Sunday, November 30, 2008
I have very little time to report tonight (that stupid, stupid day job getting in the way in a horrific fashion these past few days), but a couple of major milestones with M-Brane SF have been attained lately: 1) I feel I have enough decent material in hand to make issue #1 a respectable first outing; and 2) I have begun to receive actual paid subscriptions to it!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Reading Paul of Dune reminded me once more of how often one runs into freakily intelligent and scarily capable young children in the sf genre. In Dune, of course, one starts with Paul Atreides who cheated death repeatedly and overthrew a galactic empire while still in his teens. Then there is his sister Alia, an out-and-out freak, who becomes known by such scary monikers “the Abomination” and “St. Alia of the Knife.” Later there are Paul’s kids Leto and Ghanima—the “Children of Dune” themselves and fully as bizarre as Alia—with Leto becoming an even crazier, weirder galactic tyrant than his dad. The latest Anderson-Herbert installment in the series introduces a couple more terrifying kids, the Fenrings’ daughter Marie and the Tleilaxu creation Thallo (who is a cutter…yeah, like a real-world teen cutter; he’s a morbid kid who cuts and burns himself on purpose and is engaged in a particularly extreme rebellion against his "parents").
Thinking of kids in sf then made me remember that there is an Ender’s Game comic book now, based, of course, on Orson Scott Card’s famous novels. While I don’t read a lot of comics, I am interested in seeing this one if for no other reason than to see what someone’s idea of what that world looks like. Ender’s Game, the novel, focuses on very young and very intelligent children with world-shaking capabilities--not super powers, or anything like that; they're just really damned smart. A live-action film is also rumored to be forthcoming, but I can’t imagine being able to do that in a watchable fashion with actors that would actually look as young as the novel’s lead characters are—cuz little kids generally suck in movies (see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in which that poor little fellow is made to say "Let's try spinning! That's a good trick!"). So I predict it would be re-imagined as a story about teenagers (who in turn would be played by actors nearly my age, shades of Beverly Hill 90210 which Jeff now spends Saturday mornings indulging in reruns of on SoapNet). I should, before going on, mention that I’m not a card-carrying “Enderverse” fanatic (despite the fact that I know the word "Enderverse") before a chorus of “gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, ONE OF US!” starts up from that segment of the cybersphere...where there actually exists Ender slash fiction. I have read just four of the books (I think there’s probably like eight or ten of them now? See, I don’t even know and didn’t even bother looking it up when the internet is sitting right here in front of me...). The ones I have read are Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, Speaker for the Dead, and Shadow of the Hegemon (that last one listened to on a nicely done audio book introduced by Harlan Ellison). I loved, loved, loved Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Ender and Bean are characters that I will never forget and will always adore. Their parallel stories told in those two books is exciting, sweet, heroic, charming, harrowing and heartbreakingly, breathtakingly, achingly sad. Ender’s Shadow even has a couple of chills-running-up-my-spine moments when key scenes from the first book happen again—such as Ender meeting Bean for the first time—except seen from Bean’s point-of-view. The other books did not move me as much though, and so I laid down that series. I’m not sure why they didn’t work for me. I think, however, that I might be failing to give more of Card’s books the attention they might deserve because I made the mistake of becoming too aware of the author’s politics. He posts political columns on his site. Though he’s not a raving, foaming-at-the-mouth ideologue, when I am looking at an sf writer’s web page or researching his books, I do not generally want any tendril of the right-wing blogosphere to encroach on that. I’m in fiction mode, not looking for real bullshit out of our stupid old effed-up real world. Oh, and a few years ago, he put out this embarrassing, god-awful wreck of a novel called Empire, which was practically a political screed thinly disguised as fiction. Bill O’Reilly even appeared in it in a plot-important scene for ef’s sake! It was so bad that it caused me to actually blush at certain points during reading it. My ears got hot and my face flushed and I started glancing around surreptitiously, and that’s while I was sitting alone in a room reading something that was in no way my fault and which no one else even knew I had in my hands. [Dean Koontz does something similarly embarrassing in his otherwise charming Brother Odd when he has some characters speculate that maybe their attackers are “Islamo-fascists” and then go on to quote some recent nonsense-of-the-day from the Iranian president]…Please, father of Ender! Never do anything like that again! You, too, father of Odd! I am considering coining a new item of writer lingo based on the O’Reilly Factor scene in Empire. The dictionary definition would be “the naked insertion of current events and political boiler-plate into a work of fiction in such a way that the author’s own views are loudly proclaimed and which has the effect of the author stepping into the story and kicking the reader out of it (and telling him or her to go watch more Fox News).” This term could simply be “pulling an oreilly” or maybe “dropping the o-bomb” or maybe “flippin’ an o”….I’ll give it some more thought. [The Card cover images with this post are from the Wikipedia entries on those novels.]
One of the things this blog is good for is making me keep track of and stay on task with my many projects. Since I claim publicly that I am doing stuff with with my time, I feel some positive pressure to keep making claims to that effect on this blog...The last few days have actually been reasonably productive for me on all fronts: I got some more work done on the magazine, including acquiring a little pile of new fiction submissions to read over and make decisions about; I have made decent, realistic progress on Current Project (probably won’t be done with the complete draft this week, but I’m getting much closer); I spent a whole day, Sunday, lounging around the house with Jeff just being relaxed, during which we certainly caused Rachael Ray to feel a great disturbance in the Force by threatening her self-proclaimed “burger queen” status with our own creation of a giant onion-and-jalapeno stuffed bacon cheese burger…and I am already done with Paul of Dune, have read a lot of Aye, and Gomorrah and have started the Mieville book. Those Dune novels are really pretty quick reads despite their apparent heft. That’s probably due in part to the rather transparent and lightweight style that Anderson and Herbert have used for them. It’s sure not his father’s Dune, but I do find it compulsively readable. This one launches a new three-part story set during the Jihad period that occurs in the space between the first two of the original Frank Herbert novels. It flashes back and forth between that time period where Paul Atreides, trapped in his web of prescience and destiny, barely keeps his hands on the helm of his horrifying Jihad, and an earlier time period where Paul is a boy of twelve and faces war and death for the first time in a gruesome War of Assassins with a rival house (with their sinister yet bumbling enemies, the Harkonnens, lurking behind the scenes). One thing that I liked a lot about it was the handling of Irulan, a character that had never seemed that interesting to me before despite the fact that she is the source of so many of the epigraphs that head chapters in all these books. In this story, she becomes a sympathetic character and it becomes clearer what her reasons were for wanting the task of being Paul’s biographer and what her emotions are concerning her uncomfortable status in the Emperor's household. I think the best of the Anderson-Herbert Dune stories remains the Butlerian Jihad trilogy, but this Paul volume is a nice, shiny new thing to have out there.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The other day I mentioned China Mieville--new to my reading list as of this week--and remarked that I had not gotten around to his well-regarded books yet because they are generally considered to be fantasy and that's not my genre of choice, even when the stories are supposedly awesome. Years ago, my long-lost friend Joe prodded and pressured me into reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (just the first tome of it). It was a hard slog for me, let me tell you. I could appreciate why Jordan's legions of fans loved that book and its many sequels, but something inherent in its high fantastical nature made me not love it as much. Around that same period, the mid-1990s, I delved into Clive Barker, whom we could certainly call a modern fantasist, definitely a horror writer, but certainly not an sf author. I like his stuff a lot. It's not high fantasy and has enough crazy sick-ass horror--which I do like quite well--to keep me excited. And, of course, he's such a terrific writer. Also during the decade of 1990s, I was introduced to the work of Neil Gaiman, whose best known work at the time was the Sandman comic book series. I was not then and am not now a big consumer of comics. I generally take them on a case by case basis when one is brought to my attention and do not seek them out that often. I enjoyed Sandman quite a bit, though, and Gaiman's name stuck in my head. This was before the publication of his novels, however, and I wasn't aware what if anything else he had to offer. And there wasn't anything like Wikipedia where one can go and just pull up a list of everything any writer has published. Fast forward to 1997 (or maybe it was 1998), and I was working as sous chef at the Whittemore House, a fancy private club on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. Neil Gaiman was on campus as a guest of honor of some sort and I learned, to my great excitement, that he would be having lunch that day in one of our private dining rooms. I told all of my co-workers, including the event planner who had booked the luncheon, of the deep significance of someone as illustrious as Neil Gaiman coming within our walls and eating our food. No one in the Whittemore House except for me had ever heard of him and their eyes glazed over when I mentioned Sandman, a friggin comic book! Though my work at this place consisted principally of planning and executing the food--and not serving it--I finagled my way into being involved with actually bringing the food to the dining room and I, myself personally, placed Neil Gaiman's lunch before him. The plate was beautiful, and I must say that he was quite impressed both with the food and with the great finesse of my service. Well, I don't know if that's true or not because I never actually spoke to him. I snuffed out deep within my heart any fannish impulse to say something like, "I really admire your work! Mr. Gaiman!!" Gradually, I make my way to the point of this entry...A few years later, I became aware that Gaiman had published some novels and decided that I must, of course, read them. And that's where we come back around to my thing with fantasy and my trepidation about whether or not I will be able to like China Mieville, another contemporary fantasist. I admit now, in public, that my copy of Gaiman's American Gods is sitting on my shelf unfinished with the mark still in it about a hundred pages deep where I stopped and moved on to something else...about seven years ago. In spite of his lovely style and huge imagination and just plain coolness, I found myself grinding to a halt with this book. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the "gods" aspect of the thing. The fantasy elements, even as updated as they are, tripped me up. I have decided, however, that in the near future, I will give American Gods (and urban/contemp fantasy in general) the chance it deserves. Two things inspire me to revisit that book in particular and Gaiman's work in general: 1) I recently read his young adult novel InterWorld (with Michael Reaves) and it was completely charming, quite exciting and even pretty scary; 2) I recently discovered his blog, which is by far the best and most voluminous writer's blog I have ever seen with entries going back by the hundreds for years. You should quit reading this page now and go directly to Gaiman's site. It's addictive. A link to it is down below in my "favorite site" section (yeah, I keep doing that--sending you down to that list instead of just putting the link right here--because I want everyone to scroll down through the whole page and see what else I have to offer). The images with this entry are, of course, the covers of the aforementioned Gaiman books and also the great Whittemore House in St. Louis, the site of my in-person encounter with the genius and super-blogger.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Work on the mag is proceeding slowly, but that’s okay. I don’t want to rush it along too fast and have it be a mess. I have increased somewhat my ambition for the quantity of material in issue #1, and am now actively seeking some new submissions for the very first outing. I am about to post calls for submissions on some sites, but have been trying to decide on what exactly I want my listings to say. I guess it’s simplest to just direct everyone to this site where they can read the full guidelines. When I compare, however, what I am planning to do with what a lot of other publishers are doing I start to wonder if I am way out in left field somewhere. For example, my guidelines for submissions have almost no “rules” whatsoever. I was paging though listings and linking to guidelines pages by way of some market listing sites the other night and was astounded at how restrictive, narrow and nitpicky about small details that so many editors actually are. Everywhere I turned there were statements such as: “ANY submissions received before blah blah blah date will be deleted UNREAD!!!” Other stern warnings inveighed against using “rich text format” or NOT using it, attaching or NOT attaching documents to emails, violating various submission windows, submitting for a particular “theme” before the proper date, querying or not querying, and a whole shit-heap of other pointless nonsense that has nothing to do with storytelling. As I read through guidelines, market by market, I found that at least half of them were so imposing with their rules and regulations that I would give up in despair and never send them my story or novel for fear that the reply and rejection would be so scathing that my computer screen would melt upon displaying it. And then that made me stand up, MacBook in hand, and yell, “Give me an effing break, y’all. You’re just a bunch of small press people who aren’t even really paying anyone anything!” Anyway, I am launching a science fiction magazine, and I’d like to see some neat stories and articles for it. That’s about it.
I have really piled up a reading list for the coming couple of weeks. My friend Pat lent me his copy of KW Jeter’s Farewell Horizontal after I mentioned that I was between books and looking for something to read. That was yesterday, but just this morning I visited the library and came away with three other projects. The first is Samuel Delany’s short story collection Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories, which should serve me well during down time at work. This also happens to be the last Delany offering that our library has for me, so I will have to hunt up more at bookstores eventually. The second book I selected is China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I have not yet read anything by Mieville and had not really sought him out knowing that he is considered to be a “fantasy” writer, and fantasy is not usually my genre. Yeah, I understood him to be a “new” kind of fantasist and a member of the “new weird” group and so on…but still. I recently listened to an interview with him on Agony Column, however, and found him to be so interesting to listen to that I decided I’d give his books a chance the next time I encountered one. So I am pretty excited sitting here looking at this still unread copy of Perdido Street Station and am planning to dive deeply into it yet tonight. Unless something else gets in the way first, that something else being my third selection: PAUL OF DUNE. I wasn’t really ready for a new Dune book yet. I know they come out roughly annually and I was vaguely aware that Paul of Dune was either due soon or maybe already out there. Normally, I am pretty excited about the Dune releases—happy to be fed all the Dune lore they want to shove my way—but I just have so much else going on right now that I feel that I am being forced into reading it right now just because I saw it today and checked it out from the library. And this new one launches yet another trilogy. Jeeeeezus! I’ll update y’all soon on it. [Images with this entry are cover art from a foreign edition of Paul of Dune, Aye and Gomorrah, and Perdido Street Station as well as China Mieville, all taken from the various books' Amazon listings.]
Everyone needs to immediately check out clonepod (there’s a link way down below in my list of some fave sites; the artwork to the left is from their site and depicts, presumably, the "clone pod" itself). It’s sort of an sf webzine except they present the stories in audio form as podcasts, and they do a really fine job of it. It reminds me so much of the old time radio dramas and the author readings of short stories and novels that, as a kid, I would check out from the library in the form of (get this) vinyl records and cassette tapes. The quality of the stories on clonepod is solid and it’s just too cool to be able hear them read aloud while one cooks dinner or lies on the couch. Leave here at once and go to clonepod!
The novel, still known as Current Project, is now in a state where I think I can reasonably claim that all of the major scenes and events are at least represented somehow in the manuscript. What is still missing, however, is a lot of detail in some segments and some back-fill concerning some of the characters and how they got to be the way they are. I have a couple extra days off from work in the coming week, and am setting a goal of having the manuscript largely done save for polishing by the end of the month.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Though the confirmed existence of planets outside our own star system has long been one of the coolest things that astronomy has had to offer to the lay person, it has always been somewhat unsatisfying that their detection was always by very indirect and complicated methods beyond the ken of non-scientists. But no more: just days ago the existence of three planets in orbit of HR 8799 and one planet of the Fomalhaut system was directly observed telescopically (the images alongside this entry are from Wikipedia; the one on the top is an artist's impression of the planet Fomalhaut b and the other one is the Hubble image of the Fomalhaut system). For me, Fomalhaut is one of the best possible stars for finding the first directly observable extrasolar planet because it is a star that has shown up again and again in science fiction. Just a few examples: in Gordon Dickson’s Childe Cycle novels, Fomalhaut 3 is the homeworld of the Dorsai; the second planet of Fomalhaut is called Rokanon in Ursula LeGuin’s Rocannon’s World; Philip Dick, in Radio Free Albemuth, places Fomalhaut as the source of an alien probe; in August’s Derleth’s Lovecraftian stories “The House on Curwen Street” and “Dweller in the Dark,” Fomalhaut is the home star of the god Cthugha, a sort of fire spirit. It becomes more and more obvious over time (not that readers of science fiction ever doubted it) that the universe, including relatively nearby areas of it, is chockfull of planets, and the spectacular accomplishment of actually seeing in a straightforward way Fomalhaut b and the planets of HR 8799 really renews our interest in this fact.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
A subject on NPR’s Talk of the Nation show this afternoon was the internet and its role in politics during the recent general election campaign and what its importance might be going forward. President Obama, for example, will have, as result of his amazing grass roots and internet-assisted election campaign, access to a vast network of supporters and interested parties that he can appeal to directly and motivate to support his initiatives in a way no previous president has had. It makes it possible for the new president to bypass altogether traditional media to get out his message and even bring extraordinary pressure to bear on Congress should they be obstacles to his agenda. This brought to my mind the political system of Dan Simmons' Hyperion universe and made me think that he might have anticipated this developing fusion of technology and democracy in his description of the “All Thing.” More or less the parliament or perhaps lower house congress of the Hegemony of Man in the first two books of this series, the All Thing appears to be a kind of mass-participatory democracy enabled by a sort of super-internet (the World Web) that links all the different planetary populations of the Hegemony and allows them to access directly, with their brains, any information they may want and to participate in All Thing debates. While its operations are not described in great detail in the story, it is evidently a highly responsive and accessible branch of government: CEO Meina Gladstone (CEO being something like a prime minister in this world) and her advisors are continuously monitoring changes in the flow of opinion in the All Thing. (I assume the term “All Thing” is taken from the name of the Icelandic legislative assembly, the Althing (or “all-thing,” thing being an old Norse word for assembly and from the same root as the word that we use to mean “object.”—thanks Wiktionary.) ) Anyway, it will be interesting to see if our new president has already created a sort of nascent All Thing using the internet and how that will evolve in the coming years.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I read this a few weeks before I started this blog, so it's not current reading exactly. Nonetheless, we all need to take a step back and take a look: SLAN HUNTER! On the front cover of this amazing book is an endorsement from Harlan Ellison which says something to the effect that AE Van Vogt was a grand master and that Slan was his masterpiece and now, "like a dream come true" Kevin Anderson takes us back to that "singular world," the world of Jommy Cross. Sorry for the clunky paraphrase, but I don't actually own my own copy of it--I borrowed it from the library and have since returned it. It was like a dream come true for me because I love Slan and Jommy Cross like almost nothing else in all fiction. Van Vogt's rich, decayed, scabrous 1940s-but-with-spaceflight world is unforgettable to anyone who has experienced it. Jommy's astounding powers and wild devices and vehicles thrill every time I read about them. Anderson (the same Kevin of the recent run of Dune novels with Brian Herbert), by finishing Van Vogt's last great work and doing it in a style that meshes almost seamlessly with the original novel, has given us something that I had thought impossible: not just a brand new AE Van Vogt novel but a worthy follow-up to the best of them all. If you haven't read Slan, stop what your doing right now and solve that problem. If you are more of a contemporary fiction reader and are worried about something that old being accessible to you, then quit worrying. Slan is as modern a tale as the newest thing published today and probably carries with it a lot of fresh new relevance in this age of politically-motivated hysteria about immigrants and alternative lifestyles. Then, after having read Slan, seek out and read immediately Anderson's sequel and experience what we long-time fans of Van Vogt could only have dreamt of before now: reading the real sequel back-to-back with the beloved original! I won't throw out any spoilers in case someone hasn't read Slan Hunter yet, but I will say that its ending--literally its final few paragraphs--freaking rocks out and makes one wonder if there might not be a third story someday.
I set down Delany for a few days (in the midst of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand). I generally don't take a break from a book midway but I had two other pressing priorities. The first was that I needed to catch up on the old horror movies that I had DVRed on TMC on Halloween night. They featured older films based on HP Lovecraft stories. I had never before seen Die, Monster, Die!, a film based on the story "The Colour Out of Space." It is fantastic, particularly during its climactic sequence. The second thing that took me away from Delany was that I needed to study some pages of Gene Wolfe's New Sun books in my ongoing effort to figure out exactly how it is that he conveys such an intense atmosphere of weirdness and ancient decay. I am trying to achieve something like it for a scene in Current Project and I will freely admit that I would blatantly and shamelessly rip off Wolfe's style for it if I could just figure out what the hell it even is. When I dissect the words and sentences, the mood lifts and seems not so special anymore. When I just slip back into casual reader mode and take it all in, then the mystery returns. Take, for example, this passage from Shadow of the Torturer:
"The shore on which the averns grew was less marshy than the other. It seemed strange, after having walked on buoyant sedge and floated on water for so long, to set foot again on soil that was no worse than soft. We had landed at some distance from the plants; but we were near enough now that they were no longer a mere bank of white, but growths of definite color and shape, whose size could readily be estimated. I said, 'They are not from here, are they? Not from our Urth." No one replied; I think I must have spoken too softly for any of the others (except perhaps Dorcas) to hear." [page 148, Orb Edition]
Taken out of context, it is as ordinary a few lines of text as anything can be in a Gene Wolfe story, yet taken in--swallowed whole even--along with what comes immediately before and immediately after it, it's a piece of the ambience of danger and the weird that pervades every page of the tale. It's as if it can't be broken down into its elements. I really can't get enough of Gene Wolfe, but I am going back to Delany now since I am still in the process of undoing the huge blunder of not having read him earlier in my life.
Yeah, the novel is still known only as Current Project. I'm not sure why a title still eludes me this late into the work. It now stands at about fifty thousand words and is fully plotted and it seems like its title should have exposed itself by now. No big deal: it will probably crop up amid the next fifty thousand words. Like with the magazine, progress has been slow during the last two weeks though not negligible. I have a lot of new scenes that need to get grafted into the main bulk of the story and those will, in turn, show me where I need to do more work. I am still rather set on having the completed first draft sitting here in my Mac by Christmas, but I need to step my pace a bit. Even when it's done, I am not sure what then to do with it. I have considered giving it its first publication as a serial in M-Brane SF, but I really don't want to junk up the zine with too much of my own material. I'd prefer my hand to be seen only in its editing. Also, I still harbor a very intense fantasy of Current Project being published for "real" by a legit publisher. We shall see.
The problem right now--as if evident from my lack of postings since before Halloween--is the fact that outside life has been intruding too much and I have gotten nothing done on the zine yet. Well, I have done one thing: I moved its launch date from January to February. I am determined that this will the last delay. My projects right now are to get more word of it out to other sites and resources and get a few more submissions of fiction and articles. So, yeah, if you are reading this and know of a place where the existence of a new sf magazine should become known or you are a writer, then go right ahead and let me know.