocial to the extent that a female romantic interest can only alienate the partners from each other, not resolve destructive tensions. (It's very tempting to cite the X-Files here, where Carter made the cataclysmic mistake of trying to make Scully be both a homosocial partner *and* a mediating heterosexual romantic interest. Scully and Mulder's relationship works as *partners*, but never gels again once the romantic element has been introduced. And it makes Scully much more overtly and cripplingly feminine and feminized.) And I think the line is honestly very blurry between intense homosocial love and homoerotic love, just as the line between homoerotic and homosexual can be blurry.

But the line between the social/erotic and the erotic/sexual is, I think, much clearer. Frodo and Sam (in Tolkien--Jackson's interpretation is a different ball of wax) have an intense homosocial friendship which does occasionally veer into the homoerotic (Frodo waking up in Rivendell, Sam finding Frodo naked in Cirith Ungol), but never into the homosexual. (There's so little sex in Tolkien to begin with that positing a sexual relationship where he doesn't explicitly admit one is reading against the text to the point of distorting it. Distorting the text isn't necessarily a bad idea (I love the homoerotic-bordering-on-homosexual tension between Aragorn and Legolas-- You look terrible. --in Jackson's movies), but it's important to recognize that's what you're doing.)

Where was I? Oh, right. Human relationships are complicated and messy, and I think it's okay to admit and recognize that--especially in fiction, where the characters are always carrying thematic and sometimes symbolic freight--sometimes the boundaries get blurred. An extremely intense emotional connection is about as controllable as a paint balloon.

Interesting analogy there about the controllability of intense emotional connections. One observation about Felix and Mildmay I heard recently is that their characters seem to be complementary halves of a complete person. One suffers from intense internal anguish, the other from a physical curse; one is very well-educated but yet has poor people skills, while the other is semi-literate but seems to be much more adept at understanding others’ emotions. Would it be fair to say that it’s the intertwining of Felix and Mildmay’s personalities that adds quite a bit of this thematic and symbolic freight to the novels to date?

I darn well hope so Some of the ways they mirror each other are deliberate choices on my part; others evolved from exploring their characters and the way they interact with each other. But one of the things that interests me about them, and about their relationship, is that at the core of themselves, they are very much alike, but their defenses and facades are radically different.

Besides the four novels of your The Doctrine of Labyrinths series, what other projects have you been working on and/or have been published?

I have a collection of ghost stories coming out from Prime this year:

The Bone Key.

And in October from Tor, a collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves.

Near the beginning of this interview, I asked you about the types of stories you loved. Here, at the end, I'm going to ask a related question that's much broader and perhaps much more difficult to answer (it's taken me literally hours to think about how to phrase this ): Over the years, I have read countless articles and blog entries about the various groupings within speculative fiction. But I have yet to read any opinion that is anywhere near a consensus on the issue of what speculative fiction means, both for an individual reader and for our various cultures. If pressed (and I guess I'm doing that now) to answer, what would you say is the meaning (or meanings) of these various speculative fiction groupings for yourself personally and perhaps for certain socio-economic groups within certain societies?

No, it's not unfair. It's a really tough question, though, and I'm not promising I have a good answer.

I'm going to begin by observing that the oldest literature we have is fantastic in nature: The Iliad and especially The Odyssey, 5th century Greek tragedy, Beowulf (I'm going to confine myself to Western European culture, not because other cultures don't have equally good examples, but because I can't talk about them intelligently. But there's all kinds of other stuff out there.) This isn't because of naivete; the ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that they were telling *stories*, not history. It's because fantasy--stories that aren't bounded within realism --is *entertaining*. Grendel is much more compelling than whatsisface, the man who irritates Beowulf in the mead hall. I would suspect that this is the same reason so much children's literature is, if you look at it strictly, fantasy. Talking animals, anthropomorphized machines, toys coming to life. Children's literature, like mythology and folklore, is grabbing capital-S Story in great handfuls and grooving on it.

Realism, and realistic novels, are a much more delicate and sophisticated mechanism. It's harder to tell a satisfying story when you're bound by the rules of Life As We Know It. Because real life is not like fiction; it doesn't have meaning or structure or any of the things we expect our fiction to have. I don't think it's an accident that strict realism is a very late development in world literature; it demands, ironically, a readership that is either sophisticated enough to appreciate the author's negotiations with the limits of the form--or has bought into the belief that stories shouldn't be fun. Serious literature is very suspicious of fun, and that's been true as long as serious literature has been around. Shakespeare in his day was popular trash.

This looks like the high-brow/low-brow divide, but my point here is that it *isn't*. Shakespeare, if I may co-opt him for my argument, hasn't changed an iota in the 400 years between populuar trash and serious literature. He's still got the same breath-taking poetry, the same intense exploration of love and kingship (to pick two of his recurring themes), the same dazzling verbal wit. The bawdy jokes are still there. The fantastic elements are still there. Shakespeare, also, is grabbing Story in big messy handfuls and enjoying the heck out of it. Which does not decrease his literary merit.

The protocols of reading realistic fiction privilege authors who work inside a very small box. Faberge worked inside very small boxes; I'm not saying that realism's very small box is inherently inferior to the enormous sandbox of Story all around it. But it's also not inherently *superior*, which is the line the academic and critical mainstream has been trying to feed us since (I think) the advent of modernism. (I'm not sure where to draw the line on that one, actually--and of course if we don't oversimplify it, it was a gradual sort of thing through the 18th and 19th centuries. But the last three-quarters of the twentieth century saw the dogma solidify its position and start pounding the table.)

Science fiction and fantasy are all about the sandbox. I don't know if it's the same for every author and/or reader, but I know that for me, I find realism's very small box *boring*. (This is personal taste, not an aesthetic judgment. I don't deny the artistic merit of realistic fiction, but I cannot read it to save my life.) It's hard for a story to hold my attention if it doesn't have a spec fic element, and I've never in my life had an idea for a realistic story occur to me naturally. (I wrote a couple, just to prove I could do it, but that was deliberately setting out: Today I will write a realistic story. And anyway, one of them cheated by using metafictional techniques, which is just another way to get out of the box.)

So that's one thing science fiction and fantasy (which I'm going to abbreviate as sff) means: it means breaking open the box. It means getting down and dirty with Story. It means having *fun*. But sff, in breaking open the box, also permits extremely serious stories to be told. 1984, for example, which uses realism in its own way, is nevertheless outside the canons of realism. You can't tell that story inside realism's very small box, and it is a story that needs to be told. The Lord of the Flies likewise, and The Handmaid's Tale. Feminism, to give one example of sff's relationship with a subculture, has turned to sff to imagine worlds in which gender plays out differently (Tiptree, Russ, Le Guin), and we, both as individuals and as a society *and* as an intermeshed network of societies, need that ability to play and hypothesize and experiment.

Rejecting the canons of realism does not mean rejecting reality. It frequently means the opposite, as I am not the first sff author to observe. Sff lets us look at our world from new angles, under different lighting. It lets us take things to their logical conclusions and then assess them. As my friend Elizabeth Bear says, it lets us break things and explore the consequences.

Meaning is a slippery sort of thing to try to assign and tends in my experience to lead to reductive thinking. ( The meaning of Hamlet is ... ) But sff means the ability to dream, and the ability to play, and I think those are very valuable things indeed.

Would it be fair to say, speaking of the origins of Realist Literature, that it is an outgrowth of the Naturalist movement in France in the late 19th century that had among its members painters such as Monet and authors such as Zola? There is something about this style of literature which leads me to question whether or not the Author is asserting more of an active presence inside the Text, trying to manipulate it more overtly and to draw some of the focus away from the Story which has been the main draw for readers for ages. Would you agree or disagree with this statement?

Naturalism certainly has its part to play--although it's also worth noting that Monet's work, like that of his fellow Impressionists, warps right through realism and out the other side. But Zola and Balzac and Stendhal and Ibsen and and Eliot and of course the Russian novelists, Dostoievski and Tolstoi ... a lot of nineteenth century literature is increasingly realistic (Flaubert springs immediately and horrifically to mind) and increasingly disapproving of non-realistic narrative--while at the same time there's a counter-movement of novelists who are equally concerned with *social* realism but interested in other kinds of causality and connection. I'm thinking specifically of Villette, which is both realistic and powered by something closely kin to dream logic.

But, yes, realistic fiction is a highly artificial construct and often explicitly rejects the patterns of fictional narrative (Madame Bovary, in which Flaubert's *point* is that real life isn't like fiction, even if he has to invent a fictional life in order to prove it).

Would it be fair to argue then that what Realist literature aims to do is to concentrate more on examining our lives from way up close (e.g. the stereotypical middle-aged woman's mid-life crisis) while SFF literature looks at life issues from a distance (e.g. groups of people living elsewhere, doing that Star Trek "to boldly go where no one has gone before")?

That *can* be true, but I don't think it works as a generalization, because realism can work on the macro level--Michener, for example--and science fiction can work on the micro level--Ursula K. Le Guin's work.

Your comments here and on your blog leave me wondering if the delineation between Realist and Speculative-oriented literature is something vague, or if there is a truly fundamental divide. Could you please elaborate on how these two are divided?

Well, it depends, and what it depends on is the author's intent. Because kinds of stories like magical realism or slipstream depend on realism, depend on conjuring the real world with breadth and depth and shadows and dust bunnies, in order to make the slippage into contra-realism both seamless and startling. On the other hand, realistic fiction that *rejects* the fantastic is obviously insisting that a divide be defined and defended--although I think there may be rather less of that in contemporary literature than one might be inclined to think looking at the rhetoric on both sides. But I'm not widely read enough to comment.

Based on what little I've read, I tend to agree - it's almost like trying to determine what 50s music is "rockabilly" and which is "country" - it seems to come down to arbitrary preferences than to anything that can be defined.

One last question, a bit different from the rest: I was reading this old post of John Scalzi's Friday when I came across a bit about the group sing-along of "Down to the River to Pray." I have to ask: You're at a convention and it's karaoke night. Would you go up there and sing, and if so, what song would you pick for you and your fellow writers to sing?

As it happens, there's a karaoke party at Wiscon every year, and I avoid it like the plague. Karaoke is Not. My. Thing. But to answer your question in the spirit it was asked: Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited."

That would be great to witness, considering one of my SNs and all! Thanks so much for doing this interview with us, Sarah!

Thank you, Larry! I've enjoyed this interview very much.


Review of Sarah Monette's The Mirador

Ghosts are very prominent in our lives. Whether one believes in the paranormal or not, most people do accept the notion that past events can reappear frequently in various guises to haunt us. Some of the more interesting character-driven stories involve people who are haunted by aspects of their pasts that they would rather others not see or understand. Shakespeare's Hamlet in part is as much about past deeds haunting others as it is of an actual ghost seeking his living son to exact vengeance upon his murderer. In Sarah Monette's third novel, The Mirador, the two half-brother main characters, the Cabelline wizard Felix Harrowgate and his one-time assassin sibling, Mildmay the Fox, experience ghosts both literal and metaphorical.

The action begins roughly two years after the final sequence of events in The Virtu. Both brothers have paid a heavy toll in vanquishing (so it seems) their mortal enemy. But each has been affected deeply by traumas inflicted upon them by Melkar and much of the action of The Mirador revolves around the exploration of just how much Felix and Mildmay have changed in those intervening two years.

Instead of using Felix and Mildmay as the only two first-person point of view references, Monette introduces a third, almost equally conflicted character, the actress Mehitabel Parr to the PoV procession. Haunted by her own past and having agents of the rival Bastion wizardry school blackmailing her, Mehitabel finds her entangled even more in the vicious courtly intrigues of Mélusine, entanglements that force her to interact even more with the two half-brothers.

Unlike Mélusine or The Virtu, which featured some travel sequences (not to mention external conflicts against a deadly foe), most of the action of The Mirador revolves around internal conflict. How will Felix and Mildmay deal with their pasts and new revelations from new characters that might threaten the fragile balances they have achieved at great cost within themselves? How are their many real and metaphorical ghosts going to be exorcised? How are their inner conflicts shown in their actions to those closest to them, including Mehitabel and Gideon, Felix's paramour and one-time associate of the Bastion? These questions take up the vast majority of The Mirador's pages.

Some will find this almost exclusive devotion to the exploration of Felix and Mildmay's inner conflicts to be boring or that they detract from what arguably could be called a rather hasty end to the novel. I, however, will not make that argument, merely just note what some might consider to be a weakness (a relative lack of external plot action until the final three chapters) I believe to be a deeper and necessary exploration of the Felix and Mildmay characters.

Monette recently revealed to me in an interview that the overarching title (which does not appear inside the book itself) for the series is The Doctrine of Labyrinths. This is very apt, especially for the labyrinthine twists of past deeds and guilt that have caused the characters to feel their way, almost virtually blind to themselves and to each other, for most of this novel. It is a natural outgrowth of the mazes of Mélusine and The Virtu that are as much metaphorical as they were virtual in those earlier scenes. I suspect that this maze of conflicted feelings and guilt will resolve itself in some powerful fashion in the final volume due next year (previously called Summerdown, now apparently untitled). For this to occur, however, it seems that a novel such as The Mirador had to devote its energy to the internal rather than to the external.

That is not to excuse every lapse of pace, however. There were a few times in the middle where it seemed that the pace dragged a bit, as the arguments and mistrust of earlier chapters appeared to be repeating themselves in slightly different forms, but this I consider to be minor to the overall effect of establishing two haunted, traumatized people set to hit the road for a virtual and metaphorical journey that might just possibly bring them some semblance of resolution.

Summary: The Mirador is the third of four planned volumes that detail the adventures and conflicts of two half-brothers, Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. Using alternating first-person PoVs (a third is added for this volume), Monette depicts in great detail the conflicts, fears, and desires of both Felix and Mildmay in three fashions: 1) How each sees the other, 2) How each perceives himself, and 3) How an outsider close to them sees each brother. The culminative effect is to create a 3D composite image of each character, allowing the reader to see beyond the façades into the tortured souls of both Felix and Mildmay. Highly recommended for fans of Monette's series and for others who prefer internal conflict stories to those that revolve around external quests.

Release Date: August 7 (US) Hardcover

Publisher: Ace Books

Friday, August 03, 2007

Interview with Sarah Monette, Part I

Sarah Monette is an award-winning novelist and short-story writer who writes primarily in the fantasy and horror fields, with occasional ventures into Science Fiction, according to her website. She has published two novels, Mélusine (2005) and The Virtu (2006), with another related novel, The Mirador, set to be released on August 7th by Ace Books. In addition, she has a short-story collection, The Bone Key, scheduled to be released later this month by Prime Books and a collaborative work with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves, to be released in October 2007 by Tor Books. Sarah and I conducted this interview by email over four weeks and this is the first of two parts, with the second to be posted early next week, to coincide with my review of The Mirador.

Sometimes in order to understand a book or series, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background and how it might relate to your first two novels, Mélusine and The Virtu?

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I've been reading fantasy and science fiction all my life. I have a Ph.D. in English literature; my specialty is Renaissance drama. I double-majored as an undergraduate in Classics and Literature (an interdepartmental program between Comparative Literature and English), and my love of languages is all over my books: Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Old English . . .

You mention your love of languages is all over your books. One particular case sticks out: Mélusine itself. Is there some sort of thematical connection between the city and the medieval legend of the woman with a serpent's lower body?

As an alert reader pointed out to me, there *is* a monster beneath the city who is female and who has a serpent-esque lower body. I have to admit, though, that that wasn't intentional.

The city was one of the last things to get a name--in the original draft (and several subsequent) it was deliberately nameless. I talked myself out of that before an editor had to, but it was extremely hard to think of a name for the city. I chose Melusine on a parallel with Medeia and Lamia--great mythic female monsters. On the same principle, the world is named Meduse. Not that that enters into the stories anywhere.

Speaking of your Ph.D., have you found yourself mixing in elements of what you did your research on into the stories you write?

Oh yes. I wrote my dissertation on ghosts in English Renaissance revenge tragedy. You can see the interest with ghosts ALL OVER my fiction, both long and short, and my love for the theater has a lot to do with Mehitabel Parr's character in particular. I also had more fun inventing plays than I probably should have: The Singer's Tragedy may be my favorite.

What was “it,” if “it” can be defined, that led you into writing?

If there's an "it," I don't know what it is. I started writing stories when I was eleven, but I think I'd always told myself stories--if I wasn't reading them.

And what sorts of stories appealed to you most and are these sorts reflected in your writing today?

The first story I ever wrote was a ghost story. The second story I ever wrote was an Epic Fantasy Quest. So the answer is yes.

I've loved fantasy since my father read me L. Frank Baum's Oz books, which he started doing when I was very very small. There's never been any doubt in my mind that that's what I wanted to write.

When you began writing short stories and later your novels, were there any preconceived goals that you had in mind that you wanted to accomplish with your writing?

Actually, I began writing *novels* first. Short stories were a later development and one that it took me a long time to get the hang of. I didn't write a successful short story until 2000.

As best I can remember, I wanted to be a professional writer pretty much from the moment that first story (when I was eleven) started getting positive feedback from my parents and teachers. Along the way, I've developed strong opinions about art and ethics, etc. etc. But in the beginning the only thing I wanted to accomplish was to have fun, and I'm still trying to hold onto that.

Speaking of these "strong opinions" about art and ethics, I was recently skimming through your website and came across a July 2006 post of yours about eleven things that you would try not to put in a fantasy novel unless you were undermining them. To what extent are your characters subverting those elements?

Heh. I had to go reread the post to remember what it was I was abjuring.

1. You will notice that no one ever describes the Virtu as an orb. Even though it is one.

2. Felix is beautiful. Whether he's good is a far more problematic question.

3. Oh, I fight with the quest plot. I do. Mélusine and The Virtu are sort of a quest, although several alert reviewers have remarked that the quest isn't the important part. The Mirador is not a quest, and it was the hardest book to write of anything I've finished to date. Summerdown *is* a travel narrative in large part, but it isn't a quest.

4. "Specialness" is another one of those qualities that Felix exists in an adversarial relationship with. He's got most of the markers: beauty, unusual coloring (especially his eyes), traumatic past (with scars!), extraordinary charisma, most powerful wizard in the whole of whatever, etc. etc. But the underlying principle of Felix's character is the observation from real life that many extraordinarily charismatic people are also cruel and petty and frequently real jerks. Not *all* extraordinarily charismatic people, I hasten to add. But I've observed the phenomenon often enough to find it interesting. So Felix is Special, but he's also an asshole. And the traumas in his past have given him defensive mechanisms that are frequently dysfunctional--the way defensive mechanisms often are.

I suppose I didn't eschew the trope of Specialness so much as I faced it head on with psychological realism.

5. A Companion to Wolves, which I wrote with Elizabeth Bear, comes out from Tor in October. QED.

6. This one, I actually abjure.

7. Mildmay is as much an argument with this trope as Felix is an argument with Specialness. He *is* a social predator and he *is* sympathetic (although I am stunned at *how* sympathetic readers seem to find him)--but I hope I've managed to complicate the situation beyond that.

8. Malkar is pretty much Evil, but in The Mirador and Summerdown, I've worked hard to create antagonists who aren't Evil, simply antagonistic.

In my own defense, Malkar was invented when I was 19. I've grown up a lot since then.

9. Well, Felix is a campaign against heteronormativity all on his own.

10. Ironically, Summerdown does feature what one might call a P.R.O. But we are introduced to it in the first scene and there are hellish consequences.

11. Nobody in these books even knows the *extent* of the world. Felix has to do a lot of heroic grandstanding, but the immediate effects are generally confined to the area of a city. Of course, the social and political consequences would snowball, but that's not something Saving The World tends to think about.

You've chosen to tell the stories of your two main character, Felix and Mildmay, via dual first-person PoVs. Was this an intuitive choice or were there many false starts and frustrating failures before you were able to discover their voices?

In early drafts, Mildmay sounded EXACTLY LIKE Felix.

Evidence here.

On the other hand, these books have *always* been first person. When I started writing them, I didn't *want* them to be first person, because I didn't think I could write first person well. But Felix's story refused to be told in any other voice.

Homosexual leads are not very common in secondary-world fantasies. What sorts of difficulties, if any, have you had in terms of portraying homosexual characters as fully-realized characters and not as characters whose sexuality overwhelms the rest of their personality?

That, actually, I haven't had any trouble with. Or at least, none that I'm aware of.

A friend of mine in the UK, Roh, who recently read Mélusine at my urging noted that to her there seems to be a tendency among female authors that she's read when portraying homosexual characters, especially males, to present them as somewhat "fragile". Here is a copy of a message she sent me recently on this topic:

"Anyway. I am beginning to notice, or to think I notice, an intriguing trend. It sums up very crudely as: When a Woman Author Writes From The Male PoV, The Male Is Marked As Physically UnStrong (Without Being Emasculated). For short, I label this phenomenon "The Mark" (regardless of grammar). I sort of pick up books written by women where a main character is male, and I wait for him to be, well, beaten up. Or raped. Or tortured. If nothing else, I look for them to be slim, even thin. A lot of the text gets devoted to these woundings, and to the recovery process, and to the physical sufferings of the male character as he suffers. It gets concentrated when it's a gay male, I think."

I was wondering if this is a perception you've heard often in regards to Felix or some of the other characters, as what my friend pointed out to me is something that I have noticed, especially in contrast to how a Hal Duncan portrays his homosexual characters, although I'll admit that I'm not as well-read on this issue as I wish I could be. If you'd like to answer it and have it be part of the interview, I'll try to think of a way to condense it into a single, short question, as I am really curious about this issue now.

I think this does happen to gay male protagonists (the most obvious example is Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage books). And I think Felix does fall into this trap to a certain extent, although in my defense I will say that the reason he gets raped is because I was interested in the tension inherent in a character who could be both rapist and victim. Which could have been a woman, or a heterosexual man, but it was most obvious and easiest to mobilize with a gay man.

I also chose a gay male protagonist because my abiding interest is in the power dynamics of human relationships, especially sexual relationships, and it is VERY VERY HARD to write about that with a heterosexual female protagonist without pigeon-holing her and yourself into either a re-inscription of patriarchal gender roles (male dominant, female submissive) or a simple gender reversal (female dominant, male submissive) (which I did work with some in my novella, "A Gift of Wings," in The Queen in Winter). A lesbian relationship is also a possibility, but it's far more interesting and attention-grabbing to take power away from a man than it is to give power to a woman.

I'm not sure I've said that very well.

I was also trying that apply-psychological-realism-to-trope thing again--because, actually, my experience differs from your friend's, in that while the trauma to the gay male lead is frequently shown in exhaustive detail, the recovery tends to be glossed over. Hence, Felix spending most of a book insane--and the point of the next three books is, in very large part, the fact that there aren't any easy fixes and that recovery is a process that you never get to the end of.

And that raises a related observation: In our society as a whole, depictions of male rape vary considerably from those of women in general, if such depictions are ever brought to light. I seem to recall reading somewhere that in fiction, female rape is often a plot device that serves to illustrate the external inequalities of power distribution, but that male rape becomes something that is not just internal, but often is either "too powerful" or too much of a taboo to be examined at length within the story. What would you say in response to this and the perception that male rape is, somehow, fundamentally different from female rape?

I think our cultural reactions to rape are intensely problematic and damaging, regardless of the gender of the victim. I'm certainly prepared to agree that male victims face an even greater stigma than female victims, and that that's as terrible as the fact that rape victims face any kind of stigma at all. And I want to be really clear that when I talk about rape in fiction--rape as a trope, rape as a narrative device--nothing I say should be considered to apply to rape in reality.

I think you're right that in fiction, male rape is more taboo, and hence more titillating, than female rape. It's hard to get at the right words to unpack this, aside from pointing out that women have been being raped in literature and mythology for pretty much as far back as we have anything written down. The Sabine women, the Trojan women after the fall of Troy, Io, Europa, Leda, et cetera et cetera et cetera. It's so common that children's books of Greek mythology don't even leave those stories out. All they have to do is suggest that the women enjoy it, and they're home free, not to mention reinscribing yet another toxic
fallacy about rape for another generation.

Male rape, on the other hand--it does feature in Greek mythology, with the story of Ganymede (Zeus wants him as a ... a cup-bearer! Right!), but other than that, there aren't any representations of it that I know of until ... okay, the earliest example I can think of is Deliverance(1970), but I'll be the first to admit my knowledge here is not encyclopedic. My point, though, is that in fiction, male rape is a much less utilized trope than female rape--although it's rapidly becoming a cliche in its own right.

Also, because we live in a patriarchal society and have for several thousand years, there's nothing new or shocking about the idea that women are victims. (I'm not saying this is a good thing, mind you.) You can get more narrative charge out of victimizing a man and you aren't reinscribing the same old gender role patterns into that ever deeper groove of men act and women suffer.

Would it then be fair to say that what we’re witnessing when we read fiction concerning male rape is a transgression of social roles, something that shocks us, makes us reconsider what is going on in regards to "normal" power structure relationships, something that might just cause us to think about where we set our limits when talking about gender roles?


Which is to say, I don't think that's always what's going on, on either the author's side or the reader's side, but it is definitely one of the potentialities in literary depictions of male rape, and one of the ones I find most interesting.


This is the end of Part I. In Part II, Sarah talks about the title for her series, the relationship dynamics between Felix and Mildmay, upcoming projects, the sexualization of same-sex friendships, speculative fiction as compared to "realist" fiction, among many other things. Hopefully, this second part will be up by the middle of next week, our schedules permitting!
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