1.31.2004

What Is Theory and Why?

Theory is the method of learning what more texts have to reveal to us than the surface of their words. I have already done a number of practical applications for examples, but I’ll demonstrate again on a famously misunderstood poem in a bit.

But here, it seems we are between a rock and a hard place in our discussion. In the one corner (in the blue-collared shirt sleeves), we have those who haven’t learned any theory. So it’s difficult to discuss Derrida. But in the other corner (in the gold-lamé cape and silver-plated knee-highs), we have the aristocrats who suspect they know all there is to know, sniffing at any discussion and anyone else who hasn't also heard it all.

The elitists would have you believe that only they can analyze texts because they have read Derrida. You don’t need Derrida. You don’t need Saussure. All you need is your mind and acquire (if not already acquired) the ability to abstract concepts from particulars (i.e. metaphors). Don’t get me wrong, elitists. The theorists do help, but only after we have a deeper understanding of the foundation. Let us be communists of intellect and share our understandings.

A Famous Misinterpretation Necessitates Theory

Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is all about how the road “less traveled by... / has made all the difference” in this famous poet’s life, right? But which route is he really describing as better?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both....

[I] took the other, as just as fair....
Though as for [one path having a better claim over the other] the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay...
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Frost’s narrator doesn't have a clue how he got to be who he is, but "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence." Look at the very title of the poem. Which road is he thinking about? My God, how the world has so long misunderstood this most famous poem! Isn't it amazing?

So obviously there is a need for theory, a need to understand these works of literature better.

Terry Eagleton writes that theory is

“the labour of acquiring new ways of speaking of literature.... The economist J.M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory.... [W]ithout some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a ‘literary work’ was in the first place, or how we were to read it. Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own.... What is truly elitist in literary studies is the idea that works of literature can only be appreciated by those with a particular sort of cultural breeding.... Theory was a way of emancipating literary works from the stranglehold of a ‘civilized sensibility’, and throwing them open to a kind of analysis in which, in principle at least anyone could participate. Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different? Perhaps because we expect literature itself to be an ‘ordinary’ kind of language instantly available to everyone; but this is itself a very particular ‘theory’ of literature.”

In other words, we all already have a theory of literature--like it or not--and, I might add, it may be based on faulty reasoning. It’s difficult, but as Eagleton writes about literature in general, “By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.”

The Dangers of Theory (or Do I Mean Theorists?)

“Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge?” -- Isaac Asimov

I have discussed potential problems with theory here and here and here. The above Asimov quote hits another important point. Too often in literary theory, we spin our wheels discussing all the things we don’t or can’t know.

When Eagleton debates what literature even is, he shoots himself in the foot. He tries to state, using Derridaean logic (I told you Derrida was everywhere), that there is no such thing literature, which for hesitant book buyers would effectively encourage them not to buy a book about something that does not exist. Yet he decides he will use the terminology anyway, despite not believing in literature's existence (so we can see that his own subconscious disagrees with this dubiously reasoned conclusion).

He bases his rational on the inability to read Icelandic sagas as literature--without bothering to consider whether they actually have any value as literature... or whether he lacks the proper tools at this time for assessing what makes the sagas literature. We do know that they are crucial to understanding a people historically and comparatively -- among other methods of analyzing who and what humans are. Maybe that's all the reason we need for reading them.

He posits that Shakespeare, like Icelandic sagas, may have no future relevance. That’s certainly a possibility. It’s also possible that the Creationists are right. But do we teach Creationism in the classroom (no, with rare exceptions)?

He posits that our values change as a society, but concludes finally that we all share a common underlying value-system that allows us to discuss these values:

“We may disagree on this or that, but we can only do so because we share certain ‘deep’ ways of seeing and valuing which are bound up with our social life, and which could not be changed without transforming that life.”

But to realize this, we don’t need a time machine. We need look no further than our own backyard: Would you--whether you’re a Republican or Democrat (Labour or Conservative, for the Brits)--respond fundamentally differently from your ideological opponents if a step-father killed your father? Would the Chinese not feel Oedipus’ shock and shame of killing his father and marrying his mother? Would no man in Africa shake his head in sad agreement at the cruelty of fate and of former friends who kick you when you’re down?

Finally, to parse the difference between literature and a biology text, which he has difficulty doing, both are pragmatic--not immediately pragmatic while you happen to read them, but pragmatic, nonetheless. After reading Job, the shock of getting kicked by former friends can be shared with someone else in history (albeit, a rather gloomy sharing).

But literature is also inherently emotional and full of personal meaning beyond the text on the page. If one is able to draw personal analogies from biology or a street sign in the London Underground system (‘Dogs must be carried on the escalator’), this is a literary act of interpretation, true. But it isn’t literature because it is not taking the form of literature: Literature is a design (i.e. plot, theme, character development) meant to convey additional meaning. A street sign that can potentially be misread is not necessarily conveying additional meaning, but merely misleading.

Absolutely, do mention our possible misunderstandings of what literature is or does (just as we might mention Creationism as a brief but possible footnote although it certainly doesn’t organize and explain our knowledge as well as evolution does), but let us dwell on building on what we know and not, as Asimov exhorts us, retreat from knowledge.

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1.30.2004

see?

I am not a curmudgeon, I am not a curmudgeon, I am not a curmudgeon.




I am a lovecat.


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Deconstructing Derrida Deferred to Deconfuscating

It’s hard to know to what extent one’s ideas have been manipulated to distortion. Jacques Derrida is political, yet his work isn’t driven by a political agenda. Unfortunately, deconstructionists have used Derrida to show disunity within a text so that it might dismissed for whatever blindered agenda they may have--which is not to say that texts don’t have disunity. They do. But sometimes they are intended as part of a unity to emphasize, and sometimes simply as humor. And sometimes the reasoning in a person’s literary work is truly faulty.

What I like about Derrida is his “playfulness” (which, as we just learned, is a method of coming up with advanced technological tools) and “politics” and his generally odd approach to reason. This is why I’d rather deconfuscate rather than deconstruct as the term has come to be used.

The first problem in his most famous work is his title, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. What does he mean by “human” sciences? All sciences derived by humans? Science about humans? He may mean “social sciences." But whatever his intent, its imprecision allows the very nature of all science to be called into question. It is a pun. Puns, by nature, exist on multiple levels simultaneously until one level is invalidated by its context. The longer the pun is sustained, the better the pun. This pun, since it is never directly invalidated or addressed, is so well executed that it has led to much confusion.

Empire of Science and Reason

A similar confusion occurs with his use of “empirical” and “empiricism”:

“I have said that empiricism is the matrix of all faults menacing a discourse which continues... to consider itself scientific.... [A]n empirical essay... can always be completed or invalidated by new information.”

Such usage pulls in a number contradicting definitions and connotations: 1) a method of medical quackery, 2) our bourgeois gag-reflex of hating anything related to aristocracy, 3) a suggestion that the described is already fully known, and 4) a conclusion that is derived by too little experience or observation.

So when he calls us against the scientific method, we are already in his corner. Any human pursuit may never arrive at the goal of complete understanding of a subject. But we humans assume, when lack of full knowledge is called into question, that the knowledge is faulty. One does not need to measure every light beam to know at what speed it travels at. One does not need to know the answer to the Grand Unified Theory to understand Newton’s laws. If one’s knowledge is incomplete, it does not mean we cannot draw conclusions based upon what we do know. It is from this foundation that we confirm or invalidate the foundation and move on. Human knowledge is the edification of what is known/knowable, by building on to it and tearing out the rotten wood.

As Claude Levi-Strauss says:

“Critics who might take me to task for not having begun by making an exhaustive inventory of South American myths before analyzing them would be making a serious mistake about the nature and the role of these documents. The totality of the myths of a people is of the order of the discourse. Provided that this people does not become physically or morally extinct, this totality is never closed. Such a criticism would therefore be equivalent to reproaching a linguist with writing the grammar of a language without having recorded the totality of the words which have been uttered since that language came into existence and without knowing the verbal exchanges which will take place as long as the language continues to exist. Experience proves that an absurdly small number of sentences . . . allows the linguist to elaborate a grammar of the language he is studying. And even a partial grammar or an outline of a grammar represents valuable acquisitions in the case of unknown languages.”

And all of those in favor of reason within reason said: “Amen.” Like Zeno’s paradox, knowledge may never be completely erected, but we don’t have to, therefore, tear down all of what we do know or we’ll have no shelter to rest our heads.

Finding Center Where There Appears to Be None

Derrida writes:

“[T]he structurality of structure... has always be neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.... [T]he entire history of the concept of structure... must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center.... Where and how does this decentering, this thinking the structurality of structure, occur? It would be somewhat naïve to refer to an event, a doctrine, or an author in order to designate this occurrence.... The discourse on the acentric structure that myth itself is, cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.”

The problem here is one of perspective. If every perspective here in Omaha, Nebraska can be moved to another perspective in Trenton, New Jersey, why then there is no good perspective at all. [This is an example of disunity used as humor--irony used to reorient us toward unity.]

It is good that Derrida calls our attention to bias. However, one can start making conclusions about humanity in Hoboeken even though there are also humans in Idaho. Idahoans can bring their potatoes to the table of discussion of humanity and spot similarities and differences with those in Hoboeken.

Drawing conclusions can be a centering problem. For instance, Ptolemy sat on Earth and concluded from observation that everything must revolve around it. After all, look at the sun. We’re standing still, and it’s moving overhead, right?

But Derrida forgets Copernicus and Kepler who lived on Earth, too, and who were able to draw conclusions about how the planets do orbit the sun. All one needs is the scientific method and careful reasoning. If it looks like you’re moving backwards when the car beside you is edging up to the stoplight, look at the ground. All you need are several reference points. You can triangulate all sorts of phenomena in this manner. One does not need to be at the absolute center to draw conclusions.

One final point we can make is that in statistics, there are degrees of freedom. We can move variables around, but only within limits of an equation or the set you’re working with. There’s much we can derive--but the values of a discourse are not infinitely variable; hence, humans are capable of communication.

Decentering may prove useful on occasion when dealing with the Ptolemys of the world, but let’s not abandon our reason and the body of knowledge available to us when doing so.

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What Science Can Do For You!

The January 16, 2004 issue of Science had some amazing articles. It also featured a book review by none other than Rudy Rucker (who declared David Foster Wallace’s new work, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, “a train wreck of a book”). Marc Lavine describes Mark E. Eberhart’s Why Things Break: Understanding the Way It Comes Apart in such a way as to make a book of Materials Science (told in a biographical manner) appealing to anyone, especially its “getting society to recognize the compromises among safety, reliability, cost and the need for all objects to fail at some stage in their lifetime.”

These are not the article I wanted to talk about.

David Premack asks “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Drawing off a number off articles--some of which is original research found within that issue, some of which was his own--he makes a strong case.

Humans, he says, have six symbolic code systems: genetic, spoken, written, numeric, musical notations, and choreography (the first two have evolved, the latter four were created).

Recursive language, which he describes as layers of words that can be understood despite being far apart as in the "If/then" statement where one set of words depend on another set. Monkeys cannot learn recursive language, which he says explains why that kind of language has not evolved for them.

Chimpanzees do not call to get attention but pound on resonant surfaces or, if separated from another, look silently until they spot that other and rush toward him. Vocalizations are, therefore, reflexive in its usage--as are their facial expressions. He mentions that chimps could conceivably, to create a language, pound on resonant surfaces or use rocks (a scenario which echoes how the men of science communicate in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels--but this leaves a similar problem).

While many species can copy objects, few can copy motor functions as human infants can--except chimps (although they do require training). However, that training won’t come from the chimp’s Mama since she does not teach, correct mistakes, or even look at what her children are learning. What takes a human days or weeks to learn can take a chimp ten years.

Chimpanzees can do analogies of perception (two different sized objects look similar in shape) and function (two actions perform similar functions). They can also call up the name of an object, which is similar to what humans do by talking about things not present. Chimps are limited to a few hundred words. Moreover, their words experienced sensorily, incapable of using analogies to make words.

Most animals are limited in flexible intelligence such as bees that dance, nuthatches that locate hundreds of caches of acorns, and beavers that build dams. You can’t mix and match these abilities as they have evolved as adaptive survival mechanisms. But humans are more flexible.

Flexibility manifests in other areas: While those half-wit baboons sit regally, chimps can lie down in various postures. The analogy to humanity is clear: if you want to be smart, slouch. Forget what your Mama taught you.

Chimps can imagine known actions or objects to solve problems, but they cannot recombine imaginary objects and actions it has not observed which humans can do. When chimps play, they translate it into technology: the childhood game of sticking straws in holes is useful for retrieving termites from their mounds. Baboons cannot learn this trait despite watching chimps perform it. They come in after the chimps leave and scrape up the leftover termites. This may be analogous to human experiments: by playing, we learn new attributes of, say, fiction. Hence, the importance of experiment in fiction is clear.

The last and most crucial point [from The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, pg 758-60] is that emotional expression uses the right hemisphere, but linguistic expression uses the left. This means that, setting aside emotional nuances, linguistic acts are governed by the logical half of the brain. In other words, we should feel free to use reason while uncovering the structure and purpose of language.

This would lead one to wonder why literary theorists don’t use science more to understand what they are attempting to describe. Although much has been uncovered intuitively and reasonably in the Greek sense, by ignoring science, literary theory may be lagging behind other human pursuits.

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1.29.2004

Fear of Science, Fear of Reason

Mike Allen may be the embodiment of genre, which is the reason why I am examining him here in detail.

When I read his magazine, Mythic Delirium, I immediately noted that Allen took science fiction poetry literatim, however it's parsed--speculative, fiction, science: idea made manifest in words--including variations that do not stray from the use of such a term.

His own poetry is much the same. As I was rereading the poems and contemplating Derrida, Genre and Movements (Interstitiality and Mundane*, in particular), I uncovered the structural key that unlocked the whole book.

***

But first let me give lip-service to a review since I promised. This is where I say all the mean stuff because afterwards I’ll dive into all the fun interpretation stuff that I’ve only begun to tap into. I’ll leave the rest for an academic to unpack in its full glorious detail.

The material in Defacing the Moon covers the first seven years of his publication history; hence, the writing can on occasion be over-wrought as early poetry (and especially SF poetry) can be. “Defacing the Moon” and “Planeta do Favela” are lushly written without giving into the grotesque sentimentality that some employ in the interest of sounding “poetic” (although he does give into this impulse when writing about the Romantic writers). All of the experimental poems are interesting but some actually work quite well in their design: “Momentum” and “Phase Shift.” Often in the genre, individual SF poems tend to suffer from banality, but when they rub together, they create a spark of artistic inspiration. One must take these poems as a whole--and as a whole, I’ve never seen so many sparks fly.

***

During WWII, Americans trusted their government to do the people’s best interest even though the people were unaware of what specifically the government did in their best interest. Read the fiction of the era (see Theodore Sturgeon if you need a particular), watch the movies (I recently found it in Bela Lugosi’s Phantom Creeps). Whatever government did had to be done with the utmost secrecy lest loose lips sink ships.

Science was king. Logic was queen. We looked forward to a happier future of space-age gadgetry and comforts that they provided their subject with. But faith in these monarchs eroded when we learned what men did in the name of our rulers.

***

The aforementioned blink of history is to show I don’t think Allen intentionally set out to instill this in his work. Probably a good deal of genre digestion has reemerged in his own work. Keep in mind that at times, the intent of pain-inflicting science is somehow played (paradoxically) as a good thing. No doubt, Allen fancies himself a pro-science fanatic as the rest of us do. But how do we really see science? This will become more apparent in a subsequent post as I move on to the topics I spoke of above. If I chide Allen, I chide us all -- even myself -- for, despite my enthusiasm for science and reason, I had a blast uncovering all these anti-science connections!

Once you see the first instance, you cannot fail to see it emerge throughout: most obviously in the second poem: “Munchausen vs. the Aliens.” Who else should these aliens represent as they attempt to dissect Munchausen and “imprison” his body parts in specimen jars--unsuccessfully?

So we return to the first and title poem “Defacing the Moon” in which an astronomical object’s “face” of science is removed so that “you” can be on there “to catch winds of your whimsy.” What is whimsy but flight of fancy or fantasy? Taking down the moon’s science isn’t enough. for you must also “stare down the sun.”

The poem most popular among reviewers appears to be “Disaster at the BrainBank ATM” in which not only does technology fail, but it penalizes the users for its failure. How interesting that this should be the most popular.

In “Watching the Pot” a scientist is listening for signs of alien signals but fears he won’t be there when the signal comes--as though the aliens were impish and their imaginary description is ominous with its mysteriously silent intent: “Yet you can’t help / imagining that compound or cat-like / alien eye, leaning down on its stalk / to look around every time you turn away.”

The “Universal Night-Life” of an alien bar allows primitive cavegirl’s to be turned on by “[c]old phantoms” but the princesses have “to beware the lonely lobster-men,” the “Space spiders” have “unearthly legs in wanton grind,” and fairies of fantasy are scorched by that mutant of science, Godzilla.

The “Sojourn on Barsoom” tells us that “Asimovian robot[s]” are “forged in man’s self-centered image” and that “All Golden Age pomp and circumstance” is “sifting mindlessly for ghosts in dust.”

Spiders (who isn’t creeped-out a little by spiders?) are once again the manifestation of science as they are now part of the “Third Shift at the Plasteel Spider Factory.” Science, as we shall see multiply, causes pain: “her breath is a hiss of steam / as she vents the pain of her contractions.... // venom [presumably from the spider’s children] leaks between my fingers; / [the children] seethe up my arms, wailing, scratching; / their spinnerets spit out hot-melt threads, / silver strands of web that sear my skin.”

The astronomical sun in “The Ungrateful Son” empties the narrator to a husk, and the Earth breaks his body, burns him to ashes in her molten mouth and “always she draws my screaming soul... // to endure for eternity / the agony of a mother’s immortal love.” The death wish appears again in “Shadow’s Solstice” where “[v]oices raised to darkness praise, eclipse the starshine from the sky,” which is mirrored in the love of darkness over enlightenment found in “Phase Shift” [see below].

In “Host,” “Three Meditations” and “Momentum” is the recurring motif of the opening mouth as an entry and exit for pain and parasitism, for the narrator to “shout, / scream,/ inhale atoms, exhale fusion [which is what suns do]” and again he screaming as all the cold science is too much, “overload[ing] / my synapses, / icy knives / shave skin... // compelled / by my masters / to bear their / meaningless / cargos.” For whatever reason (though probably not reason), science is seen is random, without meaning and substance as three narrators plunge into the “void” highlighted in bold typeface. The same “meaningless[ness]” appears in “Moment” as a squiggles on a white screen “that conceal / strange knowledge.”

“Phase Shift” continues the “plunge through / cold blue radiance / diving toward / bright freezing white” -- again this view of science as cold and freezing and light. The narrator fears losing himself as his “body dissolves / into this essence / of everything; / all universes / converge / at the freezing point / of light.” But darkness (or unen-light-enment?) is a “warm blue dusk” that the narrator “soar[s] through.”

The poem “Gears” shows its technology in disarray, breaking down: “interlocked in tarnished idiot grins...// loosened axles, / crunch all their crumbling prongs... // corroded... / radioactive fusion bile.../ spit slow atomic fire // and unholy glow... / out into infinite empty Cosmos // clanking. Crushing. Cracking. Groaning.... // pain of decay; / strange echoes bear words of fear.” Ah. The word I’ve been waiting for. (The word appears a second time in the anti-science-implied title of “Prophecy: a fragment” where “his fear-filled mind[’s].../ tortured scream [is].../ used to bind / his sleeping soul against the light [of enlightenment].”) The poetic hero, whose aim is “to stop the clockwork” of gears, is again the victim of science as it damages “his skin / consumed and seared / burned.” “[W]ith glee” he successfully dismantles science.

Science burns the retinas and neurons in “Starpunk,” through attacks of “brain-shattering solar flare[s].” Science is a destructive predatory monster in “Planet from the Black Lagoon.” Men of science do their raping and pillaging of the natives’ home in “Planeta do Favela” and put the natives in slums.

Pre-science myth of “celestial spheres” was the only thing preventing “the impending battle between Universe and Man” in “On the Brink of Hyperspace,” which is a misnomer since the intrepid astronauts plan to plunge possibly to their deaths apparently before they’ve used the scientific method to test the safety of doing so. Similarly, hackers dive virtually into a “Cyberspace Singularity” but still die.

Then a set of four poems deal with love--a stark contrast to all the pain and suffering in the prior poems. But what do these poems concern? “The Romantic Age,” of course--the age that rebelled against the Age of Reason.

As I said before, there’s much more to unpack, but this is plenty to demonstrate our unconscious fear of Science and its lover, Reason. But more of that later.

***

*You haven’t heard of the Mundane movement in SF since we’ve been working out the theory in private for the past year. Its ideology, however, is stamped all over this piece and others to come. I’d publish our manifesto here, but it’s been promised elsewhere. Yes, it’s another new movement, but it’s pretty fucking cool. Suffice it to say for now, that we seek a return to Science and Reason, but in a way that has not consciously been attempted before to our knowledge. Will it ever get off the ground? We do have two well-known SF writers in our projected anthology. If you're interested, may be able to help sell the book, and are politically committed to at least a moderately left of center ideology, let me know:

blzblack[at]yahoo.com

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a little bit tweaked

Usually, I try not to take the time to defend myself when people disagree with things I say. That isn't my deal, isn't what I try to do; I've never claimed that my views are The Way It Is, only offering them up for people to consider. I'm the agent provocateur, trying to get the dialogue going.

Like any critic, I am the Observer, and I hope that my observations are getting more keen… but I have no doubt that my views aren't necessarily representative of the grand scheme; rather, I try to give one honest, individualized point of view, whether or not it's popular or right.

I mean, face it -- I'm a regular guy. I'm NOT an academic, I'm NOT a professional, I'm NOT a paid critic. But to me, the ability and the willingness to present honest and informed opinion lies at the heart of criticism. When it all boils down, I could give two farts about actual critical theory, no matter which school we're discussing, no matter what application may be used. They're all just tools to be used to present a particular viewpoint.

So yeah, I play the part of observer.

Sometimes, though, I get tired of hearing from the people that are demanding answers to every problem and observation that I've presented. For some reason, I'm apparently supposed to map out an action plan for everyone within the genre, to outline step by step the way to 'fix' the problems that I've presented.

Why is that?

I mean, this isn't some process management seminar. I'm not here to solve everything. I'm not here to say "Plug your Widget A into Slot B, and you will find yourself with a fully-functional viral marketing scheme!". That isn't the point.

To me, it smacks of laziness on the part of the readers. An inability or an unwillingness to take what I've said, filter it through their own observations, and use what they get out of it. If I point to Asimov's and say "Your presentation sucks, your paper stock is too cheap, and your design sense is outright disturbing", what makes it my responsibility to solve those problems? What would satisfy? Am I supposed to put together a relaunch strategy for the magazines? Do you need me to be the lovecat, and put people in touch with designers and printers and marketers? Do you need me to point you to Seth Godin or something?

So yeah, I get a little tweaked that I'm criticized for not offering solutions. YOU COME UP WITH THE SOLUTIONS THAT WORK FOR YOU, by god. That's your job. If you want me to do it for you, you'll have to pay me.

On the other hand, I get thoroughly disappointed by the reactivity and inactivity. Whatever happened to taking chances? What ever happened to being bold and risking failure, just for the thrill of doing something different?

Let me tell you a little story. Yesterday, a woman came into the Caribou Coffee where I'm doing my store manager training. She was carrying a Starbucks travel mug, which kind of bothered me. So what did I do? Did I bemoan the fact that she was clearly frequenting Starbucks instead of my store? Hell no. Instead, I offered to trade her travel mug for a Caribou mug… and she gave it up with her blessing. So I threw in half a pound of coffee for her willingness.

That's being outrageous. That's taking chances. I could have offended her, but instead ended up giving her a memorable experience while going above and beyond her expectations. She'll come to Caribou for the rest of her life now, and every time she'll remember the dude with the spiky hair that stole her Starbucks mug. And she'll be just like the women that come to my store because they know I make the best damn cappuccino they've ever had -- she'll be loyal.

That's the lesson I'm trying to share with the SFF community. Nothing more, nothing less.

And if you REALLY, REALLY, REALLY think that I can give you solutions, feel free to email me at gabe_chouinard@yahoo.com. I'm a lovecat. I'll share.




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Angelica Gorodischer

Looking over the “best of the year” feature over at Fantastic Metropolis it’s gratifying to see that Angelica Gorodischer’s novel KALPA IMPERIAL, translated from the Spanish by Ursula LeGuin, features on no less than five of the lists, including my own.

Angelica Gorodischer is seventy-five years old, has been married for over half a century, has five grandkids (last I checked), is a committed feminist, is happy to jet off to the farthest corners of the world for a conference at a moment’s notice and is one of the most vibrant people I know. I met her last year at the behest of Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press, the publishers of KALPA, who was looking for someone to interview Angelica in Spanish (she speaks English fluently but preferred to be interviewed in her native tongue) and then translate the interview into English for placement in an English language online or print publication. As someone who’d been an admirer of Angelica’s stories for some time I was quite happy to take on the responsibility.

We had a very enjoyable time conducting the interview over email and when it was nearly done I told her if she should ever come to New York City she had a standing invitation to lunch or dinner from me. I didn’t quite expect her to take me up on it – travel from Argentina is actually quite long and expensive and the severe economic crisis in the country has caused even the middle class to curtail all but the most necessary expenses.

So I was happily surprised when she called me a few weeks later to tell me that she’d managed to work out a trip to Wiscon, would be stopping in New York City for a single day and would I still be interested in lunch?

“Absolutely!” I responded. “Just tell me what you’d you like to eat!”

“Something exotic,” she replied. “And make sure to wear a yellow rose in your lapel so I’ll recognize you.”

So we ate at the Thai-French restaurant Vong, had a few glasses of wine with lunch and continued the interview for a couple of hours. She inscribed one of her books to me with “Creo que este es el comienzo de una bella amistad” (in any language it’s still a famous line from Casablanca) and afterward we took a little walk around Barnes & Noble. I then saw her off to the Met.

My only regret is that I was a few minutes late for lunch because a meeting ran over and as a result I forgot the yellow rose. She gave me a hard time about that for the entire afternoon.

My interview with Angelica Gorodischer is here, at Fantastic Metropolis, together with an excerpt from the book. And do yourself a favor and buy a copy of KALPA IMPERIAL. It’s well worth it.

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as for reading...

For the third time, I'm re-reading David Hartwell's Age of Wonders. I kind of love this book, though I have a hard time pinning down the reason for that. It's a bit less snarky than, for instance, Tom Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, which I also kind of love. On the other hand, AoW is more personal and user-friendly than even Edward James' Science Fiction in the 20th Century.

A lot of what Hartwell says in AoW is heartfelt and intelligently presented... and why wouldn't it? Hartwell is a premiere SF editor, and he knows his shit. Likewise, he's been around long enough to have thoroughly examined the whys behind the reading and writing of SF, so when he speaks, he speaks with authority.

Also occupying my time is Storming the Reality Studio, subtitle "A casebook of cyberpunk and postmodern fiction" and edited by Larry McCaffery. This overview of the cyberpunk aesthetic contains sample fiction from many of the postmodern and 'cyberpunk' authors, along with a bucketload of nonfiction pieces. Very good stuff, and I find it intriguing to go back in time to view the movement as it was occurring (this was published in 1991), to see what was happening in a broader context than when I was experiencing it first-hand. Not to mention the writers contained herein are excellent.

When I get fed up with those texts, though, I find myself dipping selectively into Terry Carr's Year's Finest Fantasy and Year's Finest Fantasy 2. God, but there are some good stories in these two books! Interestingly, is this marks the first time I've ever read Stephen King's The Gunslinger in its original story form, as published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I've always found King to be most effective in short form, which seems odd considering his penchant for massive doorstopper novels. With The Gunslinger, the story contains a palpable sense of mystery that doesn't shine through as well in the novel format, and I find that it works better as a shorter, tighter piece.

I've been trying to slog my way through Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star, and am having a hard go of it. Funny, considering how much I loved Fallen Dragon last year. But I'm just not making it this time, and I think I can trace my difficulty all the way back to page 10, and this passage:

"In the twenty-first century, a physicist named Freeman Dyson had postulated that the artifacts of a technologically advanced civilization would ultimately surround their star in order to utilize all of its energy."


OK. Why do SF writers always have to do this?!?! Pandora's Star apparently takes place hundreds of years in the future, but the characters are referencing 21st century theoretical science? Why? Hasn't anything else come along in the intervening centuries??? Oi. Every time I see something like this, it becomes an incongruity that bugs the shit out of me for weeks, kind of like watching a Western and seeing the cowboy wearing Abercrombie and Fitch jeans and a pair of sneakers.

Am I the only one that finds these hokey bits distracting and annoying? Or am I too picky? Why not remove that first "In the twenty-first century..." and use only "Freeman Dyson had postulated..."?


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1.28.2004

Waiting to get called up to the Bigs

There are a lot of little venues on the net. Little e-zines popping in and out of existence like literary zero-point energy. Most of them suck. Most. Sad but true.
Some of them are fairly diverting, though nothing worth linking to and certainly not worth the time and energy of a full-scale review. But then again....
It seems to me that what we have in the e-zine is the virtual analog of the old fanzines of the 50s and 60s. What they lack in technical expertise and literary merit they make up for in enthusiasm and sheer love of the genre. Make no mistake, whether it's a fifty page leaflet dropped off at local coffee shops and laundromats or a monthly e-zine publishing roughly the same five people every issue, this kind of active fandom takes work. The energy and exuberance I see in some of these Grass League zines tops anything I'm seeing in the Bigs. For them it's all about the thrill of it. They can't wait to send out the message, through e-mail groups or bulletin boards or whatever, that the latest issue is here! Come see what I did!
This is where Harlan Ellison got his start. Robert Silverburg and Damon Knight too. It's where a lot of the Grand Old Men of Sci-Fi first took their leaps. This is the way it used to be done. Before the Internet, before media culture, most young writers spent their apprenticeships writing stories for free, the thrill of seeing their stuff on some cruddy little mimeographed rag the only compensation many of them would ever see. And it worked pretty good. Writers learned the craft, they had their audiences, and they eventually moved on to the big time. That's not to say we'd never have had Unca Harlan anyways, but maybe we wouldn't have. Who knows? And maybe these new fanzines are where the next batch of Grand Old Men is gonna come from, neh? Maybe the next Asimov is placing a story a month here or here. Maybe we should keep an eye out for the next wave of young turks here. The next big thing might just pop up here first. And maybe we should be just a little sad when little zines like this run down and finally stop because the love and the joy are all gone away. Because, as we're talking about reinvigorating the genre and spreading out, taking over the mainstream and all that good stuff, maybe we should take just a moment and try to remember why it is that we care so much about the future of Science Fiction. Maybe the secret to getting where we're going isn't only in charging ahead and taking no prisoners. Maybe part of it is right where we left it, waiting for us where we've already been.

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1.27.2004

futurismic point

Christopher East makes an intriguing point over at the Futurismic blog regarding the commentary I posted below. The salient question he poses is this:

"Isn't there some middle ground between comfortable tradition and edgy experimentation, a way to push the envelope without losing economic viability?"


I don't necessarily know the answer to this.

However, I want to point out that I'm not specifically speaking of 'experimentation', per se, when speaking of the so-called lunatic fringe. Rather, I'm talking about innovation (see Argosy for innovative packaging, for example) and taking risks (see the line of novellas from PS Publishing for a risky publishing prospect!), and the way those things tie together to create more creative and interesting forms in the process. For example, would we have ever read something like A Swim in the Laughing Soup by James Patrick Kelly in, say, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? I somehow doubt it.

Experimentation for the sake of experimentation may be fun, but it isn't necessary all the time.

Anyway, back to Christopher's point.

While it's somewhat distasteful to consider (art for art's sake and all that jazz, you know), I'm afraid that Christopher's question of profitability is a good one. But I also think that 'economic viability' itself is a wrong term, as I'm fairly certain that a lot of the independent presses are profitable. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in business...

Rather, I think it comes down to a question of audience, marketability and the growth of the readership.

One of the ways that the placid core affects the genre as a whole is in its stagnancy. Truth is, the placid core does nothing to bring new readers into speculative fiction, preferring a lazy 'sit-and-wait-for-them' attitude to aggressively pursuing new readers. This is actually one of my major complaints with the SFF community in general, and if I get into it now, harsh words will flow... so I'll refrain.

But really, that's the heart of 'economic viability', isn't it?

So why does the lunatic fringe contribute to that viability while the placid core does not?

Once again we return to appearance and content.

The zines and independent presses, by refusing to limit themselves to genre tropes and distinctive elements (i.e. slapping artwork of space ships on their covers) are bringing speculative fiction to readers that wouldn't normally go there. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, for example, does not stand out as a genre magazine, even though every issue is infused with the feel of speculative fiction. I figure that within ten years, the readership of LCRW will have surpassed that of Analog, because they aren't serving a specific handful of readers. They're serving everyone.

There are a handful of publications and independent presses that I can see doing the same thing, provided they manage to remain profitable as they grow. Night Shade Books is one publisher that I am willing to lay betting cash on as an inheritor of a wide audience. They aren't publishing boring cookie-cutter commercial genre works; they're taking care to publish work that is either historically remarkable or ideosyncratic and modern. They're a publisher that targets READERS, and that's an important distinction.

This is one of the reasons I'm so gung-ho about promoting the independent press. These are the future leaders of genre fiction, and I want to see more diversity and more risk-taking than we've historically seen. And I want to see our readership grow... and by offering work that rises above works that are little more than a handful of tropes slapped together under a starship cover, these publishers will continue to bring in readers that would normally scorn genre fiction.

Enticement. Not a bad thing.


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1.26.2004

a bit of commentary

For decades the reign of the Centralist Hegemony flourished, and peace descended upon the Inner Colonies. Basking in the success of their conquest, the Colonies became complacent, grown torpid by half a century of uncontested might.

Yet the Lunatic Fringe had begun their incursions, stealthy at first, but growing in boldness....


-- excerpt from The Strange Hegemony: A Chronicle of Time and Space


WARNING: What follows may offend some people. Delicate gazes should be averted. Small children should be hidden in closets. Anyone with a large ego or bloated sense of self-importance should consider a vacation in the Ukraine. I hear the weather’s nice this time of year....



the placid core

Within the arts, it is common to have a controlling center that defines and shapes current acceptable modes. This center often consists of an entrenched Old Guard whose opinions rule the majority, determining what is Good For The People. A worthy analogy wo
uld be in television, where someone has determined that reality shows are right and good.

I call this center the "placid core".

Speculative fiction has a placid core, entrenched through a mingling of tradition, reputation and nostalgia. Their names are recognizable - Asimov’s, F&SF, Del Rey, Locus, Tor, etc. etc.

The strength of the placid core lies in the habits of the general reader. These are the ones who seek solace in their SF, the ones who return to the same sections of the shelves in search of their favorite authors, rarely venturing too many letters away, and certainly never seeking beyond those cozy shelves. These are casual readers, not really in tune with the field, not really paying attention to the behind-the-scenes drama. They know their authors, maybe their particular publishers... but never much beyond.

I still get a chuckle out of it.

Speculative fiction, that innovative, idea-laden, progressive branch of the great Fiction Tree; that futuristic,
ultra-creative, unpossible speculative fiction, which influenced the postmoderns, an entire generation of filmmakers, and even Saddam Hussein himself -- I still can’t believe that at its heart, the field of speculative fiction is dominated by rampant, ass-clenchingly rabid uptightness.

It is the Old Guard, torpid and stalwart in their views, that continues to define the shape of modern speculative fiction. In its own way, this placid core is filled with broad-sweeping, anti-tech, behind-the-times academia-level snobbishness and petty conservatism that makes Rick Santorum look like Liberace in comparison.

This is not a good thing.



the lunatic fringe

Within the arts, the placid core has never held for long. Always, always, there are upstarts that dwell out on the fringe, pushing against the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. We see it often in fine art, with each movement of painters challenging the norms: from the Impressionists to the Surrealists, from Pop Art to even commercial art; each of these movements fought against the entrenched establishment, and each eventually won out, becoming popular and accepted before being replaced by their successors.

Except this hasn't happened in speculative fiction.

Perhaps it is because the genre is still relatively young; even going back as far as 1885 and the publishing of Wells' The Time Machine, we're looking at an inconsequential amount of time against the whole of literature, and the genre itself has only been recognized for a bit more than half a century. And so the modes that were set into place in the infancy of the genre remain, barely contested.

I say barely because there have always been marginalized, fringe-worthy writers working at the edges of genre, barely appreciated and barely selling. I've taken to calling these underrated writers the 'lunatic fringe', accosting a phrase from Fandom that was originally used to describe cultish UFO nutters that hung out at SF conventions.

This lunatic fringe plays the role of the upstarts, in the same way that upstarts have tackled the establishment within other arts. One such lunatic fringe was the New Wave, battling to bring experimentation and literary values to genre fiction. Another fringe came with the cyberpunks, and their modernization of science fiction. Often, the lunatic fringe was called a movement, but my thought is that they were simply the writers at the margins, taking chances and propelling the traditional modes forward until reaching a point of popularity that brought them from the fringe to the center.

And the center is where they remain.

This placid center that holds sway over speculative fiction has grown increasingly tedious over the past decade. I find myself bored to tears with the majority of speculative fiction, floundering in traditional modes and reused tropes. Some critics describe this as a dialogue within the genre, an ongoing conversation between writers and readers. Personally, I reject that explanation.

Instead, I think it is a case of… well, placidity. Whether it's the stories published in the Year's Best anthologies or the day-to-day novels put out by the major imprints, it all boils down to a case of reproducing what has already been done in an effort to generate sales.

I find it incredibly boring.


on the outskirts

Except, I think the placid core is on the verge of crumbling.

Jonathan had challenged us to rate the small press magazines against the entrenched magazines, and I'm willing to accept that challenge, and even build upon it.

My theory is, they cannot be compared, and moreover, they should not be compared.

The small presses, the zines, the webzines are all quite different creatures from the old standbys like Asimov's, F&SF, and the others, because they are no more related to those magazines than they are related to CNN. They represent different things, and different guiding visions.

The major magazines are concerned with maintaining the status quo. While it will certainly be argued that the magazines remain vital because of the stories that they publish, and because of their status amidst the field. I would contest this.

My contesting begins with the basic principles of format, as I've noted countless times elsewhere. How can a magazine claim to be startling and full of vitality when it languishes in a format that is no longer appropriate, and certainly is not viable on the magazine racks? I've heard numerous sides of this argument -- that the digest format is cheaper to produce, and that there are no newsstand sales anyway -- which I find wimpy and overblown and ultimately full of hot air. Presentation is an absolutely necessary component to any publication, and the fact that no one cares enough to update the format of the magazines points to laziness and an entrenched mentality.

Meanwhile, I would also argue that there is nothing startling or vital about the stories published in the major magazines -- which should not be confused with me disparaging the quality of the stories. Many of the stories published in the digests are GOOD ones… but they are also traditional stories told in traditional modes. (Please allow me these generalizations for the sake of argument, eh? The occasional non-traditional story that slips through does not count as anything more than a fluke, and I don't think anyone can claim a trend around them.)

One could point at the fact that many of the stories published in these magazines are the ones that win awards, and are often collected in the Year's Best anthologies, thereby proclaiming their excellence and vitality. That's very nice, I would say… and dismiss anyone that could be so thick-headed.



innovation through the blurry lens of nostalgia

Speculative fiction is a rut, filled with old habits and protocols and traditions.

We still claim that speculative fiction is the literature of ideas, that it is the innovative form for all fiction; grand claims that we like to share with one another while slapping backs and shaking hands. But the truth is, we are mired in a soup of nostalgia when it comes to assessing the genres, and we conveniently cite examples from decades in the past to illustrate our vitality.

It is my opinion that any truly original, truly innovative speculative fiction piece would never be published in the current 'mainstream' genre markets. Not by Asimov's, not by Tor, not by DAW, not by Baen.

Those markets and the various others that I don't wish to list (it'd be a long list…) are the placid core, continuing to propel the genre forward into the past, perpetuating a circular publishing industry that merits traditionalism and repetition over the supposed inherent genre traits of innovation, creativity and ideas.

But there's still the lunatic fringe.



niche creativity

I said that we could not compare independent presses and zines to the big boys, because they are completely different creatures. To attempt to describe, for example, Small Beer Press within the context of Baen or Del Rey is futile. They share nothing in common, and I don't think they represent the same vision.

Likewise with many of the zines that are being produced. For one thing, most of the zines are actually more attractive than the traditional magazines; these are produced by people that are in touch with technology, utilizing the 'push-button publishing' that has risen via desktop publishing and the internet connectivity. The simple fact that the forefront magazines have failed to embrace this technology is just one symptom of their staid placidity.

Zines and independent presses are granted more freedoms than the mainstream publishers. When one exists at the fringe, one is not bound by the restrictions of marketability or catering to what the consumers demand. Zines and independent presses can therefore play with traditional modes, and take chances with forms and content that others cannot. They represent the lunatic fringe, that place where artists push against the boundaries of what is acceptable.

This is not a judgement of qualities; stories in Say…? are not necessarily better than stories in Analog. They are different, and should not be compared to one another.

So when Jonathan asks if the small presses are comparable to the mainstream magazines, I have to shake my head in bemusement, unable to give a definitive answer.



how the fringe matters

Yet I think it is very important to direct our attentions to the fringes. This is where writers are playing with the speculative fiction traditions, and for the first time in the history of the genre, I think we are teetering on the edge of an overthrow. Where we've seen movements in the past that were quickly absorbed into the general SF canon, this time it's something different. The lunatic fringe is only tangentially related to the placid core, rather than existing as an extension of it. This is not RA Lafferty writing stories, not John Sladek being overlooked by the genre core. Rather, this time it is a shift in philosophy, a tweaking of the zeitgeist that will have lasting implications within the genre. It is my feeling that the lunatic fringe will eventually reshape the core of speculative fiction, which has not happened in the past fifty years.




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Simpsons Theory

From tonight's episode of The Simpsons:

Homer: "I didn't lie, Marge ... I was writing fiction with my mouth!"

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1.24.2004

CONFUSCATION

Confuscate. v. To confuse or confiscate one’s own and/or another’s intellect by logical fallacies and word tricks--by accident or by design--which may be done out of fear for learning that the confuscation is nothing but a mask for nothing. Usually, though, the knot of confuscation bears threads of truth and untruth and/or half-truths. Confuscators, those who confuscate, often toss these knots aside as too Gordian or simplistically slice through them with swords.

***

EXAMPLE 1: Miss Tery

Miss Tery is a mystery, shrouding herself in the mist of non-identity. She is an artist. She dates a scientist in the hope of confuscating his intellect triumphantly. She firmly believes in applying the electron’s uncertainty of position to her own personality. The unexamined life is the only life worth living... for if we come to understand it, we may learn that it is empty posturing. When her boyfriend learns she likes the taste and texture of avocadoes, she immediately becomes allergic to them--disgusting little mushy things.

***

EXAMPLE 2: The Rise and Fall of Car Manufacturers

Since the dawning of the automobile, car manufacturers have long sought to confuscate auto-auto-repair or do-it-yourselfers through making engines unnecessarily complex. In 2100 A.D. car manufacturers learned that even mechanics (replaced by robots several decades earlier) could not repair an engine once it had broken down. Manufacturers cheered: mo’ money, mo’ money! Users had to purchase new biodegradable vehicles every three months. A car manufacturer from Fjordsyler was voted World Governor in 2102; by 2103, however, the booming industry’s bottom fell out. Cars came off the line totally non-functional. No one knew how to put the pieces back together again. But people were bicycling to work by then anyway.

***

EXAMPLE 3: Congressman El Infante and Congressman Don Qui Jote

Siamese twins physically separated at birth in a rural hospital in San Antonio, El and Don jokingly referred to the other as his “evil twin.” Though they grew up witnessing the same movies, records, girls and Daffy Duck cartoons, each interpreted these events in a wholly different manner, initially, to confuscate their parents. After awhile, however, they believed their own confuscations.

During their teenage years, their views were viewed by outsiders as hodge-podge, so in an effort to win the largest group of friends, the two became politically active. They discovered two camps of arbitrary disagreements already established in the Republicans and Democrats. It was a perfect arrangement--the first of two agreements in their lifetimes--for every issue each could own and operate a different set of principles and never have to listen to the lies of their opponents ever again.

They went to law school: Don became a defense attorney, El a prosecutor. The issue of guilt or innocence was always immaterial. The object of the game was to win the most cases through the tampering of witnesses and evidence, twisting appearances into non-appearances and vice-versa. If one could sneak a few misleading clues nonchalantly in with the truth, one could buffalo any jury. The lawyer with the best bullshit wins!

Getting involved in legislation, El and Don further learned the importance of confuscation. Each attempted to package together a hundred different bills without rhyme or reason, apart from appealing to their voter base, come election year.

In October of an election year, the boys ran against one another. Since guns are a big issue in Texas (what isn’t big in Texas?), they argued guns on the debate panel televised on the local public channel. El refused to acknowledge that criminals use guns, and Don refused to acknowledge peaceful citizens use guns. The gun-toters cheered El and booed Don, and the gun-haters cheered Don and booed El. A timid hand in the audience rose to inquire whether Don and El might agree on any views so that legislation to that effect could be passed. The timid hand was immediately stoned, and Don and El agreed that their audience had done right--after all, they would hate to lose their voters.

***

EXAMPLE 4: Religion, Atheism, Pseudo-science, and other half-baked Philosophies

All arguments concluding for or against God argue on the assumption of existence or non-existence, respectively. This is achieved fairly easily. One tosses in all the things one loathes about the opposite camp and concludes in favor of his own. To argue properly, insist on never understanding your opponent.

Pseudo-science is less confrontational. Usually it involves a small dose of science and adding as many logical fallacies as possible to obtain the wildest conclusions: since science has not disproved the use of magnetic suppositories to cure anal cancer, it must work!

If you’re really tricky, question the foundation of knowing anything, so that you can conclude whatever you want (never mind the self-inconsistency).

***

EXAMPLES 5 A, B, and C: Literature

Kurt Vonnegut used to tell his writer protégés, if they were struggling with their stories, what was wrong with their efforts: “There’s no Iago.” Iago may be the greatest literary confuscator. He represents the majority of a story arc: the knotting or raveling or complication of the confuscation leads to the unknotting or unraveling or the de-confuscation. Other knots may remain untangled, but the central knot of the story has been proved capable of an imminent denouement, allowing people a glimpse of untying the knots of their own lives.

Some story confuscations leave the deconfuscating up to the reader, but these are difficult and require the confuscation to hold all the tools and directions necessary to deconfuscating the story.

A. Attorneys were named after the first and perhaps best-known confuscator: The accuser. He slithered (although some literary historians claim he did not pick up this habit until later in life) along a garden path and admired the finest pomegranate tree he’d ever tasted the air of. Some big dude was telling this couple to eat anything they wanted except the pomegranate of knowledge tree. Oh, brother, the accuser hissed to himself, what melodrama.

He cornered the dame to set her straight: “Lissen here, sssweet sssister. You shall not ‘surely,’” here the accuser mocked the big dude’s reverberating bass tone, “die.”

“Really?” she asked, wide-eyed at those luscious-looking pomegranates.

“Nah.” He muttered under his breath, well, at least not immediately. “He juss said that because it’d make you juss like him.* He hass to be ssso sssuperior.”

“I would like to be smart.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” the accuser said before slithering away.

* The accuser used mental telepathy to convey the following addendum (was it his fault if she didn’t use her latent psi powers?): big dude knows good and evil, so you’d get to know good and evil, too--you lucky dog!

***

B. William Blake invited the accuser over for tea one autumn afternoon to hear some of the accuser’s favorite proverbs. Since the lemon biscuits were absolutely divine, the accuser shared his philosophy of life:

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

“From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

“Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

“Oh, bravo!” Blake clapped politely. “More tea? So how did Evil become active and Good passive?”

“Shut up. I’m confuscating.” The accuser sipped, thinking. “Good is passive because those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.

“And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.”

Blake thought of asking a question about reversing the accuser’s proposition but restrained the desire.

***

C. Snow Crash is one of the trickier confuscation-deconfuscation plots. It involves Hiro deconfuscating the L. Bob Rife’s confuscation of the minds of hackers and religious fanatics, but Hiro deconfuscates through pseudo-science or an additional layer of confuscation: out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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1.23.2004

A thought

I was checking out the blurbs for the new Peter F. Hamilton book, Pandora's Star, a few moments ago. I've been fascinated by Hamilton because he writes books that are so long that you can print the full cover art on the spine of the book and it's still legible, but I've never finished one of his books (I threw the first of his big fat books across the room when I realised it started with 300 pages of backstory). Anyhow, I was struck by the fact that the blurbers cited Asimov's "Foundation" and Niven's "Known Space" as comparison points. Both works are essentially short story cycles, while this is a stronking great big hunk of wood pulp. A question: is anyone else ever struck by the disparity between description and actuality in this commentary gig that we're playing with?

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Curious LOTR Interpretation

Continuing from my hypothesis that Germany is represented superficially as the Orcs, what would that mean to the overall purpose of the text? Thinking about this yesterday, I wondered: since the ring is most prominent, what would it represent? Evil, obviously, but could it represent more than that?

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them


Before you dismiss or accept any ideas readily without mulling over them, please consider it carefully.

It seemed to me that the ring might represent racism or the Aryan superiority of race: "One Ring to rule them all." Frodo has difficulty destroying the ring. And why not? Tears for Fears once sang, "Everybody wants to rule the world." Frodo may have not had such dreams as a boy, but when the power was in his hands, it was difficult to reject.

At the beginning of the novel, the tone is mostly light. But if you know the story, you'll notice that it hints at something darker:

At ninety-nine they began to call [Bilbo Baggins] well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark.... it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

'It will have to be paid for,' they said. 'It isn't natural, and trouble will come of it.'


The "Thousand-Year" (apparently perpetual youth?) Reich grew rich by killing off unwanted peoples and collecting their loot.

Can anyone bring up specific instances that may back up or deny this interpretation?

I'm just curious where such an interpretation might lead us--if valid or invalid and where and why.

***

In other news, I have been unable to find an intelligent reading of LOTR as racism. How do people become academics if they don't analyze the text? People continue mistake cruel superficiality for depth.

My interpretation as a statement against racism is far more unified than these simplistic dismissals. Please. If you call and respect yourself as an academic, look at the text. Does the interpretation fit the whole story? Or are we conveniently splicing out the text that will fit our interpretation? Does it hold true?

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Cautiously in Jonathan's Camp

I'd like to second that emotion from Jonathan. Someone should do a definitive Jack Cady collection. The only qualifier I'd put on that would be that it ought to be someone who loved Jack more than they love his fiction. By that I mean, of course, Jeremy and Jason at Night Shade, or Ellen Datlow. Or! Hey, how about a collaborative compilation between Night Shade and Ellen! Any way it's done, I'd only buy it if it were done out of love and respect for the man. Paying homage to the author seems more like reaping profit from the dead, to me.
And now, for my pick of the week. It's not new, it's not science fiction -- anymore -- but it's flat out brilliant. It's The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci and it's the perfect gift for those of you who have friends that think they're smart. Da Vinci's the epitome of the Renaissance ideal and every time I flip through this book I'm humbled at the level of pure cognition, thoughts and ruminations that far surpass anything I've imagined, both in scope and depth. This from a man dead some four and a half centuries before I was born.
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Been a bit on the lazy side while readjusting to having a new baby in the house. We've been working at getting a halfway decent schedule in place so we can all manage to sleep once in a while. Of course, we're all wallowing in wishful thinking...

I started a response to Jonathan's query regarding the mainstream genre mags vs. the small press offerings, and I'm afraid it's grown in the writing. Somehow, I've managed to start tackling issues of the placid core, push-button publishing, the fringe, and all sorts of stuff. I think I have to do some major sorting and refining so I can put it out for opinion.

Other than that, I haven't even been surfing much, or reading. Been writing questions for John Oakes of Four Walls Eight Windows and Graham Joyce though. Should be some interesting interviews.



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Pick of the Week #1: The Sons of Noah

Our illustrious organiser, gabe, suggested a while back that each week we s1ngularitites (nicer than loners, don't you think?) should nominate a pick of the week, something cool, neat or otherwise wondrous that had grabbed and held the attention of our omnivorous eyes. A good idea. I thought about it and thought about it, and got on with life. Until now, that is, when I proffer the first in a presumably ongoing series.

Jack Cady's 1992 short story collection The Sons of Noah and Other Stories is one of a small number of books that can genuinely be said to have rocked my world. I remember every detail of each of the seven stories in the book, but it was the dark, powerful title story that grabbed and held me. It was, to be honest, a fairly unimpressive looking book, but if you can find it, you need to read it.

And one note: though it's probably inappropriate to say so, so soon after Cady's sad death the other week, I hope someone does a collected stories some day soon.
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1.21.2004

This Corpulent Economy--the evils of worrying about said "saidisms" and other economic woes

It must be because I'm a slow reader that words are so important to me--their efficient, economic use. At the beginning of Clarion I was all civil, putting useless words in brackets and by the end of the six weeks being haggard and worn out, I was slashing up the pages. "Why are you making me read all these extra words? I've got four more manuscripts to read, a story to write and sleep to catch up on!" But at least I was semi-civil for the morning circle.

I just read Theodore Sturgeon's "Poker Face" and he had this cool kind of ending that invited you to reread the story to see where you missed the clues. There were no clues, unfortunately--perhaps a nuance, but rereading became an annoyance. It was still cool, but he wasted my time by intimating there was more to the story than its first reading. Coercing rereadings without providing new revelations is a great way to lose readers--the careful ones, at least, but aren't they the ones you want to pull in?

One thing I notice about certain writers who've grown up on a steady diet of popular fiction is this tendency to worry about "saidisms." That's their word. It makes my stomach wretch typing it. Otherwise sane people think they have to come up with a new word for "said" everytime someone says something. I imagine it's a fear of repetition. They're no doubt the same people who like to change the name or pronouns of a character everytime he appears for fear of repetition. "Said"s are merely verbal tags of who said what. Let me tell you anti-"said" people the two ways why you are so infuriating:

Normally, we read dialogue according to the context surrounding it.

It was seventy-five degrees with the sun out and a light breeze to whisk off the sweat we worked up from laying the foundation. "What a nice day," I said.

The rain came down in sheets. The mud slid back down the ditch into our shoes. And my ass was itchy but I couldn't scratch it with the warden watching and the heavy burlap prison coveralls. "What a nice day," I said.

Do you read both dialogues the same? Do I need to write: "I said, meaning it" and "I said, sarcastically" (or worse, "I quipped"), respectively? No.

When you change the "said" to anything else (apart from "ask"), you cause the reader to stop and ask himself, "How did I read that wrong?" If he didn't read it wrong, it pisses him off because the author obviously assumes his intelligence isn't quite up to par--and you know what you do when you assume. Please trust your reader. Even if your reader did read it wrong, there's still another mistake people make:

"I think I will go to the park and put up a tent and an umbrella and read a book," she hissed.

How the hell do you hiss that? If you change it to "bark," I'd still have to wonder how you would bark it.

In you sadistic said-ists' defense, I will say that Thomas Pynchon does it, too. But you know what? Although he can hold your attention that we don't notice it for a long while, when we do notice, it's just as stupid.

I hissed. (Now you have to reread the entire monologue above while hissing. Have fun!) (Oh, come on, you literal types. Don't reread it. I was just being a smart ass. But you may want to study up on "irony" in your literature books.)

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digesting the times

I think I'll take this one off the comments section and back on to the main s1ngularity blog page. Why? Because THIS strikes me as a real meat and potatoes kind of issue. How do the major genre magazines stack up generally and, more specifically, how do the stack up against the so-called 'small' magazines.

I'm going to start off by nailing my colors to the mast: I think Gardner at Asimov's, Gordon at F&SF and Ellen at SciFiction do an amazing job. The quality of individual issues varies somewhat (or in SciFiction's cases, varies from month-to-month), but the basic constant holds true: these three magazines are the most reliable source of the best short fiction in the field. If you need to see that confirmed, you need only look at the Oct/Nov '03 issues of Asimov's and F&SF. Both contained remarkable stories, and both magazines had other major fiction published during the year. Now, as with anything, there are less remarkable issues, but these three know what they are doing. I will admit to being much less impressed with Analog (which I'm completely tone-deaf to) and that I find Interzone very unreliable, but I also think Realms of Fantasy is steadily improving.

Now, how do the majors stack up against the small 'zines? For the most part, I think they're superior in most ways. The quality of the fiction, the reliability of the bang-for-the-buck that you get etc, is much highter. There are some good small 'zines though - Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Alchemy and such - but they typically don't quite meet the same consistent level of quality as the majors. At least, in my opinion.

As to Gabe's comment: "Is this how things always are in Asimov's, or do they occasionally put out some good stuff? Where's the thrill of the magazine? Where's the excitement in publishing it?" I'd first of all say, that Asimov's does publish some very good stuff. Off the top of my head, Walter Jon Williams's "The Green Leopard Plague", Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", and William Barton's "Off on a Starship" were genuinely terrific and the ongoing "Accelerando" series by Charles Stross has been alternately frustrating and thrilling. I suspect the problem here is either a) modern genre mainstream short fiction isn't to your taste or b) you hit the wrong issue. I'd also add that one of the great dangers for any genre reader is burnout. If you read enough, and lord knows we all have, sometimes it just doesn't have that kick, but sometimes it does.

Oh, and one last thing: does anyone else feel the same way I do about Interzone: that it has seen better days?


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1.20.2004

taking time to digest

Because we're po' folks now and can't afford books, I happened to buy the February issue of Asimov's Science Fiction in a desperate attempt to find something to read for an hour or two while rocking the baby to sleep.

I don't normally buy the "little mags" anymore. I find them difficult to read; too floppy to hold, too mucky-looking to enjoy looking at. Whenever I have one, I feel like a little old lady cradling my precious copy of Reader's Digest. So it's a rarity for me to pick up Asimov's or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Analog. I figure I'll get the best of in the Year's Best collections anyway.

But like I say, I was strapped for cash and bored, so there you go.

Still, I wasted $4.25.

This issue of Asimov's is pretty damned mediocre. Aside from a brief mention of the "promising s1ngularity" in James Patrick Kelly's On the Net column (thanks James!), there was nothing to catch my attention.

There are stories from Asimov's stable authors here: Mike Resnick, Matthew Jarpe, Jack Skillingstead, William Sanders, blah blah blah. Not a single standout, though I was expecting R. Garcia y Robertson's "Long Voyage Home" to entertain. No such luck.

Boring, boring, boring. All run-of-the-mill, been-there-read-that generic SFF. Nothing exciting, nothing invigorating, nothing interesting.

So what's the deal? Is this how things always are in Asimov's, or do they occasionally put out some good stuff? Where's the thrill of the magazine? Where's the excitement in publishing it? What's the point in publishing less-than-spectacular stories?

Oi. Must think some more.



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As for this, so for that

I've always kind of instinctively read past the book's cover and given the text a chance to speak for itself. That's probably because I grew up reading Heinlein's Scribner juveniles and some of those covers were butt ugly, let me tell you. I've even built an unconscious aversion to titles, so much so that I often have a hard time remembering them when I want to recommend a book to someone. I can't tell you how many times I've bought a new edition of a book I've already read simply because I didn't recognize the title and the cover was different from before. I took to heart, then to extremes, the old axiom, you can't judge a book by its cover. I still do, but I'm learning.
I've started to notice covers, and especially cover art. Partly through the influence of chouinard, whose passionate advocacy for graphic arts is as tireless as anything else he does. Caffeine, gabe's wonder drug of choice. At least I hope that's what it is.... And there's the Evil One, Gabe Mesa, who introduced me to the idea of "beautiful books", objects to be cherished for themselves, for their physical qualities. This, I'll say, was a concept that took years -- three of them -- to find a chink in the wall I'd built between myself and the graphic aesthetics of books.
In fact, it wasn't until I met this guy at the World Fantasy Convention, and he let Deborah Layne, of Wheatland Press fame, and I peek through his portfolio that the whole thing gelled for me. It didn't hurt that I was sitting with Jeremy Lassen and Jason Williams from Night Shade, or that Lucius Shepard was there beaming like a proud papa when he showed me the new cover for Two Trains Running. The hour and a half stint I spent running Night Shade's table while Jeremy and Jason's wife, Molly ran a meet and greet probably didn't hurt either -- anyone else impressed by their production standards? But what really put the light on was the way John talked about books, and specifically SF books, as though there wasn't anything else in the world he'd rather be doing with his considerable talent. That's when the idea finally took some kind of form I could manage. Beautiful books. Who'd a thunk it?
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1.19.2004

You say it's just a passing phase, you've got to help me get through my cynical days...

Switching gears, I was listening to the NPR interview between Terry Gross and distinguished Broadway actress Uta Hagen (A Streetcar Named Desire, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf) and right at the beginning, Terry dug in, like any good interviewer worth her salt would, asking Ms. Hagen about her acting technique. Ms. Hagen, obviously sore about being asked an old standard, grew defensive and launched into a tirade about how laypersons shouldn't ask about specifics, because they don't understand, and why should they? Why, as Ms. Hagen put it, would the average person care one whit about the paper-washing techniques that precede a certain kind of painter's creative work? What could the average art-consumer know or care about the positioning of the violin player's arm? The tilt of the neck? The spidering of the fingers on the fret board and the relative states of tension/relaxation that the expert player eventually masters in order to achieve maximum dynamic control with minimum effort? The layperson, said Ms. Hagen (at first), instinctively responds to the experience, perhaps instinctively grasps the concept, or an element of the concept, but can't explain how or why.

Terry Gross handled herself not like the dilettante she admits she is, but simply as one human being honestly reaching out to another, trying to understand, trying to get across that ego-gap, that abraded ganglia where patience and introspection embrace or war.

Terry reached out, and said yes, Ms. Hagen, I'm not an actor. Yes, I'm a dilettante. But I want to understand. And I believe that by hearing about the technique of the violinist, the body-language of the actor, the quality of paper or pencil, brush or oils of the painter, that it changes my appreciation, for good or ill, of the performance, of the art itself.

Ms. Hagen paused, then told Terry she'd made a very good point, and that perhaps she'd grown too cynical, so used to the layperson misunderstanding.

Cynicism, the root of much evil, born of distrust and repetition, of skepticism gone to sourness.

I think part of an answer to Gabe's question is going to have to be how we restore our sense of wonder in each other.

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Horse and Carriage, Love and Marriage

It's great to see Matt onboard!

Unfortunately, I'll probably look like an old stick in the mud to Matt and perhaps a flying carpet to Gabe. Hopefully, eventually, I'll look like a union (the harness that connects the horse to carriage) between what appears to be two different, disparate parts--the practical and the lofty--for what good is one without the other?

Take a cake. Without frosting, it's functional but rather uninteresting; without cake, it's stimulating but too sugary/buttery. Together, they're irresistible.

The title goes a little further: we cannot put the carriage before the horse. Literary theorists do important work, but as Baudrillard might say: as we become more of an end in itself, we're getting further from the original and begin describing a phenomenon entirely other than such a name implies (i.e. literary theory).

Academic literary theory is the thematic frosting or carriage. Indispensable to cake, indispensable to getting a number of thoughtful readers from here to there. But this analogy also implies it's incomplete. Good literature provides satisfactions that theory leaves undescribed, especially plot and character except in how they relate to theme but also it has yet to describe what Gabe is calling sense of wonder among other aspects that makes science fiction appealing.

Jung's unconscious symbolism might come close by creating an analogous set of wonders, but is it really describing the thing or setting up another sense of wonder? After all, we could probably use Jung to describe The Scorpion King far better than Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" but Sturgeon's story is far more stimulating intellectually.

This example introduces the two-fold problem: 1) inferior literature can be made to look superior with theory, 2) literary theory hasn't yet defined what makes sense of wonder more appealing in an original work than in one that's derivative. In theory, The Scorpion King should be more wonderful, but it isn't.

So literary theory is somewhat incomplete and needs to be more than just itself to describe literature.

Another issue I have is that some literary theorists think their theory is a complete picture of a work. They plow through literature applying one set of rules to all works that may be guided by wholly different principles. They might be attempting to explain the horse and carriage by examining the carriage wheel so that we walk away from the analysis with the idea that a horse and carriage is a round thing with spokes radiating out from a hub. So that examining one aspect distorts what the whole truly is.

For example, when I read various articles on John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, I read a feminist article which failed to comprehend that the one woman in the story was not the center of the story. She was one of a set of wheels whose dream was destroyed by wanting the dream of success too badly. One might also examine the text as a look at racism. But the woman, the old man, the wandering laborer, and the black man all share the same kind of dream manifested in the body of Lennie. Single character examinations fail to take in the whole picture, fail to grapple with the true text. The characters could conceivably work together to create the dream a reality, but they don’t: they allow greed for the dream to kill us or others. So the dream has to be killed.

(Arguably, one might conclude that only the woman dies at the hands of the dream but hasn’t everyone died with the death of the dream? For could not Candy and George still buy a couple of acres on their own? Moreover, in a comparative dramatic sense, nobody gives a damn if a man dies at the hands of a man, but a woman! The death of a woman will always be more significant than a man’s because she is less expendable by virtue of owning a womb rather than owning innumerable sperm. Even outside of drama, I believe statistically, more men commit suicide over the death of their spouse than women.)

In examining the text with one set of rules without looking at what the text does as a whole, we distort what the true picture is, like blind men feeling the elephant (the trunk is a snake, no the leg is obviously a tree stump, and so on).

Yet another problem is that theorists often use the entirely wrong set of interpretive tools. For example, we condemn Tolkien for being racist and anti-technological when a far more obvious and reliable interpretation is close at hand. In a sense, Tolkien brought it on himself for saying it wasn’t about the big War looming. But consider: who was the biggest threat to the peaceful pipe-smoking hobbits of London--I mean, Hobbiton: Africa or Germany? Hmm. Which was destroyed in a previous war and was building new weapons of destruction: Africa or Germany? Hmm. Tolkien simply didn’t want to condemn all Germans as orcs. He’d oversimplified the scenario in order to make a point, so he hid from the most obvious and best interpretation: historical. When technology is used solely to destroy, who wouldn’t be anti-technological?

And so we have to be careful in which interpretative tools we employ, lest we condemn men for crimes they did not commit.

We do need theory, and I applaud the appeal. But we also need to examine literature as a complete product and as a whole interpretation and as a potentially new object presently outside the purview of literary theory to describe it at its best, without (at least as much as possible and not giving up for its incomplete possibility) personal bias of our vision.

At the risk of quoting the Smiths too much:

"Shoplifters of the world, unite and take over!"

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sense of wonder

So, I'm writing a piece exploring this 'sense of wonder' issue that I'm wrestling with.



This plays a part in the exploration.

If you were cool, you'd buy it.


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