We are all on a journey whether we recognize it or not. In this issue, we focus on varying stages of them. Keri Bas takes us to a denouement in “Leftovers”, while Ruth Nestvold’s “Triple Helix” provides hyperfiction that explores beginnings, middles, and possible ends. In “Unstringing the Bow” by Yoon Ha Lee, we find an unexpected journey’s end.
Our poetry this month, “Hold Fast” by Tina Connolly, “The Transcendental Turnpike” by Lane Adamson, and “Galahad, On The Eve Of The Quest” by Mikal Trimm provide insights to journeys mythic and reality-based.
Finally, Sean Melican shares his opinion on five of his latest reads.
Please enjoy this quarter’s issue!
Vol. 5 Issue 2
“Leftovers” – Keri Bass
“Triple Helix” – Ruth Nestvold
“Unstringing the Bow” – Yoon Ha Lee
“Hold Fast” – Tina Connelly
“The Transcendental Turnpike” – Lane Anderson
“Galahad, On The Eve Of The Quest” – Mikal Trimm
Interview: Alan DeNiro
Five Reviews – Sean Melican
DeNiro, Alan. Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead. Small Beer Press ISBN: 1-931520-17-8
McDonald, Ian. River of Gods. Pyr/Prometheus ISBN: 1-59102-436-6
Bowes, Richard. Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies. PS Publishing ISBN: 1-904619-39-8
Morris, Mark ed. Cinema Macabre. PS Publishing ISBN: 1-904619-44-4
Lambridis, Scott, ed. Brainchild: a collection of artifacts. Omnibucket ISBN:0-9774579-0-7
When you buy Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, skip to “Salting the Map” first, then read, “Skinny Dipping the Lake of the Dead” and “The Fourth.” After that, read in any order.
“Salting the Map” is probably the only story that will feel familiar to (will be easy reading for) speculative fiction readers. Casey is a recent college graduate working as an editor in a vintage cartography company. His boss tells him to salt the index with phony towns complete with population numbers. Why? To prevent corporate theft, of course. Except that the real reason is much more, ahem, magical. There is a true narrative arc with identifiable heroes and villains, a love interest, a plot.
Likewise, “Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead” has a traditional narrative structure. The narrator (whose name is absent until the final sentence) describes with surprising brevity and wit a fractured world. The U.S. is in pieces, parents live separate from their children, some people (deaders) live across the lake from those who live in Suddenly, one of the fractured bits of Pittsburgh. The narrator’s life is fractured as well. He doesn’t know what he wants (whether to go to college where he thinks maybe he’d work in computers, which is more or less the equivalent of smithing today) until he meets a young woman from across the lake. She’s with his best friend but, well, you can probably guess. The pleasure of reading isn’t derived from the obvious triangle, but from the exquisite world-building and the unusual structure. There are numerous footnotes (mildly reminiscent of The Kiss of the Spider Woman) and the purpose of the narrative isn’t clear until the end, but there are plenty of references that will easily resonate with many readers: young love, uncertainty about the future, uncertainty about college, generational gaps, music, drugs, sex. Structurally, it is a bridge between “Salting the Map” and the rest of Mr. DeNiro’s stories.
“The Fourth” is less narrative, more comedy. Indigo McCarthy (note the name) returns home on the fourth of July (note the date) from the post office with “…a manila envelope with no return address and a Berkeley postmark (itself suspicious), which contained three small packages of Kool-Aid powder: Lemon Punch, Fruit Cocktail, and Wacky Blueberry. Oh, Indigo McCarthy must have been up to something, the agent knew.” This agent is only one of many tracking Indigo and determined to find out the reason for and sender of the Kool-Aid. What follows is a comic romp of government surveillance, failed marriage and sometimes both. (Indigo’s wife keeps her vibrator hidden in a hollowed-out copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.)
After those, reading Mr. DeNiro’s stories work, but the kind of work that releases endorphins. Mr. DeNiro is also a poet and many of his stories use poetic structure more than narrative structure. Roughly, poetic structure collects symbols, motifs, metaphors and similes, double meanings, puns, and other literary devices into a coherent passage. Narrative structure uses plot, character, description, dialogue and other such devices to tell a story. Narrative can be poetic (see my review of River of Gods and poetry can be a narrative (see Dante, Beowoulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey) but even those last have heroes, villains, climaxes, denouements, morals.
The real pleasure in reading Mr. DeNiro is identifying the relationships between two seemingly unrelated values (algebraic, not moral.)
“Our Byzantium,” for example, is written to you (you the reader take on the value of a particular woman) a woman the unnamed narrator is desperately in lust (maybe love, maybe not) with, but she is unattainable, as she is desperately in lust (almost certainly love) with Todd, who isn’t very good for or to her. While she’s gone, the Byzantines invade their tiny college town. Other (not necessarily lesser) writers would have a field day with historical minutiae, probably setting up a heroic stand against or subtle infiltration of the Byzantine army or bureaucracy. There are fantastic elements: A picture of the Empress Theodora, the Byzantine leader, ripped from National Geographic, decorates the wall but by the time the story ends has become a mosaic. And yes, the narrator and Jerilyn (his friend) flee when they realize what chit the Byzantine soldiers have given him represents. But like good poetry, its meaning is as much figurative as literal.
(Spoiler alert.) The historical Empress Theodora is a typical fantastic heroine. Daughter of a bear baiter, she becomes a prostitute and actress (then and now, the difference is a broad, shaded gray line) before becoming the Emperor Justinian’s wife. (Oh! I see a trilogy!) She also advocated for women’s rights to adultery and abortion. She, like the pined-for love, never appears except as a symbol (not coincidentally), and this is the pleasure we read for. The Empress Theodora is a figure that cannot be reached, a beautiful, powerful, sexual woman. The unnamed woman is equally unreachable, equally sexual. Our hero (except he’s pathetic) is destined to physically be unmanned (a curious juxtaposition to the nutes in River of Gods, who wish to be unsexed) but he’s already been emotionally neutered. There are other women interested in him, but he can’t sexually perform for them. What does this say about heroines in fantastic literature, about love and lust, about unattainable women, about pornography? (That last might be a reach.) It is important to note that, unlike much of fantastic literature, the potent figure (knight, king) is not a man (the male figure is more or less impotent) but a woman. Sexual power structures are not limited to the traditional; they can be equally as damaging to either gender. But neither is Theodora a monster, a witch, a Gorgon, any of the traditional powerful women who are (almost invariably) hideous or monstrous or both. Mr. DeNiro has built a powerful fable, and moral argument, about the nature of sexual and power relations.
Other stories are quite powerful as well. “The Excavation” juxtaposes the, well, excavation of a house with the exploration of reasons for a failed marriage. “The Caliber” explores (and juxtaposes) the ulterior motives of cult leaders and high school cliques. “The Exchanges” is a nifty, fun fable on identity written, astonishingly, in a single sitting. “Child Assassin” is a dark, disturbing story with a fantastic underpinning that I didn’t discover. (Mr. DeNiro told me.) Analyses of power structures, particularly sexual, and an underlying rage at inequity are common: “The Fourth,” “If I Leap,” “A Keeper, “The Caliber,” “Fuming Woman,” “Our Byzantium,” the long and complex “Home of the,” and others; and the fluidity of identity is explored sometimes playfully (“The Exchanges, “Salting the Map,”) and other times with a curious anger: “Cuttlefish.”
Many stories resist easy analysis. But behind each story is a ferocious intelligence using fictional structures, poetic and narrative, for purposes of demythologizing (while simultaneously creating new mythologies), humanizing and demonizing the underpinnings of political (in the broadest sense of the word) structures. This book is not an easy read; but it is a worthwhile one.
Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is another award-winning British novel brought to the U.S. by Pyr (like Silver Screen, reviewed in March) originally published in 2004. A heartfelt thanks to Pyr for bringing a novel of this quality to the U.S. reading public.
The most noticeable and notable quality is the setting – India, 2047. I’ve argued in other forums (double meaning intended) for more inclusion (mostly referencing the paucity of black writers and black characters) and while none of the character are black, the vast majority are Indian, Hindu, Muslim, all of which are as embarrassingly rare in science fiction as black characters. I can’t say how accurate Mr. McDonald’s portrayals are, not being familiar with India, its peoples or culture, but he seems to flesh out the characters without resulting to much stereotyping, save for a few instances where he lapses into dialogue reminiscent of The Simpsons’ Apu. The setting feels genuinely gritty, dirty, Indian (at least from what I’ve learned watching the occasionally documentary), not at all the flattened plastic-and-chrome futures of the early cyberpunks, who were brilliant if inaccurate in their belief that every city would echo every other.
The near future is well-imagined. The United States has outlawed aeais (AI) above a two point five intelligence rating through the Hamilton Act. Other countries have been persuaded or bullied into agreement. Think of the silly, knee-jerk anti-cloning laws recently enacted. In vitro science has advanced so that the sex of a child can, for a price, be chosen. In India, where boys (apparently) are preferred, this has led to a four to one ratio of men to women so that women are in such high demand they have their pick of any man, and a working woman, like the Prime Minister, is an egregious anomaly. (Desperate Housewives taken to a whole new level.) I’m not sure women as a group would agree to domestic servitude so docilely, but this is India, not the United States.
Children can be, for a much greater price, be engineered. These are known as Brahmins. Rather than inventing a term, Mr. McDonald abducts (if I understand Umberto Eco’s terminology) an already existing word so that the reader has to determine the meaning from context. (Brahmin is the highest caste, a priestly caste.) He also abducts sundarban, which is a tiger-infested jungle but also, in the future, places where outlawed aeais, and other black- or gray-market ‘ware is built, used, sold. It is a stroke of genius to abduct words from an alien (and by alien I mean a not-me, an Other, not necessarily creatures from another planet) culture and alter them the way that words do get altered. It adds the important aspect of plausibility and subtracts the distancing effect of invented language.
Again for a price, a man or woman can become an nute. Mr. McDonald not only imagines the reasons for doing so, but the remarkable efforts necessary to biologically, chemically, and psychologically eliminate all factors that internally (the way we perceive ourselves) and externally (the way others perceive us) identify our sex and gender.
I make much of abduction and language because much of the science fiction I’ve read in the past few years has felt poetically flat (and Mr. McDonald writes beautifully) and poorly imagined, a sharp contrast to the rich and resonant sentences that make up this wonderful book. Many would give grammar software conniption fits, but the rhythms are superb.
There are nine major characters, some more major than others, and a great many minor but important players. Mr. Nandha is a Krishna cop, a literary descendant of Javert dedicated to hunting and excommunicating unlawful aeais. Note the abduction of an overtly religious term to disguise what is truthfully an act of murder, much as neutralize, terminate, and collateral damage have been abducted by the military to hide what it is they do. (Sidenote: Soldiers are important for a nation, but denying or pretending what soldiers do – kill in the name of defense and national identity – with disguising terms is dishonest at best.) Parvati is his unhappy wife, a near-prisoner in his (not her) lush home.
Shaheen Badoor Khan is an assistant to the Prime Minister with a wife and a socially unacceptable sexual desire for nutes. Tal is a nute who will unman him. (On language again: the pronoun for nutes is yt, which is awkward to read, but notable in that every bit of our language is polarized sexually. There are no words that can easily be abducted for use in referring to a third gender. Er, non-gender?)
Vishram Ray is a former stand-up comic and one of three brothers whose father divides his successful power company between them. Vishram will find discover a secret that could potentially save the world. (Alas, there are entities who have other ideas.)
Shiv is a criminal, but notably not a killer, in heavy debt to figures in the underworld. Yogendri is his subservient and brutal partner. What Shiv can’t do, Yogendri can. Najia is a blossoming journalist (ruthless but with a heart of gold) who will uncover multiple conspiracies. So, all right, some of the characters are more cardboard than others. N.K. Jivanjee is the figurehead of an extremist anti-government group.
Lisa Durnau and Thomas Lull are Americans geniuses in the field of artificial intelligence. Lull has picked up along the way a prophet, seer, telekinetic, telepathic prophet name Aj. Who is she? The American characters are, honestly, unnecessary. Is their appearance an effort (calculated or not) to draw in American readers who are notoriously self-centric?
Town and Country is the Indian soap, composed entirely of CGI actors who have invented identities and lives outside the soap, and much of the drama from the soap is about the ‘lives’ of the ‘actors’ and entirely unrelated to the storylines of the soap itself. Town and Country is an important character. (I wish I could explain how fun it is to write that sentence but it would ruin the story.)
There is a heavy drought taking a physical and political toll, and the Indian government is floating an iceberg into the bay, but there may be rain. The river of gods may be literally and figuratively flooded. And, oh yeah, why is there a seven-billion-year-old asteroid containing pictures of Lisa, Lull and Aj? (Can’t have a science fiction novel without the Big, Enigmatic Object.)
All of these characters will (of course) come to a gigantic, splashy, fun and tragic climax which unfortunately isn’t as original or revelatory as I’d like to see (some of the twists are obvious) and doesn’t quite stand up to reason. Aj in particular is more of a nod to form (and an obvious moral) than a true character.
Despite that single, structural weakness, this is an excellent book and one which reminded me, after a long, dry spell, why I read science fiction.
I was not familiar with Rick Bowes’ work when I read Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies, but I’ll look for it in the future. I started it primarily because Jeffrey Ford wrote the introduction, and finished it because it was good.
Initially the stories blend together as they all bear several hallmarks: gay or at least sexually ambiguous characters, child molestation, promiscuous, anonymous sex and heavy drug use, (but, it should be noted, the sex is usually desperate and neither are at all romanticized), New York and Boston between the 60’s and 90’s, AIDS and cancer. (Mr. Bowes is a gay male and a cancer survivor. He knows of what he writes.)
But slowly the stories define themselves and while they are have substantial similarities, they are equally separate. Brothers and sisters, but not twins.
The penultimate scene in “Circle Dance” ends with “Writing is the place where I can be as bold and compassionate and wise as I choose,” and it seems as if Mr. Bowes himself is talking to us. He writes about being poor, being gay, nearly being killed, watching his brother die. But while it is all of these things, it is also painful, as Mr. Ford says, “Honest.” There are no heroes, only survivors.
“Someday I Shall Rise and Go” is something of an anomaly, a story written from a woman’s perspective. (And my favorite.) Chris Thayers is a young woman hanging onto her worthless boyfriend (soon to be initiated into heroin and crime) and literally nothing else. Even the clothes she wears are borrowed. But her lack of ownership empowers her and, like a dark, powerful and not at all whimsical Alice, she can move through the looking glass to be a heroine.
“Transfigured Night” is a hard story to read. The Guest (who has no name for a long time and good reason) shows up on the porch of two married friends who live the suburban life, steady and safe jobs, steady and safe sex, home cooking, dinners. Slowly we are drawn into a much darker and much, much more dangerous life of sex, drugs, Satanism of a sort, and snuff films. The story turns on a rather common device, but by then there is nothing common at all (how many stories have you read with explicit sex in snuff films?) and what a jaded reader would think is common is horrific and powerful.
“A Huntsman Passing By” uses a rather common idea – fairy tales from a unique perspective – but in this case it is the huntsman, a figure without a name, a spear (or, I suppose, a bow or crossbow) carrier who is also a private detective. The story takes us through the art world of New York and into the darkest of fairy tale territory: revenge.
“Streetcar Dreams” is my least favorite, perhaps because I’d become somewhat tired of New York and drugs and so forth, but “My Life in Speculative Fiction” is excellent. The narrator (if he has a name, I don’t remember and can’t find it) discovers blowjobs and maybe love and rebels against ROTC and his father in the late 60s, but through it all he fictionalizes his life: he is Bobby Shafto, a time traveler and hero. It seems at once a statement and a counterargument: Mr. Bowes’ stories are both autobiography and fiction (which is which I couldn’t begin to guess), but fiction can only shallowly mirror reality in its complexity and tragedy. Don’t take his fiction too seriously, the story tells us. But how can we not? His characters are survivors, rarely heroes, men and women who we most certainly would not want to be, living lives we would rather not. (Compare and contrast to other fantastic stories: wouldn’t you like to be Frodo or Aragorn, or a wizard or king or whatever?) These are the rarest of speculative fiction stories, the sort that describes (it certainly doesn’t prescribe) the darkest parts of our lives and doesn’t let up, not once, to tell us that somewhere over the rainbow is a better world. This is all we’ve got and if there’s something else, it sure as hell ain’t heaven.
If you’re looking for adventure, go somewhere else. If you’re looking for a truth (not the truth, but something close), read Rick Bowes.
What I expected from Cinema Macabre was a collection of sentimental reminiscences, mostly about the first time the writer (usually on the cusp of adolescence) saw his or her first horror film and yes, there are those in spades. There was also the risk of reading dry academic analyses (the sort that equates zombies with capitalism, communism, McCarthyism, Jason Voorhees with STDs – the sort of brilliant reasoning that is anything but deductive, that is entirely inductive), but the writers are writers, thank God, not dry academics. What I found was a detailed analysis of exactly how horror, or more accurately terror, is achieved through dialogue, viewpoint, setting, the accretion of details. Pick any single monograph and it would be pleasant but hardly analytical, but read them all and patterns emerge.
Horror isn’t gore (I suppose it’s futile to wish today’s horror movie maker would learn this lesson since every third movie at Blockbuster is Saw, or Saw II, or Hostel, or some other piece of schlock) but develops (that’s the key word; character development is too much work, too hard today) from the implications of dialogue or set pieces, what’s off-screen matters as much as what’s on, and the inevitability of the climax.
Rather than view movies as weak allegories, the writers as a rule stuck to the strengths and flaws of the story – unnecessary scenes, poor acting, logical disconnects. Several even know historical details – lost scenes, censorship issues – of which the absence in the final product is as telling as what’s left in. What emerges is not only a technical analysis of fear, but a rather loose history of the horror movie genre.
Some choices struck me as odd: Really, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me? Yes, King Kong is a monster movie, but is it in the same genre as Nosferatu and Psycho? And I’ve never seen it, but the “mixed reviews” of The Blair Witch Project Justina Robson mentions were only negative from what I remember. However, she does make a convincing argument. Tim Lebbon does mention Aliens in his analysis of Alien but the sequel is surely better technically and substantially more frightening than the original. A shame that no one wrote about it. For my part, the one movie I cannot, even as an adult, watch for more than twenty minutes is Candyman. Alas, no one wrote about that one either, and so I’ll never know the end.
But the project was never meant to be a balanced study, only a compilation of writers telling you what scares them.
Scott Lambridis, editor of Brainchild: A collection of artifacts, put a great deal of time and effort (as far as I can tell) into getting this book into the hands of reviewers, and into the book itself, which is on heavy, glossy paper in full color. Which is a shame, because the stories themselves (I’ll discuss the art in a moment) are not particularly original or well-told. The conceit of he book (from the back cover) is that it is a collection of artifacts from a zombie outbreak: Stories, fragments really, told be (almost) survivors. Drawings.
Most of the stories involve lots of running, fear, adrenalin, standard and, later, contrived weapons – in other words: the usual – ending in the narrator surrounded and waiting for the army of zombies outside to break through whatever barriers were hastily erected. Out of breath, out of bullets, out of time. Zombie stories can be told well, of course; but when using an overused trope, the only way to tell a compelling story is to fill it with unique characters or ideas. Sadly, these stories are far too short and too poorly written and the ideas warmed over at best save one.
That one bright spot (or at least notable idea) is from Scott Lambridis’ “Finnegan’s Scoop: An Interview with Sgt. Phillip McDougal,” which features this paragraph:
The four holy truths of the undead: primal hunger, rudimentary balance, minimal motor control and an insatiable mindless relentlessness. If the rest of you dies, but the brain stem remains, that’d be your religion too… Remove the brain stem from the equation and even the dead go dead.
Ah! A scientific explanation for zombie-ness. That’s unique. It would even explain why zombies have a lust for brains: they want to replace what they’ve lost. But that’s as far as it goes. The rest is the usual.
I’m not qualified to speak to art (finishing a game of Hangman is an artistic challenge), but the art seems fairly well done, if of the same creepy sameness as the prose. The notable exception is a drawing by Justin Mills, age nine, features a porcine zombie wielding bloody weapons, pierced with bloody wounds and standing over a decapitated corpse. The drawing looks like it was made by a nine-year-old. At first, I took it for verisimilitude (remember the book’s conceit); after all, some survivors would be kids. But to find out it really was made by a child who should be watching cartoons and Harry Potter movies, not George Romero or Danny Boyle, that was the scariest moment in the book.
If you would like to have your book reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you bought a book because of me, please let the publisher and I know. If you’ve passed on something, don’t tell anyone.
Alan DeNiro was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1973, spent 12 years in Catholic school, earned a B.A. in English from the College of Wooster and MFA in poetry writing from the University of Virginia. He attended Clarion in 1998 and with Kristin Livdahl (now his wife), Barth Anderson and Chris Barzak, became the Rat Bastards. His stories have been published in a wide variety of venues, from Strange Horizons to Fence. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Black Hare and Atari Ecologues. His first prose book, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, a collection of short stories, is available from Small Beer Press and has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His blog can be found at www.goblinmercantileexchange.com and the Rat Bastard’s wonderful chapbook series Rabid Transit (number five should be out soon) can be found at http://www.taverners-koans.com/ratbastards. Alan and Kristen have 3 cats (Tora, Kochan, and Piper) and 1 dog (Gambit).
Note: Originally, this was not an interview, just an informal conversation. But the answers were so interesting we turned it into an interview, so if the interviewer seems less invisible than he should be, blame it on the switchover.
Sean: Which story or stories do you feel are most successful in terms of what you hoped they’d become?
Alan: Hmm…if I had to pick, probably “Home of the”, “Child Assassin,” “The Exchanges”…the first because most of the stuff I write is shorter in length and scope, the middle because it was a DIFFICULT story to write (see below), and the last because I wrote it relatively quickly, in just a couple of sittings. I mean, that’s not the only criteria to go on, of course-but also because it is almost all narrative plot, while a lot of stories of mine…don’t have a lot of that. So it was kind of an inverse from my usual process. Basically anytime I’m really stretching myself, I feel like the story is doing something “successful”…
S: Did any story (or stories) surprise you by the reaction or lack thereof of your reading audience? In other words, did you expect a certain reaction that you didn’t get, or get one that you didn’t expect?
A: Not too much-it’s hard to know because half of the stories have been published in literary magazines and half in genre mags…so it’s hard to know how one constituency will feel about a story as opposed to another. Sometimes I’m surprised that some of my stories have a reading audience at all, and for that I’m grateful. I’m not really sure whether it can be pigeonholed, though. E.g., my first published story (the title story) was written at Clarion, is straight SF (in the worldbuilding, leaving aside the execution), yet was published in a literary magazine more known for experimental and quirky poetry, yet was shortlisted for the O. Henry award (which meant…a listing in the back of the O. Henry book, but still, it was a good sign that there wasn’t literary vs. genre hand-wringing, at least in that instance)…So right off the bat I was likely to err on the side of generosity in terms of however different people read my stuff.
S: Your stories seem to be informed as much by poetic structure as narrative structure, which might mean that readers more familiar with narrative structure could have trouble with some of your stories since poetry and narrative prose have different codes. Narrative prose (more familiar to most of our readers) usually requires the reader to follow a character (in the case of some novels, many characters) through a problem or set of problems, and a solution or resolution. In some cases, it’s easy to find the pattern. In others, it can be more difficult, but narrative follows narrative arc. But with poetry, structure is different. It seems to me (and I’m not a scholar of poetry by any stretch) that poetry is often a collection of images, metaphors, similes or analogies, puns or other forms of wordplay, organized in some way, either highly so (haiku, sestina, sonnet, et cetera) or free form. But there is generally no narrative arc; instead the reader (or maybe listener) is expected to extract meaning from the form, organization, wordplay. For example, it seems to me that “Our Byzantium” expects the reader to realize that Empress Theodora is what might be called the classical fantastic (as in Tolkien and his myriad shadows) heroine: a woman of the absolute lowest birth who rises to the absolute pinnacle of power, and that the whore/virgin, the simultaneous physical inaccessability and daily intimacy (everyone knows who the Empress is) and duality of the Empress is a play on the narrator’s pining for a woman he can never have (who the narrator has raised on an impossible pedestal of perfection but who is also quite sexually ambitious) coupled (ha ha) with his inability to be physically or emotionally intimate with woman who are interested in him. As far as I can tell, “Our Byzantium” has no traditional narrative arc. Similarly, “The Excavation” is a juxtaposition of a literal excavation beneath a house and the emotional/sexual structures that a marriage is built on, “The Caliber” is a play on the literal caliber of a gun and the caliber of person, while “The Fourth,” “Salting the Map”, Cuttlefish”, and “Skinny Dipping…” seem to follow a more traditional narrative arc, though with an exuberance for the absurd and impossible.
Would you agree and/or elaborate?
A: I think this is pretty accurate. Not that I’m thinking of these things consciously during the writing process (except at times when coming up for air after immersed in a story)…most of my “training” for fiction came from when I got my MFA in poetry-or at least the way I approached fiction. Clarion was good in that it helped me with some storytelling skills, nuts and bolts stuff, that frankly I didn’t really have earlier. What’s interesting is looking at the early history of the “story” and how it blended into poetry and verse, how there was still this gray area between the two until rather recently. Long, narrative poetry still was able to perform a function in the culture until the beginning of the 20th century. A lot of the impulse of the medieval romance got shuttled into the gothic tale, the supernatural tale, etc., which then got shuttled into speculative fiction (this all is a really nebulous in my own head). I think a lot of it for me comes back to Poe as a model…except for the dying drunk in a ditch part. He was trying to figure it out as he went along.
There is one trap that I’m constantly trying not to fall into-that of “poetic” language for its own sake. When some people describe a story as “poetic” it’s usually shorthand for floridness or a baroque sheen to the story. I have stories like that, by all means, but for me the infusion of poetry as a kind of compass for my fiction has more to do with structure and absences. So much of a poem is about what’s not being said. Inference and nuance and ellipses. So in that respect, poetry has given me a really great toolbox that goes beyond piling up lots of metaphors (not that there’s anything wrong with that-I love the Baroque and Rococco as well).
S: Would you say that the above – the poetic is about what’s not being said – is a difference between poetic and narrative values, or is this a false dichotomy? Also, for readers (myself included) who are not widely read in poetry, are there techniques for reading those absences?
A: My first impulse is to say that it’s a false dichotomy, but my second impulse is to say almost the exact opposite thing! But I think they are such open boxes, so that each can have elements of the other. This might be breaking it down to pure essentials, but the line break is that “value” that distinguishes the two. And even with “prose poetry,” there’s always the consciousness of a line break in the background of the reader’s mind (that is, if presented with a “poem” that has no line breaks, the very lack of line breaks helps inform the reading of the poem as a poem). But, anyway, the line break is the formal conceit that sharpens poetic attention. This is the world we live in now at least; in earlier centuries the line break was used to organize verse narrative, but I would say that this shaping is the key dichotomy. Maybe it’s the difference between poetic and prosaic values? Then narrative, lyric, and so on-all these other categories-can find homes in poetry or prose. I’m just thinking out loud here.
As to your second question, in poetry in a way it’s much easier to read these absences-because they’re usually highlighted by the stanza organizations or the way the line breaks work…or else there’s deliberate erasure that’s very apparent. But how do you let the reader in on the absences when there’s, also, a story to tell with sentences? That’s the 64,000 dollar question! You provide clues. Playing with POV is so important in this regard. Depending on what the story needs, I might veer from a more localized POV to something more omniscient, and then back again (e.g., “Cuttlefish”). Or “Home of the”, which has the six interlocking boxes.
And so-I don’t know, why do these absences matter in the first place? Why bother with them? There’s a vastness of everything untold-that dovetails nicely for me with the speculative sensibility. Gene Wolfe is the master of this; in so many of his novels and short stories, you feel as if there’s about twenty other stories happening just off the page.
S: What are you conscious of when you write?
A: Usually it’s on a sentence by sentence level. Occasionally paragraph-by-paragraph. But a lot of time with a story it’s like I’m in a maze, and I can hear a voice ahead of me, which I can barely make out, and I stumble after it. I don’t always know where I’m going until I get there.
S: I’ve always been taught/told/believed that verse was used as a mnemonic device for oral bards, and in the days of Shakespeare and Marlowe, helpful to the actors who had to learn a tremendous number of lines in a very short time. I was not aware that verse and narrative were blended as late as you say. Would you elaborate?
A: I’m not a literary historian by any means-but before radio and television, the oral culture surrounding literature was much more important. It was a blend between silent reading and performative reading at that time. Literacy was much more widespread in the 19th century America and Britain, at least in relative terms, but it wasn’t universal. Reading aloud still happened a great deal of the time. So there was still this tradition of epic and mock epic in the 19th century, at least in English and American literature. This has always been a push and pull between reading aloud and reading silently, ever since the ancient Greeks.
S: (I’m writing this while my wife and her mother are reading to my kids downstairs.) Writers and readers (particularly of speculative fiction, it seems) grumble that kids just don’t read anymore. (Somewhere, I think in LOCUS, Gardner Dozois essentially says this is hogwash; it has always been a tiny percentage of kids that are readers.) Aside from the obvious differences between silent reading and reading aloud – intonation, pauses, assumed voices – is there an intrinsic superiority to silent reading? (Assuming that a reader/listener is not illiterate.) Are innovations like books on tape/CD and podcasts important, perhaps even necessary, forms of literature? Are such innovations the equivalent of earlier oral forms, or is there a literary (as opposed to a social function) difference between hearing a live speaker and hearing a recorded voice?
A: It’s a trade-off. It’s always a trade-off. It goes back to Plato in Phaedrus, who was very suspicious of writing in general.
I think a lot of interesting things can happen in this regard with technology and oral storytelling. I’m not sure if I’m really equipped for pushing the boundary in that regard. I love reading aloud in front of an audience. But for whatever reason, I’ve never been much of a books-on-tape/CD person. And when I write, I almost never say the words I’m writing out loud. I’m hearing how they “sound” in my head, and I try to be cognizant of rhythm at least on some level. But the “ear” is internalized.
S: “Child Assassin” is a very disturbing story. Was it difficult to write?
A: This was a really difficult story to write, and to talk about. Trying to find something redeemable in the unredeemable. Don’t know if it’s a spoiler or not, but the story is about a troll of sorts (i.e., the bridge imagery). (Not 100%, though.) I don’t think the story would have worked nearly as well (from my angle at least; I know that some people really don’t like it, which is ok) if it would have kept “literal” with the assassinations; that is, if it didn’t branch out into the mountaintop scene with the novelist, it would have just been a slasher story, which I didn’t want. But it took going to a really, really uncomfortable place to get to that point.
S: “Salting the Map” struck me as an anomaly in this collection since it is closer to traditional narrative structure than any others. (Similar in content to Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag” and Ian Watson’s “Stalin’s Teardrops”.) Other than the single impossibility (improbability?) that is the core of the story, dialogue, description, and character as well as beginning, middle and end are easily identifiable, easily accessible, and the language more ‘transparent’ than any other story. Would you say this is true and if so, why? If not, why not?
A:I think this is one of my sneakier stories. It’s all of those things you say, of course, but starting with the scene in the subway, and especially when he comes out of the subway, I was trying to push past the premises I had set up, to a state where the world-building was a little bit molten through the language itself. That is, the line between “telling a story” and “describing the contours of a world” became blurred. So there was a tonal shift that was very different than the initial set-up. And (I hadn’t thought of this before until thinking about your question), in a way, that molten-ness is “Our Byzantium” in its entirety-in “Salting the Map” there were little peeks of it, but the later story was an attempt to keep blurring that line from start to finish.
S: I’ve read “Our Byzantium” several times now and I’d say you succeeded admirably in blurring the line. The transitions are smooth as butter, to coin a phrase. Was it difficult to write and was there a method you used to achieve that effect? (I don’t know if it would even be possible to describe, but I’m thinking of how, in the visual arts, there are different brushes, materials and techniques which can be used for different effects: realism, Impressionism, pointillism, cubism and so forth.) Did your poetic toolbox help?
A: There were about 4 distinct drafts of this story, each very different from the other. I think one of them had a husband and wife. The poetic toolbox definitely helped. I don’t know if there was a specific method right used right from the outset as much as a lot of testing to find an overall structure that could that voice.
S: “The Fourth” is a (laugh-out-loud) satire of government surveillance. “Our Byzantium” comments on both (largely unexplored) conventions in the fantastic arts and gender/sexual relations. “The Caliber” undercuts the purity of cult leaders’ motivations and delineates parallels between cults and high school cliques. “Home of the” imagines a world in which all good and services are supplied by Wal-Mart. Do you start with the intention of exploring social/sexual/gender/literary issues, or do you (like many others) begin with a character or an image and write to find out what happens?
A: I often begin with the latter and try to fuse it with a mood or tone: an elegiac feeling or a satirical romp. “Home of the”, for example, started sharpening into focus for me-or at least what I wanted to do-with the first line. What does it mean to be completely happy and devoid of hope at the same time? How does that fit where we are today as a society and where we might be going? So I guess I’m interested in how language itself can embody those very sociopolitical issues you talked about.
S: Your stories don’t have many of the usual markers/tags that identify them as science fiction or even fantasy. In fact, many of your themes and structures skew more towards the literary, the experimental. Many of the writers and poets you’ve named in other places as influences are not speculative fiction writers. What advantages do you gain writing and publishing in explicitly speculative fiction venues?
A: A lot; and I do write more expressly genre-oriented science fiction too. I love space opera and actually have quite a few stories (and a novella, and a novel) set in a single universe, that of “Shepherd’s Calendar” (which appeared in Strange Horizons). And, ok, it’s a little wacky. It’s actually fun trying to fuse together the more experimental tropes with space opera. The difference is…literary magazines aren’t going to take space opera. That’s the last frontier! They (or the more innovative ones) will take pretty much anything else, content-wise, that’s sf’nal or fabulist. One of the best high fantasy stories I’ve ever read-one of the best fantasy stories, period, I’ve ever read-appeared in Fence a few years back: a story called “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Tower. It’s just absolutely brilliant and visceral and heartbreaking. Anyway, to get back to your question-there are a lot of writers that work mostly in the genre that I love, and look up to, and I really admire writers like Karen Joy Fowler and Jeffrey Ford who are able to coexist in both worlds, and are equally conversant in both fields. I think things were a lot different even 10 years ago in this regard. There are a lot of great writers who did the initial heavy lifting, and American writing in general is better for it.
S: What other sorts of initial impulses bring you to write stories?
A: Sometimes it’s the first line, and sometimes it’s the title. Or just an image. Or an epigraph. For “The Friendly Giants” it was the epigraph. I’m usually just trying to cobble together whatever I can. The thing is, I have a lot of unfinished stories. My hard drive is like the Island of Misfit Toys. Sometimes one of my stories will have a great opening paragraph but it just…doesn’t…quite work. I let them sit, sometimes for years and years, and every once in awhile one of those stories will jump out at me, and there will be a sudden perspective that makes me want to finish the whole thing. It’s something I’m still learning-but at the same time I don’t know whether it’s a “bad” thing or not that I have all of these half-finished stories. And I also have tons of stories which I’m “meh” about, and am reluctant to see the light of day.
S: How do you decide whether the story is worth the hard work or whether that story isn’t worth finishing (for the moment at least)?
A: The story tells me. As in “Put. Me. Down.” It’s in my best interest to listen to it.
S: Some of your stories feature characters in high school or college, who are (by the end) bright and optimistic about the future while others have middle-aged characters who are almost universally failures (at marriage, parenting, employment). Is there a time period of life you’re more comfortable writing about? Is there a reason that you (and a great many other writers) consciously or unconsciously correlate youth with happiness and adulthood with failure?
A: This is a great question. For which I really don’t have a good answer. But I don’t really think I’m equating youth with happiness at all…most of the teenagers and young adults that I write about are struggling to survive and get through in one way or another. They’re trying to carve out a little piece of optimism. For that matter the protagonist of “Quiver,” who is older, is trying to do the same thing. But maybe they express their optimism in different ways?
As to what I’m comfortable writing about-I hope I don’t get too comfortable writing about any one single age set of any sort. A lot of why I think I write with younger protagonists in mind (including the novel I just finished) is because, well, I was extremely introverted and not at all happy during adolescence myself. And writing is a way of being okay with one’s own introversion. It was a time period-as it was for a lot of people-of extreme emotional ups and downs, and it has been valuable and even cathartic to explore that. A lot of writing fiction for me involves thought landscapes, fettering out the thoughts and observations that you have, that would otherwise go unnoticed.
S: David Hartwell is widely quoted as saying the golden age of science fiction is twelve. (An unfortunate occurrence, since so many otherwise intelligent readers seem to believe that the value of science fiction _stops_ at the age of twelve.) But is there a social component as well? Does the fact (or at least appearance) of speculative fiction’s appeal to the disaffected, the introverted, the unpopular, homogenize the landscape of speculative fiction and marginalize its potential literary or social impact?
A: I hope not. Disaffection drives narrative. There’s another way to look at it. I grew up playing D&D and Commodore 64 games involving dungeon crawls. And reading Dragonlance novels. I think there’s the fact that I grew up-and I think a lot of other people my age did-surrounded my sf’nal material. Table top roleplaying games, movies, computer games…it was everywhere. And it provided a port in a storm, so to speak, in a really introverted, ordinarily painful childhood and adolescence. So, looking back now, that in itself is something I’m interested in writing about. How fantasy isn’t this fixed, “other” world but how it integrates into our everyday lives.
So if there’s a danger of homogenizing in a non-homogenous way…I guess that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
S: Is there a natural or logical division between readers who read for pleasure and those who don’t, based on personality (introversion vs. extroversion) and/or social codes (cool vs. geek)? In other words, is it worth forcing ‘literature’ on extroverts and cool kids?
A: No. It’s an entirely non-logical division. But, to your second question: yes. How contradictory is that?
S: Elmore Leonard, Patrick O’Leary and you have all worked as, or currently work in, the field of advertising. What would you say are similarities in content and style between the three of you, and how would an uninformed reader be able to tell (other than byline) the differences?
A: Sean, I haven’t read any Leonard, and only one novel of O’Leary (which I loved, btw)-maybe this would be better as a general question about advertising? It’s a good question. There’s also Gaddis to consider…have you read any of him?
S: No, I haven’t read Gaddis. Leonard is neat ’cause he plays with the conventions of language through dialogue. Vonnegut also worked for a while doing PR for what I think was GE. O’Leary is also a published poet, and his collection of stories includes several poems. Don’t know if that has any appeal for you, but it is a curious coincidence.
A: It is-I think this might be too tangled to really sum up succinctly.
S: You mentioned a novel. What can we look forward to reading in the near future?
The novel is actually similar to “Our Byzantium” in a way-if not in the voice per se (the “I” and the “you”), then with the world building. It’s narrated by a 16-year-old girl named Macy, who watches Minnesota get invaded by Scythians and Thracians, etc. She and her family eventually become refugees on the Mississippi river. So there’s a lot of family politics, dysfunctional family dynamics, with the landscape around them getting more and more surreal. Modern technology stops working for the most part, and society has pretty much broken down, replaced with a kind of half-assed order by “the Empire”, which comes in and fills in the power vacuum. Anyway, it’s all from Macy’s perspective, witnessing a lot of crazy stuff, violence but also strange beauty, as she tries to figure out how to survive, both literally and figuratively. It’s called Total Oblivion, More or Less and I’m pretty happy with where it’s at so far-it’s still an early draft and there’s a lot of work to be done on it, but it’s been the sharpest first draft of a long work I’ve been able to write. Practice practice practice.
I also have some stories coming out in the anthology Twenty Epics, Endicott Studio’s The Journal of Mythic Arts, and the literary magazine Crowd. Pretty much all over the map.
S: Thank you.
|He held the future in his hand,|
Alone against the vast Abyss,
And prayed to find a better man.
He railed against the dark demand
Not his, the fault, not his, the plan,
The Holy cup lay in this land,
Lord, give me strength! I understand
Yet he received no reprimand
Mikal Trimm has sold his speculative fiction and poetry to numerous venues. He currently resides in a little town outside of Austin, Texas, where he dreams of residual checks….
This poem came from the challenge of writing a villanelle (a strictly-defined poetic form using repeating lines throughout the piece) and an unshakeable fascination with the various elements of the Arthurian legend. This is the first (and possibly last…) attempt at the form I ever attempted.
|On the Transcendental Turnpike
In the steamy Texas twilight
In a ’64 VW
With the Burmese cat, Mohandas
Looking for the Dalai Lama
We had set out on a road trip
He said he would catch us later
So, we wandered back-road byways
On a lonely stretch of nowhere
He got in, and most politely
He, too, missing a companion
I thought this a noble venture
We pulled in, and parked the Beetle
In a clearing, levitating
Then Mohandas came to join us
He was Mahesh; she was Janis
Clayton asked if she would favor
Sang she songs of love and longing
Then Mohandas broke the silence
Come the morning, we had slept not
Clayton said that he would stay there
In the ruby Texas sunrise
Lane Adamson is a life-long Texan who graduated from high school in 1979 (at the age of 16) and decided he’d had enough of academia, much to his parents’ dismay. Other examples of his work are forthcoming in T-Zero: The Writer’s E-zine and in the January 2007 edition of Champagne Shivers.
He lives in the Dallas area with his lovely (and patient) wife, daughter, and assorted pets, guitars, and neuroses.