Monday, February 28, 2011

REVIEW: BRAVE NEW WORLDS (ed. by John Joseph Adams)

Today is the last day of Dystopian February, so I must post my review! I had thought to re-read a classic, but in the end I chose an anthology, and have already discussed a few of its stories in my latest SF Signal column. The book I selected was John Joseph Adams' Brave New Worlds, a large, somewhat imposing anthology of dystopian tales that draws deep from the well of 20th-century short fiction. The book is full of excellent stories, old and new, and while seem only slightly inspired by the dystopian spirit, the collection demonstrates the breadth of approaches that are informed by it.

The anthology opens with an introduction by the editor, who frames the collected tales as not just about politics: "the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization. . . and of what it is to be human." While I prefer a more politically-conscious and engaged idea of dystopia, this collection does exhibit a range of insights into the human response to the social effects of dysfunctional or oppressive systems.

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" enhances this idea as the lead story. As Lenore pointed out in her review of the story, its power lies in the combination of normalcy and acquiescence that infuses the writing itself. We get none of the common dystopic tropes: there is not alienated member rebelling against the society, the power dynamics are buried under layers of banality and any sense of politics is kept far in the background. What we do get is a chilling tale with a fatalistic sense of closure and an implied lesson on accepting evil as an everyday need.

The stories that follow tend to be less subtle, although the themes of assimilation via obedience to oppression, and of embracing violence as a norm, appears in a number of ways. S. L. Gilbow's "The Red Card" normalizes vengeance as an act that government and society can control. Geoff Ryman's wrenching "O Happy Day" humanizes the effects of a genocidal revolution on those who are a part of the system and those who are its victims, and demonstrates that the line between those distinctions is artificial. Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Pearl Diver" demonstrates the trauma that complete surveillance can have on a person's psyche, a violence that tears at the mind and spirit directly.

It is edifying to compare these stories to some of the more classic tales, such as Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" and Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (which is one of my favorite stories). The power of dystopian ideas to shape style comes out strongly throughout the anthology. Sometimes that power directly fuels the progress of the story, as in Paolo Bacigalupi's harrowingly disjunctive "Pop Squad" with its direct utopian/dystopian contrast and the brutal effects of that contrast's dissonance on the central character. Sometimes it sends the story a bit off-track, which I found in Cory Doctorow's "The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away." Despite a fantastic title, that story was not as affecting as many of the others, clever in some of its ideas but with neither the shock nor the empathy that engaged me in most of the collection. The stories that I found most compelling were not just built on interesting ideas, but got the characters to inhabit them.

In most of the stories presented, this is what makes them effective: there are profound disconnects in the world the characters dwell in, and significant consequences that saturate their thoughts and actions. A few stories fell short of fulfilling that goal, while others found innovative ways to attain it; this was especially true in Carrie Vaughn's story "Amaryllis," which feels unlike any dystopian story I have read, and imparts its tale with a shrewd, quotidian style that surprises you in the end. The strength of this collection is that, despite an initial sensation of similarity, the stories are not just examples of dystopian literature, but active employers of that spirit to tell us many different things about what makes us human.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Angles of Vision

A quick post as I work and take little breaks to flesh out the new SFSignal column:

My new post is up at Apex. I did tack back towards a response to the whole morality argument (which is not really about morality, methinks). I tried to write something critical, but thoughtful, and I think it works.

As several friends have noted, ::headdesk:: inducing opinions bout fantastic literature continue to proliferate. Steve Davidson over at Grasping for the Wind discusses "Why I Don't Like Fantasy," and concludes:
"Where I see Science Fiction as pointing the way forwards to possible (better) futures, I see Fantasy as the true escapist literature. Escapist in the sense of not being willing to engage in the here and now. Hiding in more pleasant make-believe worlds rather than looking for solutions."
While I appreciate that he (unlike Grin and "Theo") makes it clear that this is a personal opinion, and not some attempt to impose his own perspective on others, this summation really bugged the shit out of me. Not because there is no truth to it, but because it once again paints an enormous range of creative endeavors with one sullying hue. As several commenters pointed out, SF is also fantastic literature, and all fictions are just that, fictions. Some aspire to more realism, or naturalism, or try to follow certain rules more closely, but at the end of the day they are all fantasies, and quite honestly, all of them provide some form of distraction from the world around us. They may teach us things, and may try to ground the story in "the real world," but all of them are figments of our imagination.

What really grinds my gears is this sudden wave of people jumping on fantastic literature for being either socially deviant or decadent, or being too "unreal." There seems to be a need to either impose rules upon fantasy or argue that it's, essentially, too imaginative. Both perspectives imply that there is some flaw or deficiency in "fantasy" as a category that opens it up to corruption or excessive fancifulness. Because exercising creativity is dangerous, leading to moral decline and diverting mystification.

In both indictments, there is a poverty of evidence and an extravagance of oversimplification. These broad indictments rely on generalized hyperbole and stereotypification of the genre category. And they seem to stem, moreso from the morality argument, from an anxiety or concern about the potential boundlessness of vision in fantasy fiction. as if getting too far away from "reality" unmoors the reader from it. There is a disquiet about the power of imagination, as if the reading of a book will result in contamination or some sort of perverse enchantment that takes the reader away from the real and the moral.

Again, I think the arguments of folks like Grin and "Theo" are much worse, but both arguments also rile me because they think that this enticing malignancy is not just within fantasy, but an effect of society that fantasy helps us fall prey to with its alluring excesses. Is fantasy literature really that powerful, that it can send souls spinning away from the physical and social actualities that the reader is part of as a human being? Is it really simultaneously a blasphemous attraction and an inseparable reflection of society?

The truth is, there is not an "it." The breadth and variety (and definitional instability) of fantastic literature makes such a reduction dubious. What writers intend, what they produce, and how it is received cannot be handily condensed like that, unless you consciously ignore the vastness (in several senses of the word) of the field. Reduction is only possible with the most egregious abstraction of the idea of fantasy from the teeming literatures associated with it. That condensation not only unhelpful, it is unwise.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Invisible Movement of the Sun

Today is a snowy day, gray but bright. The amount of light coming into my desk window is just right. I love the luminous weight of winter outside, how it defines things with its burdens. It's a good day to stay in and rest, think, and write.

A cold is building in my head and the resulting sinus headache is making the tasks for today difficult to accomplish. Lots of writing: a short review for SFSignal, my Apex post, and stories. I've decided to alternate in one-hour blocks between resting and writing; we'll see what I can produce in that manner.

I did manage to write a poem, inspired partly by the title of Jay Lake's Link Salad today, and partly by this ridiculous holiday:

I dreamt that the President of Mars
had asked us to stop driving cars
because the glint from our planet afar
made it look like a chunk of feldspar
and for him that was much too bizarre
he preferred that we shine like a star
but we cursed him in flippant Magyar
and said "You ain't our (káromkodás) tsar!"
and as we drove we all lit up cigars
'til we drowned on this drenched world of ours

making us, not him, our bête noire.

I wrote it in 20 minutes. It was fun to write.

I've been thinking about a topic for Apex, and I was leaning towards a response to this piece over at Black Gate, but I think that it is not worth my time to engage it directly. I feel that doing so just validates an incredibly subjective, pointless debate that really comes down to ideology. So, instead, I think I shall be inspired by this quotation from Jeff VanderMeer, pointed out earlier today by Paul Jessup:

"Fantasy doesn’t have to serve a purpose, really, any more than any kind of fiction. It’s often “just” deep exploration of what it means to be human, what our world is like, to try to capture some kind of truth about the world, I guess. And to entertain, which is often the same thing. Art and entertainment aren’t actually in opposition to one another."

We could do with having more barriers like these eliminated.

Friday, February 18, 2011

All the Little Moments Between

Yesterday as I was riding the bus to work I opened my bag to take out Jo Walton's new novel Among Others, which is a wonderful and heartfelt, but not schmaltzy, book that I look forward to reviewing in full soon. But when I opened my courier satchel, I found that I had left the book at home, and instead had a few duplicates that I was bringing to the store to trade in (it is a bad habit of mine to see a book, bring it home, and later find its twin elsewhere in the collection. The other returns were The Master & Margarita, Sputnik Sweetheart, and The Yorkist Age). One of the books was Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is one of my favorite books of his and is one of the best examples of fantastika of the 20th century. I got so absorbed in it that I missed my stop, and I was honestly surprised that I could get so lost so quickly.

This morning I left Walton at my bedside and brought along Jeff VanderMeer's new collection Monstrous Creatures, which is also in the review queue. I read "The Third Bear" which was a lot of fun, and finished "The Language of Defeat" before I got downtown (and got off at the right stop this time). This piece was downright inspirational, in part because Jeff makes what I think of as an anthropological argument for looking at genre's effect on our conceptions of literature. In particular, his discussion of "the syntax of defeat" resonated with me, because the ideas of symbolic capital that inhere to certain genre categories and distinctions can powerfully affect how we look at books and their place in our creative and imaginative lives.

What I took away from that was an odd thought: that in both over-valorizing or denigrating particular literary categories, formations, and ideas, we miss all of the little moments between conceptions, when literature works its way into our minds and our ontology, makes us feel and dream and reassemble our view of the world, if only for a few seconds. It was heady to read the Murakami and feel those strange episodes dance with the warm ideas of Walton's book. I wonder how I would have responded to the golden beasts in the Town's fields as a teenager like Mori, far more damaged than she but with far less magic in my life, except that of the library. Back then these moments in-between were blurred as I fled for the solace of genre, for the security of escapism and the comfort of books that had nothing to do with the world around me.

The syntax of defeat is part of a struggle on multiple levels, of meaning, belonging, and representing our conflicts and desires. People would not invest so much energy in these debates if there were not affective elements to them. Sadly, this does not make the debates much more useful, unless people do use them to better understand theirs and others' ideas of the power and joy of literature. Wrangling over an "umbrella term" for fantastic literature, for example, seems more about authorial or critical identity, about one's position in relation to various literary conceptions and communities, than about finding an agreeable way to characterize a massive swath of literature. Don't misunderstand; these debates fascinate me, and I personally stick by "fantastika" as a useful term, but they do contain within them some of that syntax of defeat.

The trick is to think about those moments between, what lies inside and between the categories and assumptions that we project and ingest and wrestle with as we read and think and imagine. It is easy to conflate the cultural and literary utility and pleasures of genre with other considerations, and create not just borders, but outright barriers that inhibit our ingenuity as readers and writers and editors. The syntax of defeat creates obstacles, rather than conditions for creativity. The question for me is, what ideas enrich our experience of literature, increase our insights into what it gives us, and help us to recognize and incorporate the little moments between into the life of the mind and spirit that literature invigorates in us.

Because it in those moments that the magic of the word becomes powerful, when it evades and exceeds expectations and pretensions, when an assemblage of words is becoming literature. A "science fiction book" is not literature until we apprehend it, overlay our notions and understandings on it and turn its symbols into a literary experience. Those moments between are individual instances of sense and comprehension that we pattern and render significant. Genre can give them added meaning or shape, or help us relate them to constellations of stories in our heads, give us another angle of perspective or flavor of experience, but when we lose all sight of them, and think of them as building blocks rather wonders in themselves, we give strength to the syntax of defeat and lose a bit of the gift that literature gives us.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The drunkenness of things being various

I have always loved the poetry of Louis MacNeice, particularly his "Snow." I am not sure I understand some of it, but I feel that it is trying to tell me something big. The line that forms the title of this post is my favorite line from that poem, and I understand it, at least as it relates to my own life. The feeling that it tries to qualify is one that I struggle with often.

I wrote a new column for SF Signal and once again forgot to link to it. So here it is. I also led the contributions to last week's Mind Meld, about genre-related guilty pleasures, and felt oddly proud that I did not try to take apart the idea of "guilty pleasure" first. I just wrote about my favorite one, which was enjoyable and right.

I've been thinking a lot about different modes of writing lately. As I write fiction, columns, reviews, and blurbs for the bookstore, I find that I am shifting more comfortably between modes, that I am more agile in responding to the demands of the moment, to the goal for each piece of writing. I am enjoying my writing more, I am writing more as a result, and I am producing more for people to read. The latter two might seem a bit odd to separate, but it has been a gradual process of getting my writing in front of people's eyes. I am slowly putting more of work out into the open. After over a decade of most of my writing (conference papers, academic book reviews, even the journalism) being meant for small, very particular audiences, the shift to writing for a wider, more public audience, with a simultaneous shift in what I am writing, has been a bit of challenge, for several reasons, ranging from lack of confidence to depression to the tumult of everyday life.

What is gratifying is that the writing gives me what I need to build up to the new challenges. I have to be careful not to objectify the writing or grant it some mystical powers; it comes from me, after all. But the act of writing is powerful to me, and it always has been. There is no surer sign that something is awry than when I stop writing. "Writer's block" to me is, and pardon the overdramatization, a crisis of the spirit. When the words don't come, regardless of their quality or lucidity, something is jammed up inside me, something needs release.

Writing regularly is a practice that opens me up, often regardless of what I am writing. It is not about catharsis (usually), it is about flow. It clears ideas and anxieties out of the way and exercises my imagination and intellect in ways that help me see other parts of my life more clearer. The act itself is engaging, but the fact of the act gives me confidence and a feeling of anchorage. It is a practice of expression that exerts ineffable creative muscles, and in doing so loosens up other aspects of mind and spirit. The product is important, but the process is where I get most of vitality and value from the work.

Variety is not just the spice, it is the meat and wine of writing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Story for Sunday

Today is #samplesunday on Twitter, and after tweaking the following tale for a bit I've decided to release it into the wild. I like it very much, but I am not sure it is salable. That may be my own lack of confidence speaking, but it seemed like a better idea to let it go, and see what readers think of it. Enjoy, and do comment.

"A Fine Day to Watch the Dragons Die"

Dorlé awoke to a rumbling chorus of dragon whimpers.

As he opened his eyes he had to shield them from scabs of mud that were flaking off of the hut wall next to his cot. The ground trembled like a rapped drumhead and sent a quivering rhythm through the thatch and framework of the little shelter. Dorlé pulled his thin blanket over his head and buried his face into the bundled old deerhide that was his pillow, and waited for the shaking and flaking to stop.

Quiet gradually returned to the hut. Dorlé slipped out of his cot and right into his sandals. He looked around as he rose; the other two cots were empty, one neatly covered with a threadbare quilt, the other bereft of bedding. Two cups and plates sat on the only other piece of furniture in the shelter: a high, three-legged table with a round top, like an ogre’s barstool (which, given the wear on top, it might well have been). Near the table was a small fire whose thin smoke wound up to the smokehole in the roof, and through a few other holes near it. This hut would be poor shelter if it rained here.

He pushed through the goatskin door and emerged into the beigeness of another day. The sun was filtered through clouds the color of trail dust and worn saddle leather. A few ribbons of gray delineated cloud banks, but the light that reached the ground muted clarity and washed out dark tones. Sky and earth were the same color, separated by distant humps of hillocks and wisps of crinkled vegetation. Dorlé walked to the small garden plot behind the hut and surveyed it glumly. When they had first arrived, it had contained bouquets of herbs, sinuous medicinals, and even some ebullient flowers for the hornetsprite altars. Bristletack had been coaxed to form around the plot to keep out vermin and a night-singer had been granted a home in the middle of the plot to call out when unfamiliar people came near.

Now it was little more than several disheveled rows of withered shoots and petals. A few things still grew steadfastly; the toughest herbs and tubers stood out amongst the clusters of limp stems and frills. Dorlé walked up and down the rows, toeing a few plants, then he shrugged and knelt down to pull what he hoped was some sort of onion. “So many dying,” he muttered as he dug at the ground, which seemed quite black and dense.

“Not dying,” a dry voice said behind him. He tilted his head backwards until he could see the speaker, who stood with a slight bend on the roof of the world to Dorlé’s overturned eyes. “Not truly dying, pupil. Just. . .” the man sighed, his thick master’s braid, weighed down with silver stars and small wire-bound rubies, swaying next to his downcast face. “Just. . . bereft.”

Dorlé’s face pinched up. “Bereft? What do you mean, master?”

The master smiled for the span of a wingbeat. “I mean that something’s lacking, and until those plants or that earth can figure how to do without it,” he walked over and plucked the slightly wizened bulb from Dorlé’s hand, “we eat . . . dispirited things.” He shucked the skin from the onion with a slice of his silvered thumbnail and one pull, biting into it as he walked away.

Dorlé crossed his arms, frowning. He realized he was hugging himself. He looked around, squinting at all the dullness in the distant hills and the monochromatic sky. He shook his head, pulled another onion from the plot, and jogged awkwardly after his master.

* * * *

The hut sat behind a rise that gave them a little solace from the wind and the morning sun. It also blocked a lot of the noise from the field. Dorlé tossed the ends of onion and the skin aside as he munched, saving a soft, greenish top to chew on as he hiked over the rise. As he got to the top the breeze hit his face: thin, acrid, and moaning. Its stinging warmth made him squint, made his cheeks tighten and a sweat break out on the back of his neck.

And, with his first full breath, came the stench of dying dragons.

There were nine in the field; four in a group near the northern edge, three close to the rise, and two singletons farther east. The quartet had dragged themselves close together after falling; to commiserate, Dorlé assumed. The three has been dropped by the main ritual and had fallen in a rough formation, hitting straight and snapping their necks. They lay twisted and broken, unable to move like the others; one was crumpled into a ball, the second was flopped on its back, and the third was stretched out on its side, it’s left rear leg pointing absurdly upwards.

The singletons lay shriveled and stretched-out at the far edge of the field, having dragged themselves here from father away. It had been a garden plot for the seasonal nomads who claimed the area, but they had fled during the final battle to the north and not returned. All evidence of horticulture was now buried under draconian carcasses, the eroding traces of their sudden landings, and the rough, gray-green grass that had started sprouting in the last few weeks.

Barand was in her usual position, standing at the edge of the field near a large, flat rock. She surveyed the field dramatically, Gabrydotir in her right hand, point down. Dorlé’s master sat at the other end of the slab, sketching awkwardly and sometimes picking up his leather journal to make notes. As he came around the rock he realized that the tremor-inducing noises from the dragons had subsided; for the first time since they had arrived, they were all silent.

“Good morning, champion,” Dorlé said to Barand, with a slight tilt of his head and the turning of both palms towards the ground. “How do you fare on this. . . “ he looked up at the sky, “ . . . day?”

“The same as the last nine times you have asked that question,” she growled, shifting her shoulders under her polished, yet curiously dull, breastplate, which creaked and ground against her gorget. Her dialect was very formal; Master Gunningam had said they taught only the higher dialects in the battle schools. “I am vigilant.”

She shifted her shoulders again as Dorlé came around to his master and knelt next to him. Gunningam smiled at him briefly before handing him a piece of ragged parchment and a stick of sharpened charcoal.

Dorlé looked up towards her and smiled. “Your neckpiece is making a bit of noise; has the dryness gotten to it?”

“No,” she grated, turning a bit away from Dorlé to watch the group of dragons closest to them. A small clump of fur fell from the back of the gorget. “The whulvenhide has become motley.” She cocked her head downwards so that he could see her profile: sharp chin, brawler’s nose, dark brow. “Why do you note that today?”

He pointed at her back with the tip of his charcoal. “You are shifting your shoulders quite a lot, which you haven’t done before.”

Her lips moved; probably swearing to herself again. He had never heard her utter a profanity or an imprecation, but she often said them to herself, he thought.

She turned her head to look at him, her eyes scanning him as she did. Or, he realized, her eye scanning him.

Her right eye was a meticulously-carved chrysoprase cabochon, its verdant sheen flecked with black spots. It had always moved with her other eye and, she had told him on one of their first nights here, it allowed her to see through guises and half-truths. Today, it sat blankly in her eye socket, and he could see her eyelid was rimmed red, and the cheek beneath it glistened. She squinted with it as she spoke to him.

“I see. That is good to know. I will take care to do that less often.” She turned back to the dragons and straightened up. She even shifted her massive sword, it’s pommel nearly even with her shoulder, to make sure that it stood up straighter.

Dorlé pulled his scribner’s cloth from his pouch and slipped it under the parchment. He waited, listening to pebbly groans from the nearest dragon and some creaking from Barand’s armor. He rolled the parchment in it and unrolled it again. It flopped over his thigh.

“Master,” he began, turning to Gunningam, but the older man nodded and cut him off with a wave of his free hand.

“Yes Dorlé, the cloths no longer work. I had hoped that their properties came from the plant fibers that compose them, but,” he sighed, “I was once again mistaken.”

One of the easterly dragons began to burble like an untended furnace. All three of the observers stood up and moved forward a bit; Barand jerked her sword from the ground and it dragged a bit behind her until she choked her grip up to the hilt. She grimaced and held it before her with both hands. A talisman stance, Dorlé recalled.

“That’s Ashfentomyr,” Gunningam said to them. He started walking towards the creature, flipping to something in his journal. The other two followed him; Barand keeping her sword raised awkwardly in front of her. Dorlé watched the huge blade waver in front of her. Was she sweating?

They stopped a dozen strides from the beast. It did not appear to be breathing; it looked completely still, like a broken statue. But from within it they could hear some burbling, thick and grating. Dorlé’s skin tingled; there was a faint vibration in the air. The dragon’s eyes were open, which startled Dorlé; they were glittering opalescent orbs of a dark color he could not name. He frowned; that wasn’t right.

Barand huffed and lowered her sword; it clunked on a small stone. She drew a few breaths before she spoke. “What is it doing? I’ve never heard such a noise from a dragon.”

Gunningam shook his head. “I am not sure that it is doing anything. It does not move, it cannot see out of such eyes. . . .” He closed his journal and stepped a bit closer. One of its wings dipped a bit towards the ground.

“HAI!”Barand shouted, and charged, jerking her sword up over her head. The massive blade warbled in the air as she ran forward, but after several steps it came down in her path and she stumbled to maneuver around it, pulling it from the earth as she continued running at the dragon and swinging it like a broom at the monster, missing its shoulder and causing her to almost collide with the beast. She stopped herself with an ungainly slide and recovered by leaning on her sword.

Gunningam smiled into his hood briefly, then cleared his throat. “A bit of an over-reaction, good champion?”

She scowled back at him. “Curb your cawing, magpie. My duty is to ensure that these creatures pose no more threat. I have been content to watch them die slowly, but when it moved. . . .”

“But it did not move, really,” Dorlé said.

Barand straightened up, trying to watch the dragon and Dorlé at the same time by backing away from both. “What?”

The boy pointed a copper-tipped index finger at the wing. “The dragon did not move; look at the wing.”

Barand sneered as she looked back to the dragon. “It is in a different position than before. I saw it shift. Clearly it. . . .”

Dorlé snorted and walked right up to the dragon. Barand raised a hand but he ignored her and pointed to the base of the wing. Look,” he said.

There was a great crack at the joint of the wing, like a fissure on an over-baked brick. As the boy pointed, a flitter of dust escaped it. As Dorlé looked at it, he realized that the dragon’s skin was different. It was not just overlaid with the dust of the dry steppes; the wind was slowly blowing the skin itself away.

Gunningam raised a tufted eyebrow. “I see.” He moved forward slowly.

Dorlé put his palm near the fissure. “It’s warm, warmer than the wind.”

Barand gritted her teeth and pulled at her sword. “It may be recovering. Stand back, boy, so that I can ram this blade through its skull.” She grunted as she moved forward, the blade constantly dipping to the ground.

“Step back, Dorlé,” Gunningam said quietly, stopping a few strides from the dragon. Dorlé opened his mouth to protest but saw his master’s face and complied, stepping past the champion as she moved towards its head. The noise inside the creature was fading. Barand stood before the head and, with some effort, raised the sword, blade pointing downwards in her joined hands, at its ridged temple. She muttered the ritual invocation and stabbed downward.

There was a loud ringing noise, and a burst of dust. But even before it dissipated they could see that Barand was hunched over her weapon, desperately trying to push it into the creature’s skull. A small area around the swordspoint showed rough obsidian stone. The sword itself had made a tiny groove on the surface.

Barand growled and pressed against the sword’s pommel. Something inside the dragon sighed and the noises stopped. Dorlé’s skin stopped tingling, and he felt something in his belt pouch shift. He looked inside and then pulled at his master’s sleeve, pointing into the pouch. Gunningam nodded.

Barand was snarling incantations and twisting the sword, all of which had no effect.

“You know, champion,” Gunningam said, “I find it odd that you waited so long before doing that.” He did not move any closer; Barand’s face was reddening and her boots were digging into the ground. “Why have you withheld your fury for so long?”

“Because,” she grunted, “my task was to protect you and the boy as you observed them. The Grands wanted them ‘studied,’ remember?”

“But you have made it obvious that you care nothing for that. You have stood beside us and watched for any movement, any excuse to attack.” He indicated the ineffective sword. “This isn’t the first time that hasn’t worked, is it, champion?” he said gently.

“Quell your chirping song, charm-crow,” she said through clenched teeth, leaning even harder on the sword. It made a harsh scraping noise and began to slide off of the skull. With a frustrated shout Barand pulled it back before she toppled over entirely.

“Gabrydotir,” he continued, “is a sword of legend, wielded by the Frost Chieftains, taken from them in a quest so wondrous they write a new play about it each year for Holdfast.” He gestured more pointedly at the weapon. “And now, it has no sheen, and a chip on the point.”

Barand pulled the sword up, wincing. Even from where he was Dorlé could see a large nick just below the point. Barand stared at it with her mouth open, heedless of the dust still in the air, a dust that the breeze was slowly sloughing off the dragon.

“A sword you have wielded easily for 12 years, that you can now barely lift,” Gunningam said quietly.

“It is but a feather’s weight!” Barand shouted, trying to raise it over her head, and barely doing so.

“It is a feather’s weight . . . when enchanted,” Gunningam replied. “How much does an unenchanted giant’s sword weigh?”

She looked at him like a thwarted hawk. “I do not know. I have never trained with any other blade.”

“Perhaps,” he replied, “you should begin to do so, and with a smaller weapon.”

Barand spat futilely in Gunningam’s direction. She opened her mouth to curse him, but instead turned and walked away from him, from the field of dragons, dragging her useless weapon behind her.

Dorlé exhaled loudly. The wind was picking up, and there was more dust in the air, a thicker dust, coming from all around him. “Master, they. . . .”

Gunningam pulled his hood closed with one hand and moved towards Dorlé. “Don’t call me ‘master,’ Dorlé, not any more.” He came up beside the boy and laid a hand on his shoulder. “All that I know of is contained in this dust.” He guided Dorlé over to the dragon, bent down and laid a hand on its ridged back. “This is where all that I was came from.”

Dorlé nodded. He reached into his pouch and held up his scribner’s cloth, now frayed and falling apart. “As they wither, so does the rest.”

“Aye,” the old man replied. “In their dissolution comes our own.” He stroked the thing’s back, watched its spines disperse into gritty motes. “We had hunted them, for scale and horn and blood, because of the potency they gave potions and rituals.” He squatted down next to the dragon’s head; already the slight breeze was erasing its scales. “Now we know why. They hunted back; out of revenge, or to keep us in check. . . .” He sighed, looking around the field. “The others are already turning to earth; soon they’ll be no more than a memory of moonglow on the grass.” The wind gusted, and both of them put their backs to it and closed their robes. When it susbsided, Gunningam threw his hood back and looked up at the sky.

“My favorite trick,” Gunningam said quietly, “was to make the wind play a tune as I worked. I had no gift for music as a child but, after a few months of chantercraft, I could make a breeze play a symphony.” He looked at his silvered thumb and smiled. “You had best go back to your flute, my boy, or else we shall have no music at all.” He raised his watery eyes to the boy as the wind picked up again. “And if you could teach me to sketch better, I would be grateful.” He turned to the rise and walked away, grabbing his braid and starting to work the baubles out of it as he strode up and over towards the hut.

Dorlé squatted by what had been the dragon’s head, which was now more an oblong lump of stone. He pulled an eyepiece from his pouch and looked at the eye carefully. “I suppose one of us should say ‘sorry,’” Dorlé whispered to the head, as he carefully removed its gem of an eye, and then reached around to grab the other one. He patted the earthen neck, and the dust that was raised was a comforting sight, the dragon rejoining the sky, bit by bit. I would not see you rot like dumb meat, after all.

The sun seemed a bit brighter in the sky. The gray and beige had softened somehow, the warmth of the day a bit more mellow. Maybe he was just getting used to the lack of color. He wasn’t sure, as he closed his pouch and stood up.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The future is, well, murky at the very least

Happy Dystopian February everyone! Lenore over at the Presenting Lenore blog is presiding over another month-long celebration of dystopian literature. I decided to join in since I am reading several such works for a SFSignal column (coming out probably in two weeks). So, at some point I will review a dystopian novel for the blog, maybe Jack London 's The Iron Heel. I'd like to read some of the YA stuff coming out, but time is my enemy.

I am a little leery of "celebrating" dystopia, for reasons that I have touched on before. On a certain level (especially given some comments on Lenore's blog that there are people who "love" dystopian fiction [and they are not alone]) I feel that an event like this normalizes dystopian writing, buffs the sharpness of its potential for unease and critical ideas, and that bothers me. It becomes another setting for entertainment, rather than debate and reflection. But it makes more sense to me to join in, since I am discussing the subject, and have my review and thoughts added to the mix. I hope that some good conversations get started as a result.

I've been thinking about dystopia as I draft my next SFSignal column, which is on the need for us to not only champion but engage "difficult" works, not just those with tough messages or dark content, but those that challenge us through poetic language and surrealism or non-standard associations. Dystopian fiction began as a reaction (sometimes a very reactionary one) to utopian fiction, but then became somewhat more sophisticated, although a lot of dystopian works have a sharp, singular point to them. But there have been periods where dystopian works have not been heralded as entertaining and have made people consider the shortcomings of the world around them, and the one that they were helping to make. It seems that today a lot of dystopian writing has lost that edge, just another sort of difficult literature domesticated for mass consumption.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Focus of Sunshine

The day outside is lovely. Cold, but starkly grounding and bright. My desk window faces southeast so I get a nice (sometimes blinding) dose of sunshine through it. This morning, it is most welcome.

My new SFSignal column is up. I was not prepared for it to be a difficult piece to write. The writing was made more difficult by a (rare) two-day headache and pain from my arthritic hip. I found myself wanting to write it more boldly, more interstitially, but I stuck to my purpose, to meditate about the idea. I think it turned out well.

When I considering being all interstitial in my presentation I wrote a few odd things, like this snippet of poetry:

So, how many conventions

or concatenations

does it take

for an interstice

to collapse and break?

How big are the spaces

between western and romance

space opera, horror

seven different fantasies

and a Gothic post-punk roarer?

But given the poverty of my poetry, I stuck with a more straightforward approach.

There are a lot of great pieces on mythpunk that have come out in the last week or so. I read a number of them for my SFsignal column but realized that talking about it would lead me too far afield. It was educational to read them, and today Paul Jessup has a blog post about the label, with links to a few other pieces, including Theodora Goss' excellent meditation. The energy that animates how they and others describe mythpunk demonstrates for me how genre/movement designations can create vitality in the literary field of production. The social and conceptual utility of such categories emerges quite strongly in these discussions, and I am eager to read and hear more about it.

But now, the sun is in my eyes and the curtains are poor protection from it.