Sunday, March 29, 2009

International SF Blog

Many, many thanks to Lavie Tidhar for the World SF News Blog. This is a website that, as soon as I heard of it, I realize that I desperately wanted something like it to exist. And now it does! I see things there already about South African SF, Danish SF, Polish SF, and an soon-to-be-released anthology: The Apex Book of World SF, which I shall be pre-ordering as soon as I'm done here.

Go and click (and buy, if you can)! This is exactly the sort of thing that we need to support in order to make science fiction the most awesome and awesomely diverse field that it can be.

[Thanks to SFSignal for the link!]

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sometimes the Old Guys are Just as Nuts as the Youngins

The Purple Cloud doesn't really hit its stride until all the people are dead. Well, all the people except the narrator, of course. It starts out with a very silly framing narrative: a gentleman gets some manuscripts from a doctor friend of his who had a patient who could see into the past and future while under hypnosis. Thus she was able to describe the story that the sole survivor of humanity writes. Apparently Shiel planned to use this frame as the basis of a series, as he hints that she also observed other interesting stories of the future and the past, but I believe that Purple Cloud is the only story of this kind that he published.

After you get past the frame, then you have to wait for everyone to die. This takes awhile. First we have to be introduced to the protagonist, also the first person narrator. He used to be a doctor, back in the day, and after some (creepy) machinations by his fiance, he's selected to join an expedition to reach the North Pole. There's a lot of build-up about how there's a bajillion dollar prize to the single man who first sets foot at latitude 90 deg., and thus the jealousies that cripple the crew, and also the prophetic ravings of a preacher who predicts that to reach the Pole will spell mankind's doom. Now, we reach here the first bit where you sort of have to bite back a WTF?!? response and continue reading: almost any exploratory expedition I've ever read about would have agreed to split the prize money between all the crew members, no matter which individual reached the Pole first--it's the only way to keep everyone from killing each other, like they end up doing here. I may have put the story down right there if I hadn't been reading this as a sort of project, but I'm glad I kept going.

So after watching his fiance commit murder and keeping silent, after 'accidentally' shooting another crew-member on the ship and then polishing off another in a duel, our hero finally reaches the Pole alone. Then he has to get back. He discovers that his immediate companions were all crushed by ice movements, but in general he doesn't suspect anything out of the ordinary until, a few months later, he finally gets back to open water and to the ship that brought the expedition to the Arctic--and of course the entire crew is dead. As are the crews of all the ships he visits afterwards. OK, now we're finally into the real story. The quality and rhythm of the prose improves remarkably at this point.

He takes control of a ship (with a luckily eternally-working air-powered engine, that’s the ‘future’ part of the story) and makes his way back to Europe and then to his native England. Here you also have to work a bit on your now creaky suspension of disbelief: whenever he stops the ship for the night and keeps no watch, he just stops, and everything's fine—he never runs into any other boats or creatures or land. How convenient.

The enormity of the tragedy doesn't truly strike him until he gets to London and finds everyone dead (no surprise by this point). In the course of his journeys he reconstructs the final days of humanity, with the eponymous Purple Cloud advancing and people fleeing before it; being herded North and West and trying to hide in caves, mines, and sealed-up houses. Their bodies are remarkably preserved, and if you have any suspension of disbelief left it's probably in a coma by this point: he believes that the Cloud had preservative properties that keep the bodies from decaying as expected, but he notes that insects are among the life forms to have survived the massacre. The thought that the insects would have long since eaten all the corpses doesn't occur to him, but to be fair he was writing ~90 years before the genesis of the Body Farm.

So the last man on Earth was a pretty evil motherfucker even while he was constrained by society. Without that, he goes nuts. He enters into a phase of dramatic arsonism, detailing the ways in which he rounded up explosives, incendiary material and fuses to burn down all of London at once--he does this in many other major cities as well. He realizes that this may not be the best thing for his soul, so to try to stave off the destructive impulses he declares himself a god-king and builds himself an almighty island temple of gold and precious materials with fountains of wine. (Yeah, suspension of disbelief has probably been bludgeoned into senselessness by now.) He alternates between periods of destruction and construction, and his ravings get quite extensive--he'll ruminate on the existence/non-existence of God in between detailing construction set-backs on his temple project.

He travels all over the world, especially whenever he gets a paranoid feeling that maybe he isn't the last one left. Mostly he vows to kill anyone else he may meet, to make sure that he's the god-king of the world. This all falls apart when he goes into Turkey to blow up a city and finds a young girl. At this point it's been around 20 years since he reached the pole (whole chunks of years are elided when he stops writing in his journal for long periods), and she appears to be about 20. And here your suspension of disbelief takes a swan dive off the highest point, never to be heard from again--you wouldn't believe the machinations Shiel has to go through to set this up.

She learns his language pretty fast, and attaches herself to him even though he goes so far as to beat her (ouch). He doesn't want to have children as he believes the human race was meant to die. She obviously doesn't feel the same way. And he can’t quite bring himself to kill her. They even try living on different continents, but eventually he gives in to her and it is implied that the human race will in some fashion survive. Sorry for the spoiler, but if you've waited 110 years, I really don't think I can be blamed for ruining things for you.

Overall, this is fascinating on many levels: for the pulp prose leading up to the genocide, for the raving prose after it, for portraying a character so evilly, and for artificially wrenching a 'happy' ending out of its wreckage. Having read this I can see how it fits into generic history a little better. Obviously Shelley had done the whole "last man on Earth" thing earlier (and also had Dr. Frankenstein and the monster end up in the Arctic wastelands), so Purple Cloud is part of a chain of stories leading all the way to Dan Simmon's recent The Terror, which tells the tale of Franklin's doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In between you get John Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (later filmed as horror movie The Thing) which sets its alien shape-shifting terror in the antarctic. And in the realm of people killing off all of humanity, you get Alfred Bester's "Adam and No Eve," which goes back to primordial ooze for it's "happy ending;" one feels his story is a reaction to the artificiality of Purple Cloud's ending (although I don't know if he read it).

Is this a good book? In many ways no: at times it devolves into something terribly silly. On the other hand, in many ways yes: the raving protagonist, the anti-hero, and the use of themes and settings that come from and lead to many other generic works is at least notable. It's a pretty fast read once everyone dies, so I would say it's worth your time as a student of the genre, if not perhaps as a work of pulpy escapist paraliterature.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Already Miss ICFA...

... and I already can't wait for WorldCon. The good news is, barring any unforeseen developments of the next week and a half, it looks like I'll be going to WorldCon. Amen!

But ICFA always feels something like home, and I had a great time there this year. I've finally gotten to know enough people (and some folks have gotten to know me) that I don't feel like a stranger there at all anymore.


Meeting up with fellow Masterclass alumni Sarah Herbe, Stefan Ekman, Graham Sleight and Stacie Hanes (as well as one of our distinguished faculty last year, Gary K. Wolfe). Sarah and Stefan gave particularly interesting papers--I didn't get to see Stacie's and she was presenting as the same time I was (and the same time Gary was--bummer). I'm hoping to snag a copy of hers.

Sarah presented a paper showing how the existence of genetic modification in various authors' futures meant a completely different way of presenting character. When the body is no longer fixed, what you look like says as much about you as our clothes do today. She focused on British writers from the last decade or so, such as Justine Robson, Charlie Stross, Ken MacLeod, etc. It was the sort of excellent paper where you'd note a question to yourself, and then she'd answer it.

Stefan's paper hewed closer to the conference theme (Time and the Fantastic), and he dealt with how time flows in polders in fantasy lit. Polder in this context is a Clute-ism, and generally means a niche in the fantasy world with boundaries against the outside world, sometimes a safe place for the heroes, often maintained by one central figure. Lothlorien rather exemplifies the concept. One thing I thought Stefan did remarkably well was realize that the term 'time' had gotten rather overloaded in these discussions. Thus he defined 'tempo' to mean the pace at which time flows in the polder, 'moment' to mean a moment in time, and 'historical time' to distinguish the passage of time outside the polder. He proceeded to apply the polder concept to Lothlorien from Tolkein, Djelibeybi from Discworld, and the Mythago Wood cycle of Robert Holdstock. Also, his delivery is first-rate--I've rarely met a drier sense of humor than Stefan's.

My paper this year was completely unimportant except inasmuch as it lays the groundwork for something *incredibly cool* that I'm going to do *next* year--however, I'm afraid it's all sekrit and I can't talk about it currently. But come to ICFA next year and see! This year I was telling people not to come to my session, but to go see Gary & Amelia Beamer or Stacie instead (although bless them, Curtis, Ted Chiang, Robert Sawyer and Fiona Kelleghan came anyway). NEXT year I shall be dragging people bodily into my paper session--at least, if it turns out as cool as I hope it will.

Other than that, it was getting to know folks better and getting to know new folks. Shameless name dropping time! I spent time with (aside from those already mentioned): Marie Brennan, Chris Barzak and his partner Tony, Daryl Gregory + wife Kathy and son Ian (whose names I hope I'm spelling correctly), Crystal Black, John Kessel, James Patrick Kelley, Russell Leston, Peter Straub, F. Brett Cox, Andy Duncan, Patrick O'Leary, and more whom I'm afraid I've blurred out after rather a lot of wine.

Oh, and Gary used a quote from a review of mine to introduce Crawford award winner Daryl Gregory! As Jim Kelley put it, I got a shout out from the podium! W00t! But that is minor compared to the fact that the Crawford award goes to awesome writers like Daryl and Chris Barzak (last year). Check out Daryl's award speech, the video (or at least the audio) is on his blog--very well done, I thought.

So, this ICFA was great, and next ICFA stands to be even better. I'd say life doesn't get any better than this, but I've got a midterm tomorrow, a presentation on bionocular rivalry worth 20% of my grade on Thus night, and for some odd reason, I didn't get much studying done over my spring break. I can't imagine why. So I'll slog through the remaining 50 more days of my semester, and then life will be truly be excellent.

Oh, and pictures to come after Curtis and I unpack the camera! For now, here are some from Mr. Gregory, and some from Ellen Datlow.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

New and Shiny

First up, a new small press is a'borning! Verb Noire has the mission statement:
To celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more.

What does that mean? That if you're a talented writer with an awesome, original story about a POC girl/guy/transgendered character, there is a place for you. And that if you're a sci-fi/fantasy fan who has grown tired of the constant whitewashing of these genres, there is a place for you, too.

I wish them all the best. Of course, the best way to wish them all the best is to actually cough up cold hard cash (and I did!), and here's the link where you can do so. Thanks to Torque Control for helping to spread the word.

On the gender-issues front, look what arrived in the mail! Fresh from Wesleyan Press, a wonderful collection of essays On Joanna Russ (it does just what it says on the tin). Edited by Farah Mendlesohn, and with essays by such luminaries as Gary K. Wolfe, Graham Sleight, and Andrew Butler, I'm definitely looking forward to reading this.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Extra Musing on "The Love We Share"

I've got a review of Christopher Barzak's The Love We Share Without Knowing up at SFSignal today. It's a lovely book, and you should definitely read it, but I'd also like to do some extra musing on this book, Nicholas Royle's The Enigma of Departure, and Samuel Delany's Starboard Wine (a review of which may appear in the next issue of Fruitless Recursion).

In Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany lays out a theory of how Literature differs from Paraliterature (his term for genre fiction in this context), and why they need to be judged differently. He includes some fascinating historical and theoretical background, but for my purposes his main point boils down to this: Literature focuses on the 'subject,' the subjective experience of the world, where 'the world' is taken as given and more or less immutable; whereas Paraliterature focuses on the 'object,' i.e. the world built specifically for the story.

Now, we can see that not everything called Literature fits this mold. Especially before the reigns were tightened post-Henry James, books like Les Miserables have characters interacting rather vigourously with their world. And of course, in Paraliterature, we can see some deep and rich subjective experiences of these made-up worlds. However, this argument overall struck me as quite convincing, and it helped crystalize something that always bothered me about so much modern Literature: character actions can only affect themselves and their relationships; not the world around them. Thus when reading things like Catcher in the Rye, the 'protagonists' may strike the reader as insufferably passive (at least, if you're used to the conventions of Paraliterature). Likewise, if you're used to the conventions/protocols of Literature, you may wonder why the heck you have to wade through all the 'irrelevant' world-building/info-dumping to get to the 'important' stuff, i.e. the character's inner state.

OK, so now I'd like to use this position to examine two books, Love We Share and Enigma of Departure. If you look at my reviews, you can see that I quite like the former and didn't like the latter at all. Now, there are reasons of craft that influence thoses stances, but I think that the core of the matter may come down to the fact that I approached them both as Paraliterature, but Enigma may in fact be Literature.

Prima facie, that doesn't have to be true. Both books partake only lightly of the fantastic, and both focus strongly on the emotional states of their characters. However, Barzak is constructing a world for us, and that world is explored with depth. It's just that instead of a made-up world, he's showing us modern-day Japan. Perhaps for a Japanese reader this would be closer to Literature, but given that Barzak is clearly writing for a Western/American audience, he engages in world-building with his foreign country just as much as any sf author must build a future. We read Love We Share as much to experience a world that is fundamentally different from our own as we do to engage with the characters.

In contrast, Enigma does not engage in world-building, even when it travels to foreign lands. Venice in this novella is strange, but it is strange atmospherically, not concretely. We can't be sure how much of the strangeness comes from its foreignness, how much from the intrusion of the fantastic, and how much from the protagonist's messed-up mental state. We're never grounded in the world that the protagonist moves through, because the story isn't in any way about the world (i.e. the object); instead it is completely about the subject and how he relates to death and art. While I found that to be annoying, I think that's probably at least in part due to my incorrect expectations (although I think that the Paraliterary expectation is forgivable: the book is published by PS Publishing and was sent to SFSignal for review). Not to say that the book is perfect as Literature; I still think it has some issues, especially in its own expectation of its audience. However, I think I may have judged it unfairly by standards that weren't appropriate to it.

I have to say, so far I've found Delany's Literature/Paraliterature stance to be very useful in examining what and how I read. It also seems to be less prescriptive, and doesn't weigh down its arguments with value judgements about which one is 'better.' However, I'm aware that this is new only to me; Starboard Wine came out in 1984. I'd be curious to hear the perspectives of people who dealt with it much earlier; I wonder how it's standing the test of time.