Sunday, October 23, 2011


I'm not sure if anyone is still coming here, given that it's been months since a post showed up here, but I should formally announce that I have moved to a spiffy new blog over at Wordpress. I am leaving this up partly because there is stuff here I want to refer back to, but at some point I will probably move the posts that matter to some sort of archive over at the new site.

I moved because Wordpress works better, for one thing. It's not as simple, and there are things to learn about running the site, but I like it. Also, I needed to make the shift from an Internet handle to my real name as I undertake the process of writing professionally. I am still toying with what name to use (John Stevens, J. H. Stevens, etc.) but it is time to come out from behind my cute name and be me. This is in part something I need to do to own my writing, to be more confident in my work. The new blog will be much more focused on writing, and less on personal stuff, which I think will make it more interesting to folks.

So come on over!

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Roundup, and a Readercon

I've been silent recently, but writing a lot. My SF Signal column has several new entries, including a two-parter on "The Death of Science Fiction." I did not write a new column this week, but I did pen a review of the VanderMeers' The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. I just submitted an article for publication, and as soon as I have more info on release I will post it. I am also still slogging away at my Clarion Write-a-Thon project, a bit behind at 11,100 words but working to catch up.

Today I am off to Readercon, and I will be posting assorted updates from there over the weekend. It should be a fun and thinky con.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Write-a-thon, One Week and Many Thoughts

So, what has seven days of writing raw, unformed prose given me?

1) Confidence. Yeah, this zero-draft stuff is not much to read, but doing this on my blog, regardless of responses, is good. I am writing every day, I am writing without fear, which sounds grandiose but is not meant to be. I started this solo workshop with a very general sense of what I wanted to write, and I am finding that as I write a lot of elements of the future story are becoming clearer. Writing this protean stuff in public is helping me break down some internal barriers, and as a result I am writing more overall with less hesitation.

2) Discernment: When I write an early draft, I do a couple of strange things: first, I write actions and interactions in excruciating detail. which I parse in later drafts. When I compare what I am writing here to a few other pieces, this problem stands out mightily. Feedback on previous stories has pointed this out, and this excessive detail was also a problem in essay-writing in grad school. This is linked to confidence, in part, this to a need to map out everything. I hate missing something, so in early drafts there is too much. I prefer to whittle rather than add on.

One of the things I learned in my creative writing education and in graduate school was to not be wedded to what is on the page. One of my writing teachers in college was Taylor Stoehr, who saw this tendency of mine to overwrite immediately and spent a very patient year pointing out its effects on my work. He even gave me a collection of Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese poetry to inspire me to do more with less. I took the lesson a bit differently than he wanted, I think.

In academic graduate school, you are encouraged to overwrite, and then chided for it. I tried to follow what I found to be the conventions of authorship, and had some of those whose writing I studied tell me what I was doing it wrong. I soon learned that "do I say, not as I do" was the motto to follow. But their advice was theoretically precise, yet technically vague. Again, one person gave me some excellent advice early on; Thomas Kirsch spent most of my first semester giving me pointers on how to approach not just academic writing, but the process of practice of writing itself. He was fascinated with the tension between anthropologists "getting it right" and their often larger-than-life self-images and aspirations. This often resulted in writing that was very detailed but had little behind it, or dense academic discussions that were far removed from the ethnographic material. What he counseled was simple: write clearly, always keeping not just your point but the world you are writing about in mind.

3) Rhythm: Spattering ideas on the screen often shows me what objective I want to achieve (see above about detail, etc.). I think through writing more often than I form a full idea in my head. What I am noticing in this project is that this influences the rhythm and flow of my writing, and I need to pay more attention to that when redrafting and shaping the story in revision. I also tend to search for characters' voices and personas in this manner, and that affects the rhythm as well. In this novella I am trying to play with the third-person perspective a bit and let a focal character influence the perspective in each section. We'll see how well that works as I keep unfolding the story.

4) Exercise: This Write-a-thon is good exercise, partly because there are prompts from Clarion. I am going to tackle this exercise tonight and see what it yields, then get back to writing. I am a day behind but I will catch up after working the prompt.

5) Enlightenment: There is nothing like working on a story to remind you of how difficult and amazing the writing process can be. Even without publication, fiction writing does a lot for me, from improving my mood to influencing how I talk about writing in my column and articles. It's hardest sort of fun around and I get a lot from it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Write-a-thon, Day One

Here is the next bit of my Write-a-thon novella:

The creekside plots were cukes and pumpkins this year, although Leigh had little use for the former and had asked that they not be grown. Bloody useless little peckers. But the vegetation here was turning lush quickly; this was still some of the best ground they had for cultivation. There just wasn't very much of it, especially with the boulders here and there and the rock formation that jutted out from the bridge and came down the shore from what used to be the big lawn, when the Falls were a park. Now that was a precious little grain patch, barely enough to feed a few people for a season. Too little, too little. . . . .

She realized that she could hear music now, some twangy guitar notes. She came over the hump and saw Eoin standing at attention, hands behind his back, watching Gracie play on the big boulder. The maple gave them both ample shade. It was still warm under the canopy but lulling and sweet. Leigh felt herself smiling. She compressed her lips, lingering for a moment until the tune ended, then turned and headed back to the homestead.

* * * * *

When she got up to the top of the bridge she heard something scream, and her smile returned, but this time she let it spread out over her wide face and wrinkle her eyes. As she topped the road she saw the chugger backed into the main driveway, and a small open-topped trailer with its gate open, empty. The screaming stopped as soon as she crossed Lake St. By the time she took the short-cut behind the houses and got to the sort-of courtyard they crowded around, it was all over, and a burly older woman and a tall, rangy teenage girl were grunting as they pulleyed a blood-spouting pig to swing from the thick branch of an elm tree. Most of the blood was falling into a filthy plastic bucket.

"Ah, protein." She waved to the other two as they secured the rope. Their sun hats had been pushed back, and their hair, short and gray for both of them, was soaked with sweat. They both wore light ponchos and blood-stained aprons, but the older woman's clothes were dark red and slick. The girl brushed a few droplets from her face and smiled at Leigh.

"Good size. Meaty."

The older woman nodded. "Hello Leigh. We have a prize pig here for sure!" She laughed; the other two women smiled and nodded politely. "Like El said: good size, plenty of flesh. We'll have him butchered in no time. Smokehouse most of it, have barbecue for the rest tonight." She tromped past Leigh and opened the hatch to the small house's cellar, disappearing inside.

"What's the word?" Leigh asked El.

"I talked to Heather; they have enough pasture for the season, but they may have to convert next year." She undid the apron tie behind her neck and slipped out of the blood-spattered garb. "Levy on pasture might up to triple, with all the food drop delays."

"That's stupid. Who's going to work it? Brad, Heather, and their grandkids?" Leigh heard something clang in through the open basement hatch and cursing erupt. "Too much field. It's ridiculous."

El nodded and tossed her apron over by the tree. "There might be more Unemployed by next spring."

Leigh wrinkled her nose. "You're kidding."

El gave her a funny look. "Of course I'm not. Brad saw some tax revenue projections, and even with the shopping bonus the Employed got, still not enough coming in, he says."

"Fuck the Employed," Leigh replied, "I told them that horseshit plan wouldn't work."

Words for tonight: 607.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Write-athon and on and on. . . .

Last time we left our ogre he was discussing his participation in the Clarion Write-a-thon, and then apparently fell into a wormhole or portal to another world. He is back, and will now talk about himself in the first person.

I have updated my Clarion page with my specific goal for the six weeks, which is to write a novella of at least 25,000 words, currently entitled "Waterfall Pulls the Sunlight Down." At 600 words per day, and no editing, I can make this goal, and I'm looking forward to seeing what emerges, raw as it may be.

The Write-a-thon officially starts tomorrow and runs until 6 August, but some writers started early, and I did some writing earlier in the week, which I will not count towards the 25,000 word total. Part of the process is promoting your writing and getting people to sponsor you, so if you enjoy this story, please do donate. As incentive, I will happily tuckerize every donor who wishes it into the story, and the person who makes the largest contribution will receive the final product in whatever form it is eventually published in.

Here's the first installment:

June, The Month of Hoping Things Grow

Eoin found Littlegrace Bear by the falls, strumming the dead woman's guitar. It had rained overnight and the water was roaring, throwing sparkling drops into the air and crashing down into a white maelstrom below the chunky rock formation it ran over. The little waterwheels craned out on the near side of the falls were spinning and rocking in the spray, but the din of the water drowned out their creaking and whirring. Maybe we'll get enough power for a movie tonight.

Gracie watched the falls sparkle and ran her fingers across the strings, lightly depressing them near a middle fret. That guitar twanged with poor tuning, but she swayed along with the slow rhythm. Eoin cleared his throat. The strumming changed, became lighter and slower.

"You doing alright?"

She smiled at the waterfall and blinked as the wind came up and blew a little spray their way. "It was nice of her to give me her guitar." The strumming picked up speed again. "The waterfall likes the music." She closed her eyes and raised her face to the breeze-driven droplets.

"Yeah." Eoin tried to quell the light shaking that had been in his hands since dawn. He looked down at them, thin but strong hands. He still had a bit of the dead woman's blood under his fingernails, he noted. He put his arms behind his back and stood up straighter. "If you need anything, you let me know."

She smiled at the waterfall. "I have a guitar. I ate breakfast." She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "There'll probably be a movie tonight." She moved her fingers down the neck and the guitar moaned. She bent over it and started playing it for real, bluesy and curt notes groaning out of it. She sped up the rhythm a bit and started shaking her head to the music.

He felt a tear form at the side of his right eye, like one of those cocoons a wasp would spin on its victim/protector. Maybe this one will take some anger with it. His stomach rumbled. His arms were tired. He nodded at Gracie, stepped back to the edge of the shade given by the massive tree they were under, the last one by the creek on this side of the falls. Far behind and up on the little bluff he could hear people talking, maybe shouting. He checked the sun, out beneath the cool canopy of the maple.

He stood there, still as stone, and listened to the rough, sad music until the sun went behind the shattered house on the ridge across the creek.

* * * * *

Leigh went out to the upper field as soon as she unloaded the runabout. She made sure the trike was charging this time, although according to the meter there wasn't much juice banked for it. She looked over at the smallest of the three houses by the main driveway and heard music blaring from it. As she walked by the rear door to cut through the backyard she shouted "Turn it off, Darkboy!" She heard the volume decrease as she fast-walked by the little playground and a patch of perky greens, rounded the last house standing on the block, and cut between two foundations (one that smelled more and more like a garbage dump; best get that on Damon's list too) out to the street. She cut across the pothole-filled road to the tax garden and waved to Nutmeg and Kit, who were weeding and looking for slugs and such under the self-standing umbrella.

She crossed Lake St., which was hardly a street anymore, partly cleared off but even more pocked than Falls St. Up the old driveway of the former parking lot to what was now the lower field, a combination of tomatoes and squashes slowly maturing in the harsh sunlight. She skirted the edge of the field and kicked at the rich soil along the edge, the imported stuff that had cost them a horse and 900 hours of server time. If Darkboy's stereo eats the reserve power I'm going to feed his testicles to the hounds. She scrambled up the rough steps along the top of the rockface overlooking the creek gardens and wished once again there was some sort of railing.

She found Damon on the little bluff near the falls in his sun hat and puffy shirt, squatting down in the new field, looking at a row of seedlings that were stunted, some of them browning. She made noise as she approached when she saw the gun on his hip. He let some soil drop from his fingers and wiped them on his trouser leg, then put his gardening glove back on. She pulled her kaffiyah back and cleared her throat.

"Hey," he said as she came up beside him. He kept looking at the seedlings. "How's town?"

"Still there," she replied. "Mail's late. Food drop's late. Treatment plant is down again." She looked over the field to the far side, where some recently cut-down trees lay near a tall chain-link fence. "I got the new parts for the tiller, finagled some grain for those extra tires." She heard him mutter and caress a wilted shoot between his fingers. "There's a Common Council meeting Thursday night."

He quieted and looked sideways at her shins; the fabric of her silky beige skirt clung to them in the rising breeze. "For what?"

"What do you think, Damon?" She sneered a bit at the top of his head. "Second week with no drops, no mail, just a few independents and tinkers rolling through with wares." She looked down the length of the field, which was farmed right up to a thin stand of trees about back to the creek before the falls. She squinted and saw one of the thin irrigation pipes dripping water, but as the wind kicked up soil blew off in stinging puffs. "How's the field?"

She was pretty sure she heard him whisper "fuck you" before he raised his voice. "Trouble with the irrigation; DeShawn and Alice are working on it, may just drag the manual gear up here and try to hose the field for now. Darkboy says weather forecast is for rain on Wednesday, but three days is a long time for no water." He flicked at the plant he had just been fondling. "But it's not just water; something else is up. I need to run some tests. . . ."

She sighed. "Really? Again?"

Damon finally looked up at her, his milky right eye as piercing as the clear green one. "Yes Leigh, again. This seed was supposed to be clean and delinked. Signal free. Parent. Untampered with."

"It's corn, Damon. What did you expect? I told you. . . ."

He hissed to cut her off. "I expected that my preliminary analysis was right. And this is not. . . it's not. . . ." he turned away from her and tossed a pebble down the row. "I'm not sure what's wrong, and I need to find out, deal with it before. . . ."

"Next week?"

"Thursday." He stood up, finally. Slowly, his knees creaking. His clothes were too big for him and the intermittent breeze pushed the roomy white fabric of his voluminous shirt sleeves against his bony elbows as he hooked his thumbs into his belt. "I need to know what's up by Thursday."

"Yeah, I guess." She shook her head at the tiny plantlings. "How's everybody doing?"

"Fine. The girls are working the tax garden, kids are over at the big playground, Mischa and El are bringing that pig back from McLean. Vim and Darkboy are doing their thing. I think the rest went down along the creek to forage, and check around."

"Eoin and Gracie are down by the falls," Leigh said after a moment. "They're under the maple, but I don't think they have any other protection."

Damon sighed. "Gracie I don't worry about; she's the proper skin. But Eoin, he knows better. They should be checking the animals and getting ready for milking."

Leigh rubbed her lower teeth along her bottom lip. "Right. But, how's everybody doing, Damon?"

"I just said they're fine. They're doing their stuff, except for Eoin and Gracie. Could you. . . nah, I'll go down when I'm done here and get them going on the animals."

Leigh sighed again. "How about I do it, and you just do your little tests." She turned to go before he replied.

"Please remind Eoin that we need him," he said towards her, then settled back down near the dying plants. He waited until the field was quiet again, then brushed the back of his fingers down a bending shoot of immature corn. "What the fuck do you want?"

* * * * *
Leigh trotted down the path to the lower field, then jumped down over the concrete wall and cistern that separated it from the creekside area. She remembered when she was a kid how she and her friends would clamber all over it, safe in the shade of the scraggly little woods. They would play tag on the big lawn near the bridge, sometimes chase each other through the tall grass that grew around the rocks and trees. One a week their teacher would bring them down to the creek and give talks about the ecosystem, about the geology, and have them hunt for rocks or just watch the creek flow. She had them write essays on how the water looked running over the stones, lapping at the shore, cascading down the falls.

Now the creekside was crowded with vegetable plots, some raised-bed, one an experiment in "lasagna" gardening. Without the trees, and with the smaller rocks removed, she found it uninviting. The huge old maple down by the falls stood out like an arrogant old fart. The skinny, almost leafless trees across the creek felt envious, the ones who hadn't snapped or died already at least. The carefully-plotted land on this side left no room for play, and it seemed to Leigh that it stole all the life from the areas around it. Perhaps that's the problem with Damon's stupid corn.


Note: farming, animal husbandry, and some other technical matters that come up in this drafting process may not be accurate, so if you see a gaffe or problem in the story, please let me know!

I will be posting each day's entry here, and as soon as I find a word count indicator I will put that up as well.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Clarion Write-a-Thon!

So, since there was no way I could participate in The Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop at UCSD this year, I decided to do the next best thing and sign up for their fundraising Write-a-Thon. I've got a page at the site (click on the badge to the right to go to it) and am now soliciting donations for the project. Details are all on the Write-a-Thon page. I'm looking forward to being pushed to write more.

I write a lot now, but I need to branch out, to take the confidence I've been building with the columns and reviews and write more fiction without letting apprehension get the best of me. It's all about being willing to suck, at this point, and keep writing and developing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Seventy-Five Book That All Males Should Read

Yesterday afternoon I took a break from reading and making notes for a review and messed around online for a bit. While on Twitter, author Ian Sales tweeted the following: "sigh. apparently starting up sf mistressworks is incompatible with liking books written by men:" I followed the link and read the comment, which I found to be simultaneously defensive, snide, and patronizing. Not hugely so, mind you, but enough that I fired off an irritated tweet about the comment. Mr. Sales pointed out that it was not a comment made out of anger, but of a feeling that the individual's own investment in the Masterworks series had likely inspired the comment. I withdrew my retort, but it still bugged me.

I have been very frustrated about a number of related incidents in the last few weeks that highlight sexist undertones in the "mainstream" view of certain literatures. We have the dust-up over the Guardian SF poll (which inspired Ian's Mistressworks meme, and also resulted in Kari Sperring creating a version of it for fantasy). Then there was V. S. Naipaul and his sexist bullshit. We have a Wall Street Journal article on Young Adult literature that not only implies that much of it is decadent or "constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is," but makes heavily-demarcated suggestions for reading based on gender (with almost all of the suggestions' authors also segregated to match the reader's gender).

Finally, and this is what pushed me over the edge into anger, we have Esquire Magazine's "75 Books Every Man Should Read," a slideshow presentation of 75 titles that are "the greatest works of literature every published," only one of which is written by a woman (Flannery O'Connor). I found it after going to read Emma Bull's response to the YA article, but flipping through that gallery took me away from that debate and made me realize that all of these little moments of discursive idiocy added up to something, showed me parts of the puzzle that clicked together into an ugly puzzle. Patriarchy, gendered ideas of morality, cultural suppositions about art and authority, and echoes of hegemonic imaginative limits all collided.

Rather than pen some vast missive about it, however, I thought that responding in kind would be a better idea. To that end, I present a list of 75 books (in no particular order, except for the first one) that I think males should read, not to reinforce some prevailing gender notions or make them feel good about themselves and their taste in books, nor to reify certain ideas about what a canon should contain or who gets to be in it or what books are allegedly transcendent or special to men. If readers stick to "the classics" as prescribed in this manner they are cheating themselves out of what reading can show them.

I present this as a list of works that have the potential to shake a reader's thinking up and create more perceptive discussions about the issues that these incidents have brought to the fore (including the idea of what "books for men" should address). The title of my post is a play on the Esquire title, these are books that I would recommend to anyone. Due to time constraints I have not added links, but Google and book sites and library catalogs can be easily employed to find most of these. I have tried to keep comments to a minimum for the same reason. Find out more for yourselves.

1) How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ (Obvious? Yes. Dated? Read it and find out for yourself, for Athena's sake).
2) Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz.
3) The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
4) Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, edited by Miriam Schneer.
5) The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt.
6) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
7) Angels' Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of Everyday, by Ralph Cintron.
8) Living My Life, by Emma Goldman.
9) Myths of Male Dominance, by Eleanor Burke Leacock.
10) A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen.
11) Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, by Lydia Millett.
12) A Martian Muse, by Reginald Shepherd.
13) The Collected Poems, by Anna Akhmatova.
14) Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, by Lila Abu-Lughod
15) The Stars Down to Heaven and Other Essays, by Theodore Adorno.
16) Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, by Veena Das.
17) Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, by Henry David Thoreau
18) Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor.
19) Peace, by Gene Wolfe.
20) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Friere
21) Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou =: Struggle Without End, by Ranginui Walker.
22) Swagger and Remorse, by Richard Fox.
23) The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.
24) The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson.
25) Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong.
26) Palimpsest, by Catherynne Valente.
27) The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz
28) The Sultana's Dream, by Rokheya Shekawat Hossein
29) Housekeeping, by Marilyn Robinson.
30) In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, by Philippe Bourgeois.
31) The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis.
32) Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes.
33) So Long Been Dreaming, ed. by Nalo Hopkinson.
34) Payback, by Margaret Atwood.
35) Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
36) The Fact of A Doorframe, by Adrienne Rich.
37) Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki.
38) Lettres d'un Voyageur, by Georges Sand.
39) Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany.
40) Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand.
41) Hunger, by Knut Hamsun.
42) The Cancer Journals, by Audre Lorde
43) Dragonflies: Fiction by Chinese Women in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Shu-Ning Sciban
44) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers.
45) The Tale of Genji, by Lady Shikibu Murasaki
46) The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea, by Gilbert Herdt.
47) Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.
48) Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, ed. by Gerda Lerner.
49) On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch
50) Fear: A Cultural History, by Joanna Bourke
51) Between the Acts, by Virginia Woolf.
52) The House of Discarded Dreams, by Ekaterina Sedia. (Which I have written about at length on this blog)
53) The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold
54) Forms of Distance, by Bei Dao.
55) Bloodchild and Other Stories, by Octavia Butler.
56) Christopher and his Kind, by Christopher Isherwood.
57) Dust Tracks on the Road, by Zora Neale Hurston.
58) Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees.
59) Selected Poems, by W. H. Auden.
60) Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia, by Sharyn Graham Davies.
61) One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, by Herbert Marcuse.
62) Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin.
63) The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.
64) Morning Star: surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopia,by Michael Löwy.
65) The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
66) Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon
67) Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, by David Gilmore.
68) Our Bodies, Ourselves, by The Boston Women's Health Collective
69) Sensation, by Nick Mamatas.
70) I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister & My Brother . . . , by Michel Foucault.
71) Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison.
72) Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.
73) Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.
74) A Space by the Side of the Road, by Kathleen Stewart.
75) The Female Man, by Joanna Russ.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Few Notes on the Circulatory System of Books

I had mentioned earlier today on Twitter that my bookstore was becoming inundated with books. We always have a healthy influx of tomes (we are a large used bookstore), but in the past two weeks we have suffered an unrelenting avalanche of titles coming into us, 90% of which come from random people off the street. Some people bring one book, some bring one box, and others bring trunks and bins full of books. This spring we have received more books than I have seen in five years at the store.

There are several effects of this deluge: first, it means that our inventory swells mightily. As an ancillary effect of that increase in volume, the quality of books usually rises as we can pull and price down books that are in worse condition or stack a large backstock of a title on one of our sales tables and mark them down for quicker sale. We date all of our books and when a title has been on the shelf for too long we do something to get it sold, to make room for what will sell more quickly, which is the goal. We price all of our books competitively (and often lower) for our market and have no problem selling them for less after awhile if it gets them into someone's hands. This includes sometimes circulating books out to the Dollar Carts, several large wheeled bookcarts that we cram with all manner of books looking for a new home for what amounts to a small service charge for them.

Another effect of this surge of books is that we can be pickier and pickier about what we select and can price to buy with more discretion. So we can not only improve the general condition of our stock but vary it, and find both more popular and more obscure titles that we know sell. A side effect of this is that books that in lean times we would buy regardless of condition we pass on, because we either have it in better condition or can afford to wait for a better quality book to come in, and with many titles that is not a risky choice. When you work in a used bookstore and use your eyes you quickly get to know what people are looking for and a sense of what is moving and what is not. You buy more of what is moving and take fewer chances on what is not, unless the slow movers are something valuable or that you know someone is looking for.

An additional effect of this is that we often do not buy a portion of the boxes and bins and bags of books that come our way. Usually people take them back and keep them, or donate them to the Friends of the Library Book Sale's massive warehouse (where twice yearly they are sold in a bibliomaniacal bacchanal) or to Goodwill or to the Books Through Bars program (books for prisoners), whose base of operations is on the top floor of our building. Sometimes, the sellers do not want the books back, and if they so choose they can leave them with us to dispense of, which means that often the titles go out on our Dollar Carts. Also, one of the benefits of working at the bookstore is that we often get first crack (after the boss, of course) at what is left behind.

Today we received (not just bought) somewhere around 700 books, and about half of those were just left by the sellers. This amount of abandoned books is pretty rare, but it happens. This time of year the FotL are not accepting books because of their sale, students are moving, adjuncts are moving, and in the current economic climate regular folks are moving as well, and many do not want to haul the crates and tubs and satchels of books we could not buy with them, except maybe for the one that they realize was inscribed to them by their sister or Tomie de Paola or that tattered pocket of Dhalgren they scribbled all over in high school (all true stories, by the way). So they leave them. Sometimes we'll buy a few items personally (I bought a few titles from a friend who brought in five boxes of books today), but the rest need to be dealt with, and generally we try to not let them pile up.

This means that we have to decide what to do with the books quickly. In slower periods, unless they are seriously damaged, the books go right out to the Dollar Carts. But today, there were just too many, and despite the fact that we were selling $1 books quickly, it was not quick enough to keep from having a massive pileup of books. Also, the side effect of buying applies to the Dollar cart as well; the quality of condition and titles is pretty good on the carts. Packing them with old textbooks or tattered children's books makes no sense. Thus, a a decision has to be made to recycle some of them.

Usually one of my colleagues handles that task because I am the primary pricer and the specialty buyer, and I try to get in a lot of time at the register while pricing so that I see what is going out and get an idea of what's selling, what people are saying about prices, etc. This meant that I watched my co-worker going through stack after stack of books and creating boxes of books to recycle. But today, seeing some of what she was getting rid of (some of which she consulted with me about, to see if it should be saved, particularly fantastika, social science, and lit crit) I just couldn't take it anymore, and I undertook a book rescue. I salvaged 24 (EDIT: 32) books from the death pile (well, 22 books, 1 DVD, and a small blank book for my daughter) that I thought I could use and that I felt would either get recycled or get lost on the carts with the piles of similar titles.

The pictures above show you what I rescued, and it is quite a selection. Some were rejected because they had writing in them (we almost never buy any book that has more than an old price and someone's name in the book); others because they were determined to not be good enough for the shelf (my boss is quite biased against lit crit, for example, while I have little discernment for music books)or because we already had better copies, or because it might sell slowly, and in this business, books that stay on the shelf are pretty,but otherwise just taking the space of a title that might get scooped up quickly.

This is part of the circulatory system of books in a capitalist system. People buy books, read them, cherish them, display them, loan them, forget them on park benches, drop them in a puddle. . . books go through a cycle of consumption and ownership, and generally end up passing to another owner. Sometimes they get put in an old suitcase at a yard sale with a bright yellow "$1" sticker on them; other times they get passed to a friend. Often they get boxed up and brought to another part of the system - a library, a used bookstore, a charity - to be recirculated. This can happen many times in a book's life. I have seen books with as many as five different owner's names in them, held books nearly as old as the first printing press, and found everything from money to nude pictures to pages of handwritten poetry in books. The book as object is commodity, it is a transference and holder of symbolic capital, it is a culturally-constituted nexus of ideas and identity, pleasure and enlightenment(well, some are).

And our system produces a lot of them, so many that some of those characteristics get erased, or reconfigured. Yet some people still look stricken when they leave us books; others walk away or dismiss them with a ritualized "Well, I didn't like it that much anyway." But almost all of them ask if the books will still see some use, even the ones warped into curls by water damage, dotted with mold, or that have part of a honeycomb from a wild beehive attached to them. Few people want to hear that the books they brought in are going to be sent off with old newspapers and disposable coffee cups. Even the folks who bring in bulging plastic grocery bags of cheap mysteries want to know that the book will go to someone else, even if they hated reading it. The book is still a significant part of our economic circulatory system and our cultural system, even in the age of the Internet and e-books. That may be changing (and this rise in books coming to us may be a symptom of that), but these bound codices of glue and ink and rough flattened wood have some meaning to many people, especially me, and it is both sad and humbling to see this part of the circulatory system at work.

EDIT: This morning (5/22/11), being unraptured and all, I was cleaning out my courier bag and found that I had not taken books out of it last night. So I found 8 more rescued books:

The small soiled hardcover at the bottom is a copy of Bigsby's Dada and Surrealism (Critical Idiom). Not sure if I will read the Stross, or a few of the others (although I am already reading the Best European Fiction 2011). I have set aside a bag in the corner by my desk to start tossing in books that I can bring to Readercon this summer to distribute. Now trying to find room for them; it looks like winter sweaters will be put away and their shelf used to house books!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some Writing, and Some Writing-To-Be

Several writings have recently come out on different sites. Over at Functional Nerds I have a review of Sam Sykes vigorous, engaging Black Halo. At Aidan Moher's A Dribble of Ink I talk about "mind-blowing" fantastika. And in my regular column at SF Signal I talk about ecstasy and vision in the genre. A new column will be out tomorrow and I have a review in process, and books for two more in queue.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes. I have two assignments in the works that if successful will result in publication. I am very excited about this, although it is odd that my first "real" publication will likely be a non-fiction piece. Part of that is a result of my writing online, but another part is my own reluctance to put my fiction out there. I've written two stories that I have set aside, and the current one is at the "this sucks. . . PANIC!" stage. The novel is a different creature, because while the end of the initial draft is in sight there is more comfort in the sheer deluge of words and ideas.

Caitlin Kittredge issued a challenge on her blog a few days ago, and I took her up on it. To that end, I made the following to-do list that I vow to fulfill by 1 September:

1) finish the first draft of A CROWN OF CRUSTED BLOOD (am at 77K, looks to be about 110K for some sense of drafty completeness)

2) Finish current short story, then go back and finish the two I bumped because I had an attack of the “I sucks.”

3) non-fiction book proposal.

4) finish up some assorted legal documents and obligations.

5) do all this while writing a weekly column, a monthly column, and two reviews a month, while also reading a book a week.

6) oh yeah, not get fired at Day Jobbe.

And I have to add a 7) take care of my daughter and give her the proper love and attention. It was implicit but I think it needs to be said.

I've been looking at the calendar and re-figuring my commitments, and as always it comes down to sticking to a schedule, putting my ass in a chair and writing. Although with my hip getting worse, sitting is increasingly painful. I should probably add an 8) continue to improve my health, eh?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why You Should Read Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

I had started writing something else for the Blog Carnival, but then there was a mighty Blogger Fail, and I lost the post, and could not get on until earlier today. That'll learn me. But I did want to close this week by saying a bit more about why this novel is not just a good book, but an encounter that is well worth a reader's time.

It's a portal fantasy where the protagonist not only says "YES!" to her entry, but has actually created the world in which she journeys. It is a quest fantasy where the goal is something more profound than getting a magical artifact back or even some sort of kingdom-recovering or world-saving. It is epic in the more classical sense of the world, a sometimes poetic rendering of a person's life story; it is an odyssey of the mind and imagination. And all of these elements culminate in one tale, about a woman discovering her life by dealing with the fragments of her past, both "real" and oneirocritical.

What makes the book so engaging is its combination of excess and subtlety, mythological and prosaic concerns, animated by characters that are surprising and human in an exaggerated milieu. It is a book of unexpected moments that refuses to brutalize its protagonists, that does not go to cliched extremes, and whose focal personalities do not fall prey to the reactions that often constrain and marginalize women in fantasy literature. The two main characters are both strong young women still finding their way but increasingly open to taking this bizarre path that has opened before them, this endless queendom of dreams and stories. They do not always make the right decisions, they are not always certain of their actions, but they do not respond like stereotypes, and they accept and actively interact with the world that is constantly expanding and changing around them.

In fact, there is a gentleness and a permissiveness in this novel that is a welcome counter to gritty, campy, ironic, and/or over-the-top fantasy. Early on I felt that not much was happening in this novel, and I soon realized that I had some particular expectations for what such a fantasy novel should do. It was a bit embarrassing as the novel unfolded and I realized that something very different was going on in this book. And yet, it is not "literary fantasy" (a horrible category), it is not a modernized fairytale, and it is not some Campbellian archetypal apologia. It is, on a profound level, simple, nestled in the psyche but not psychological, a story but not a saga, a tale in which you can experience all of the different tastes of words but that refuses to repulse or scourge you. Instead, it invites you into the characters' strange new lives and encourages reflection: what dreams have affected your life? What stories from the past still unfold in quiet or hidden places in your head? If you could let them all out, walk around in them, retell them, what would be different? What can all the dreams and memories you contain tell you about what is possible for you?

Deftly written, thoughtful, and evocative, House of Discarded Dreams can be approached in many ways; it asks you to bring something of yourself to the tale, to be as open as Vimbai and Maya to chance and contemplation, and to not be afraid of the stuff in your head, or to ignore it, but to understand how it contributes to who you are and what it has left to teach you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What House of Discarded Dreams Has Taught Me About Writing

When I started reading House of Discarded Dreams, I did not know what to expect. I had not read any reviews and all I knew was that I liked Sedia's previous novel Alchemy of Stone and that it had gotten a nice blurb from The Guardian about "pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing." What I discovered was in a number of ways unexpected, and while considering the novel's effect on me as a reader I began to see that it has something to tell me about writing as well. The thoughts are still rather tentative, but let me try to articulate them.

First, this novel demonstrated to me that confidence in the story trumps consistency. This is not to say that the novel is chaotic, but there are many strange and fantastical elements that are not rationalized or that make complete sense, and much of that is intentional. I know intellectually, and have enjoyed as a reader, many stores that refuse to submit to rationality and that challenge linearity in many ways. Sedia's book reiterates that the power of a story is not in clockwork progression, but in the ability to create a symbolic terrain that impacts the perceptions of the reader. While one can argue that the plot is neither intricate nor speculative in this novel, the plot is not really the point. What makes this story work is a combination of curiosity, confusion, and a desire to follow this parade of strangeness to see where it leads.

Second, I gained a new appreciation for the protagonist as not just a participant in the narrative, but as a shaper of its texture and aesthetic. Vimbai is not just the focus of the novel, she is its perpetrator. Initially (as noted previously) I felt that Vimbai was too passive and accepting of what was going on around her, until I realized that without her presence, imagination, and particular history, there would be no novel. Vimbai essentially conjures much of the stuff of the novel, and it is her journey of self-understanding amplified and brought to life by the house. She is not an action hero, not a genius or an ace or some other type of (generally implicitly masculine) hero. She is not an archetype, and only gently a mirror. The story is generated by the life she comes from and the one she is moving towards. When she becomes explicitly engaged later in the novel much of this becomes obvious, and I found myself flipping back in the book to see how Sedia builds the world and infuses Vimbai with humanity and brings her fully into the novel, revealing that she is the story.

Third, while I always appreciate great writing, I found myself picking up ways to set a scene, describe something weird, and link elements of the novel throughout the book. I tried to apply some of what I learned in yesterday's post, and while I don't think that I succeeded terribly well, I felt a deeper appreciation for Sedia' creation by trying to make something like it. Again, this is not mechanistic assembly, but a combination of impressionism, psychological tweaks, and cultivated dissonance in imagery and placement of elements. The relationship of images and discoveries in the novel are sometimes direct, sometimes subtle, and often open to debate. But they are woven together into the central theme of the book, and the character of Vimbai serves as the center of the strands. This anchorage is common, certainly, but there is something rare being fashioned here as well that I cannot yet put my finger on. But this is a book to return to again and again, to see what more you can discover. All of these ruminations thus far are just suggestive reflections of that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adrift in a Sea of Digested Souls: A Fantasy Review of Ekaterina Sedia'sHouse of Discarded Dreams

I read this book in the shadow of a pots-and-pans mountain surrounded by crumbling keeps, where propped-up skeletons kept an unmoving watch on the frequent clanging avalanches caused by a grogoch trying to make a little cave for himself in the clefts cleared out by the rivers of spoons that used to erupt from the top. Despite the ghostly farms to the "south" there is little cream to give them, for of course they have few cows and many horses, and the grogochs will dump the jug on your head if it is not delicious spirit-cream from the insubstantial udder of a dream-cow.

I read this book in two long afternoons, under an umbrella tree, just to be safe. The mountain has not erupted in some time but spoons hurt when propelled through the air. Unlike the farm animals they are quite real and there is now an economy of sorts surrounding them here in the valley. The bigfoots and cartoon characters make uneasy exchanges with them, and the faeries keep stealing them to give to the chrome-wheeled dragon that lives within The Cave, that flickering video mirage between the Green Mountain and the slowly eroding duplicate of Croagh Patrick, where the spirits of my dead Irish relatives slowly wear away at it as they walk endlessly up and down it in their bare feet. You wouldn't think that ghosts could do that, but I see the constant spits of dust and the gathering detritus at the base of the gradually-shrinking mount. For there is no rain here; when one looks over the edge of the world, you see the great turtle it rides upon, swimming on the surface of a sea much like the one in House of Discarded Dreams, full of mingled souls and supporting the capacity to see everything you have tried to keep hidden, or taken for granted, or hoped was an illusion. But there is no rain here, only sudden bursts of candy from the sky, some of it doped. The only source of water is a single well, guarded by all the frogs I saved from spearing as a child, drawn from that sea. It is bitter, not salty, and contains little crackles and memories that are sometimes sour, sometimes spicy, on the tongue.

Now, nestled in my hovel for the night, the thatched cottage that is my nest for now, I can talk about this book. Tapping away at my little steampunk typing computer, hoping to send this out to whatever world is on the other end of the Outernet, which seem to mostly be patronized by sentient cats posting pictures of fish and mice, and some shadowy commenters who say they "know where to find" me and that if I "talk" I'm dead. I am hopeful that someone else is reading. Thankfully, as best I can tell they are even less real than everything else here, although, as I learned from reading this book, there is a reality here, built on fears, wishes, and everything that I tried to discard from my "real life." Terrors unconfronted, stories left behind despite their lessons and solace, and even those things merely forgotten in the rush to embrace something else.

Vimbai's story disappointed me at first; I thought that she was too passive, to willing to just go along with things. My experience is different; I was dragged here, unwilling, made to confront and examine legends, missteps, enigmas. It was not until I realized that Vimbai is actively creating this new reality that I saw her as the protagonist, not only responsible for her direct actions, but for everything within her. The weaving of one's life is not just in the doors opened or paths taken, but in all of the locked doors, all of the dead ends and forks in the road. The neighboring provinces of the mind exist in a sort of detente, because they are not resolved, only abandoned, set aside, or shoved down into a blackness that always remains at the edge of vision.

As her world unfolds, as her journey unwinds, I see reflections that illuminate the corners of my own psyche: Irish folklore and stories, a deep rooting in an ancient place, disrupted and mutated by growing up amongst monsters clad in the hanging skin of humans. Taking refuge in the realms of pop culture and my own imagination, I never experienced the coming-of-age that Vimbai undergoes, not the clarity she is able to create. Awash in childhood traumas, social dysfunction, and too much intelligence for my own good, I struggled not to make sense of things, but to escape them, to fill that darkness with them, even though flashes of movement and the din of caged furies and griefs were clearly echoing in my mind.

And now here I am, finally trying to make a new direction, a new life, repairing body and mind, releasing my prisoners from their forced obscurity. Fleeing to the big city did not assuage them, a college education could only partly reveal and reintegrate them. More college education in a new place only made them retreat. I had to abandon many dreams, and find a few new ones, but you cannot turn your back on the ones left behind. Some sort of resolution is needed.

So now I sit in flickering candlelight, listening the wind, which is the sound of crying, and hearing sitcom theme songs in the drums far away. This is a unquiet place. Brownies and plastic toy soldiers brawl in the street outside at all hours, spilling out from every pub I have ever visited, but which in the daylight are closed and at night are dangerous to me. I have surrounded this flimsy cottage with sandbags full of books, thick encyclopedias as a base, limited-edition hardcovers on the ends, and cheap, tattered paperbacks atop, held together by the bindings of poetry chapbooks and infinite staples from fanzines and coffeehouse digests. That keeps the fights out, but also the sudden deluges of horse tack and dog collars, bursting forth from a gully between a mountain of rotting fast food and the Mountain of Stables, a terraced peak with more of those ghost-farms and shadow-ranches, where my rural pasts and futures all reside. The fortifications also keep out my dead American relatives, zombies who hunger for the only human in this confabulated world., who want to drag me back to the life I should have lived.

Like Vimbai's world, there are wonders here, and seemingly random elements too. But as time goes by, as the story unfolds, it all makes more sense. This is the truth that Vimbai taught me: that trying to ignore the pasts, all of them, is to fail to see life fully, and thus see where you can go in it. We should no more cling to the past than fear it, no more dismiss the stories and happenings than we should wear them around our necks and let me wear our throats raw and slowly bleed us out. In some way, everything matters, and we cannot proceed until we know how much. We each live in a fantasy world, often carefully chosen, but everything that we try to abandon or excise is still with us. The trick is to realize how it all fits together, why rockstar dreams and fairy-stories may distract, but also teach something about your mind. The trick is to see, accept, learn, and move forward. Even when adrift on a sea of souls.

Aetheric Ephemera: Praise to all Journeys Edition

1) Today is an auspicious day for fantastika: two major book releases have occurred: Cat Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,and John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. Cat's is a printed version of her online serial, and Scalzi's is a reboot of the beloved H. Beam Piper saga. Both sound like titles well worth reading. Only one has its own power ballad, however. Perhaps that will be remedied anon!

It is also Mr. Scalzi's birthday. Go wish him well!

EDIT: As my guest below points out, one can find a most wondrous song on the Fairyland trailer:

I can also attest that it make toddlers squeal and ask to see it multiple times. I really should have known that Cat and S. J. Tucker were on it.

2) This looks like a useful collection of EPub tools.

3) The problem with artificial light (free registration required). I guess when we become cyborgs, fungi hybrids, or the Singularity occurs this will be less of a problem.

4) Speaking of fungi hybrids, here is your WTF moment for the day.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The World Is Abiding and Ever-Strange: The Carnival of Dreams in Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

"The carnival offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" - Mikhail Bakhtin

And so it begins, the House of Discarded Dreams Blog Carnival! Over the course of this week there will be celebrations and reflections on this book and what it has to offer,which you can find at the Blog Carnival link. It is a work that deserves attention for its strong writing, its challenge of boundaries, and its ability to stimulate the imagination. During this week I will write about this book in different ways to give readers a taste of what it has to offer, not just as a novel, but as a vivid text that inspires all sorts of thinking and dreaming.

When Paul Jessup proposed a "carnival," two images came to mind immediately: a festive midway of games and delights, and Mikhail Bakhtin. An odd juxtaposition, I suppose, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the former idea is merely the lead-in to the latter. To fete House of Discarded Dreams is not properly done as some sort of distracting array of flashing lights and hucksters; we have to go back to older ideas, to older stories, not just to the folklore that saturates the narrative of the book, but to the power of dreams and imagining.

The carnivalesque tales and practices that Bakhtin wrote about are not the same as Sedia's novel, but her book deftly exemplifies Bakhtin's idea that the novel is a sort of cultural heir to the carnival . Dialogism; the upending of certainties; the production, reproduction, and deconstruction of hierarchies and relationships; all of these things are present in her work. The sublime and the grotesque work hand-in-hand; images and ideas tumble forth and make the reader dizzy, sometimes confused, sometimes ecstatic. It lacks the vulgarity of Bakhtin's classic subject (and is, in fact, rather well-mannered), but anchors itself in the messy rapids of life by finding purchase in dialogism, the rocky shoals of hybridities, and in the mind of the readers themselves.

Before expanding these impressions, however, a quick review is in order. House of Discarded Dreams is a fantasy, a sort of feverish bildungsroman lodged firmly in dreams, longings, and mythlife. Vimbai is a college student living with her exiled parents in New Jersey who dreams of moving out. When a local beach-house is advertised she visits and meets Maya and Felix, and also meets the house. Intrigued, she moves in, and soon bizarre things begin to happen. As the novel progresses two things happen: Vimbai's world becomes more surreal, and she takes a journey from being a passive element of her own life to embracing responsibility for herself and others around her. The house itself becomes a world of dreams and regrets and sorrows, but also becomes a place that tests the lessons and burdens of history, that forces the characters and the readers to think about the story of their life.

It is an unsettling novel, but not because of the weirdness. It unmoors your perspective with the reactions of the characters, which defy the convention responses we often see in fantasy novels. The imagery is relentless, seemingly random, yet the novel ends up building a new world that forces the characters to examine themselves and their preconceptions, and challenges the reader to do the same. It seems to wander, yet is very direct in its effects on the readers as the weight of symbols and associations accumulate in the mind.

There's a lot to talk about in this work; I and other readers will suggest some ways to think about it over the course of this week. Enjoy the carnival!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fete du Mirage: Ekaterina Sedia's House of Discarded Dreams

In-between catching up on my 30 Days of Genre posts, there will be what Paul Jessup has described as a "blog carnival" next Monday for Ekaterina Sedia's latest book House of Discarded Dreams. It has gotten reviews that are not just glowing, but that are themselves colonized by the spirit of the novel itself. We're encouraging other bloggers to join in with reviews, appreciations, perhaps even fanfic if you're brave enough! If you have read the book, write about it in whatever way moves you. If you haven't read it, come enjoy our little show and see why you should read it. Leave comments, link stuff, chat about it; let's have a big old celebration about this fantastic book!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Days Eight and Nine

Day 8: "Best fan soundtrack:"

I'm not sure what this means; I initially thought it meant "if you made up a soundtrack, what would it be?" Maybe? I decided to poke around on the tubes and discovered that this one stumped a lot of people. What is means, apparently, is a fan-made soundtrack/mix tape for a book. Uh, I have no idea! So, for the heck of it, here is a quick soundtrack for reading a book I just completed, Sam Sykes' Black Halo:

The Waterboys - "The Madness is Here Again" (Lenk's Song)
The Real McKenzies - "Drink The Way I Do" (Demos' Song)
Garmarna - "Njaalkeme(Hunger)" (Katarina's Song)
The Magic Numbers - "Let Somebody In" (Dreadaeleon's Song)
Esbjorn Svensson Trio - "Believe Beleft Below" (Asper's Song)
Alice in Chains - "Last of My Kind" (Gariath's Song)

Oculus Infernum- "Let the Pain Begin" (longfaces' theme)
Oingo Boingo - "Don't Know How to Party" (lizardfolks' theme)

Apocalyptica - "Harvester of Sorrow" (general mood)
Rob Dougan - "Furious Angels" (great to listen to during contemplative character moments)
While Angels Watch - "Obsidian Blade" (coda)

Day 9: "Saddest scene in a genre novel:"

So many to choose from. There are classics like poor dumb Boromir trying to redeem himself after being a massive tool in The Fellowship of the Ring. There are scenes such as the ones in The Wolves of Memory where you feel awful for Sander Courane as he shambles along with his dead lover in his arms trying to make sense of it all. So many moments where plans fail, lives are ended. . . I think the problem for me is that I read a lot of heavy novels and sadness is woven into them, much like life. It is hard to pick one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Day Seven: A Very Special Couple

Day 7: "Favorite couple in a genre novel:"

My initial thought: I have no idea.

This seems like a rather romancey question, and since I rarely read books for the romance, or think in terms of couples, I don't have a good response to this one. Weirdly, I can think of a few from other media, such as Derek Wildstar & Nova, Kitty & Peter, or Deckard & Rachel. But in genre literature, a favorite does not come easily.

My first response? Jaxom and Ruth, the focus couple of Anne McCaffrey's The White Dragon. Both put-upon by life (Jaxom an orphan, Ruth a runt), they end up being the outsiders who win the day. They love each other, go to great lengths for one another, work well together, and their bond is strong enough to see them through some rough times and gives them the sand to be heroes. They are not trusted, sometimes overprotected, and few seem to understand their connection at first. But they overcome social convention and long odds to contribute significantly to the wellbeing of their world.

I read the series in high school my sophomore year, and then re-read the third book several times, because I loved the two of them together. Whelan's cover, with all the little fire lizards hanging around, is as clear in my mind as the day I first set eyes on the book. Those fire lizards were for me an odd validation of Jaxom and Ruth's love, of the projection of it to others who were often ignored and disparaged. And their relationship was very straightforward; as Ruth put it: I am the white dragon. You are my rider. We are together. But they were not just for each other; their relationship was crucial to Pern. It made more sense to me then, and still does now, than a lot of the romantic unions people cite as their favorite.

30 Days of Genre, Day Six: Stoopid Eye. . . .

Day Six: "Most annoying character:"

This one was easy too: it's Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings series.

The reason is as straightforward as the character's motivation: Sauron is a one-dimensional non-character, a plot device. His ring is more interesting than he is. He has spent ages trying to do this one thing, to rule everyone, with apparently no good plan for doing so and no reason to do so other than "I'm Sauron." From being a servant of Morgoth until the end of the series, all he does is try and try and try to be a jerk of the highest order.

We never really find out why; the fact that he is thwarted constantly is about all the motivation he is given. He tries to conquer the will of all, his overly-elaborate plan fails because of his apparent arrogance and misunderstanding of human (and elven and dwarven) nature, he fades and then starts revving up to do it all over again. He is the meanest, most thick-headed one-trick pony of all time.

He is there to power the central conflict of the series, true, but one of the failings of Tolkien's saga is that there is a fairly rich cast of characters on one side, and on the other are teeming hordes, a sniveler, a guy who can't commit, and a mustachio-twirling mega-villain that for unfathomable reasons the rest follow. I resent Sauron because I want there to be more complexity and motivation on the other side. The contrast is too stark, too essentialized, and most of that comes from the figure of Sauron, who is evil incarnate, but a very stereotyped, unexplicated evil that has nothing to substantiate it but the biggest chip on one's shoulder in the history of the Universe.

(Pardon the lateness; laid down with child last night and dozed off)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Day Five: Who Am I?

Day Five: "Character you feel you are most like:"

This one is very easy: Thomas "Tuds" Tudbury from the Wild Cards series, a.k.a. "The Great and Powerful Turtle." The Turtle is a shy, nerdy boy who can only use his Ace powers while ensconced in a shell that armors him and allows him to view the world through cameras. His confidence falters when face-to-face with people, when he cannot seal himself away. When I read this story I was at a low point in my life: jobless, living with my parents in a crumbling inn in New England, dealing with a nervous breakdown, and completely thwarted by life. I immediately identified with the Turtle in a way that has not happened since.

The Turtle is the superhero I had always wanted to be, and given his personality, I could see myself being a hero. I was desperately looking for something to relate to, and the Turtle gave me an idea of a person that did that for me. I was so much like him, requiring thick layers of protection to do anything significant or creative, always undermining myself, and always stumbling towards the future. That such a character could do that gave me hope. It took me some time to act on that hope, but certainly the seed was planted in my mind through the adventures of the character.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some Reviews: Growing Up and Keeping Your Mind From Leaking Out of Your Ears

I've been so caught up with reading, column writing, and chipping away at fiction that I have fallen a bit behind writing reviews. I have one in progress for SF Signal and another for Functional Nerds, but here are two that have no home:

1) The Bird of The River, by Kage Baker: I feel bad about this one. I received this book as part of the Ranting Dragon Locus Challenge, but did not finish the book in time. But I did both vote in the Locus Poll and now, present the review! The book itself is a nice hardback edition but the cover is a bit irritating, since it portrays a scene that does not actually occur in the novel, and shows the title river ship as being some little pleasure craft or something, when in truth it is a huge vessel and a community unto itself. Do not let the cover fool you: there are no orc-like creatures in this book, and no heroines with their. . . capes?. . . blowing in the wind as they look heedlessly forward. Eliss would never miss someone boarding her home like that!

The novel is a combination of secondary-world fantasy and a mystery within a gently-tweaked bildungsroman. The central character is Eliss, a teenage woman who is trying to keep her drug-addicted mother alive and care for her younger brother, Alder, who is of mixed heritage. She helps secure her mother a job on one of the large trading ships that sail the river, but tragically her mother dies soon after that, and Eliss is forced to find a way to make herself useful on the ship. She quickly finds out that her talent for perception and her sharp mind make her a valuable asset for The Bird of the River as it makes its way up the perilous river. As the ship journeys to river's end, she helps a shipmate investigate a suspicious death and struggles to adapt and thrive as she enters adulthood.

The plot of the novel is nothing new, and while the prose is very clean and straightforward it is not especially evocative. The world that Baker has created has some interesting flourishes but is neither of epic scale nor of great ethnographic depth. The humans, known as the Children of the Sun, live and sometimes fight with the Yendri, the green-skinned folk who live in the wilderness and are merchants and healers,, and the "demons," feral humanoids who seem to primarily be bandits. The god known only as the Blacksmith is the "father" of the Children of the Sun, who have surnames such as Ingot and Riveter, but religion is a peripheral concern in the novel. The world is not particularly rich, and the story not of great complexity.

But Baker uses these as a backdrop for excellent characters and for situations that test them. What is distinctive here is that Baker creates a story of a young woman's maturation that you empathize with, frequently surprising you by not going for the melodramatic or grim outcome. Eliss does not have an easy life, but she is no Chosen One, no victim, and an active participant in her own future. Eliss' choices matter, and she makes many of those choices with intelligence and discernment. She is still a child in some ways, but her keen eyes and mind serve her well as she navigates the hazards of the river and of life. Tragic things happen, but she is never devastated by them, and learns how to move on and continue making a life for herself. The Bird of the River is heartening without platitudes, engrossing not because of flashy magic (which there is very little of in the book) or epic conflicts, but because you come to care for Eliss and her world and thus feel some empathy for her situation, reveling in her triumphs and wincing at her missteps, but feeling that she, and you, are two humans on a journey together.

This is not a novel of high adventure, of vast philosophical discourses, or of searing emotional trauma. People go about their lives quite normally for the most part, and while this is a fantasy world, and there is a mystery, what grabs you is the lived feeling of the story, small details of people's lives, their quirks and satisfactions. Beside Eliss my favorite character was the boy Wolkin, who is one of the most believable and spirited young boys I have encountered in a fantasy novel. He is funny, dorky, sometimes a bit dim, and full of life. Although few of the characters are fully developed, even those in supporting roles feel like people, with quirks and histories. Baker deftly creates a lived-in world without a lot of marvels, but with a lot of ambiance and earthiness.

The novel's progress is slow and easy, although also brief. The prose brings you along at a leisurely pace, slowly adding details and rhythms to the life of the characters that provides more weight to the world than long discourses or descriptions could. You understand how things work with subdued aplomb, and that allows the reader to engage the characters more fully. While not a character study, it is a novel that is about people, and about how the little choices in life can eventually create a major shift, or open up a new path. Eliss' development from desperate opportunist to reliable ship hand and friend is a pleasure to watch, and you feel emotionally rewarded in the process. Although the ending is a little forced and involves a form of deus ex machina, what matters in the end is that Eliss has grown up and changed her future. The ending perturbed me somewhat, but I greatly enjoyed the journey that I took with Eliss and her shipmates.

2) Open Your Eyes, by Paul Jessup (Full disclosure: Paul and I exchange ideas and bon mots frequently online, and he sent me a copy of his book to read). Let me disclosure something further: Open Your Eyes is a careening, lunatic carousel of space opera, surrealism, and ontological instability. Alternately sublime, ghastly, astonishing, and occasionally awkward, this is a bold short novel with heaps of inventiveness and lots of risk-taking. Jessup's embellishments and contortions of story and image don't always work, but there are no dull moments in this work and it constantly strives to surprise and provoke the reader.

This is also a book whose story is not elaborate but, unlike Baker's plain prose Jessup's writing intentionally disturbs our perspective, play with our minds, and disassembles anything we might take for granted. But this is not just textual acrobatics or trickery; Jessup's novel plays with ideas of identity, action, and desire by both interfering with reality and upending our expectations. From the ecstatic opening scene to the surprising sudden ending, the reader must navigate a dizzying world of starships made of bone and duty, wax-fingered doll constructs, infectious languages, and conniving AIs, a startling milieu that is absurd and sensual, delirious and harsh; a world where every character has secret longings and feelings of disconnection, and is in a constant struggle to not be overwhelmed or destroyed by the forces around them or their fellow-travelers.

Open Your Eyes is not a story about connection; it is a story about dissonance, about how trust, expectations, and longing can undo us. It is about how our yearnings can blind us, trip us up, and open us up to a message of lethal conformity. When the alien language (represented by a nonsensical mantra) overtakes a character, it annihilates them, not bodily, but intellectually, emotionally. Submission to the language, which seduces with its repetitiveness, removes everything a person is from their body. And characters do not become infected accidentally; they open themselves to it, often unwittingly, in their myopic pursuit of some petty or unattainable goal. For all of the strangeness and bewilderment in the novel, it has an underlying substance to it, a point that arises again and again as the characters betray themselves.

It has overtones of despair and echoes of nihilism, but the story is propelled along not just by the characters fumbling after their desires, but by sheer human tenacity, which is set in constant struggle with both the viral language and the inevitable failure that death will bring to all of their quests for fulfillment. The characters struggle to live, to not just achieve some goal or dream but to arrive at a moment of completion, of reunion with something that they cherish, that they hope will restore them. All of them fail except one, who only transforms when she gives up her desires and allows something new to take hold and illuminate the world. This transformation ends up setting the world right in some sense, but only by allowing the unexpected to flourish.

There are some uncertain moments in the novel, partly due to vagaries in the prose, but more often due to the flaws and inconsistencies of the characters. They are unreliable actors, as we all are, and their shortsightedness, their obsessive focus on what they cannot have, creates most of the conflict in the novel. Sometimes it is unclear what is happening, and there are a few moments that I wish were more clearly presented, but what emerges in this novel is a profound message: that regardless of how unlimited technology, possibility, and potential may be, unless people are willing to expand their vision, to appreciate and understand the wonders around them, they will only succeed in facilitating their obliteration. When you refuse to engage the world around you, see circumstances for what they are, or appreciate that your desires do not trump all other contingencies, you ontologically keep your eyes closed, and miss what your life can truly be.