With her collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, Russell wins the 2013 WHM prize for melding literary and genre and the humorous with the horrific/uncanny/dark. I suppose there could be other challengers, but they’re going to have to be damn good with the blending.
I would like to see her push a little further into genre territory, especially with her endings, which tend towards the ambiguous and/or the sum-it-up image. The title story especially suffers from this. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and my tastes now run towards writers taking a bit more of stand with their work. I’d rather read 10 genre endings and only have one hit than 20 perfect but ambiguous literary endings that all seem familiar.
That’s unlikely to happen, though. Russell herself explained in a must-listen Agony Column Podcast, she prefers the ambiguity 1. And if that’s part of the engine that leads to the creation of her stories, then she shouldn’t tinker with it because from my readerly perspective, the twisted science fictional/fantastical premises she comes up with are fascinating (and amusing and horrific).
It’s interesting to note, though, that the stories in this collection–all of which have strong genre elements–were published in literary mags: Zoetrope, Conjunctions, Tin House and Granta. Maybe they pay better or are better for building the career Russell is building. Likely both. But it’s always intriguing to me to see where the interstitial authors find homes. Russell did garner two genre-oriented award recognitions 2: a Tiptree nomination for her previous story collection and a Shirley Jackson nomination for “Reeling for the Empire”, which is one of the strongest stories in this current collection. But it seems to me that Nebula and Locus noms (or even wins) for “Reeling” would have been a fait accompli if the story had appeared in Clarkesworld or F&SF. And the story very well may win the Shirley Jackson for novelette 3. I’m not saying that it is more worthy than the other novelettes that did receive Locus and/or Nebula nods–only that it seems to be well within range.
Okay, enough inside baseball–on to the collectionizing:
Best story: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” has that ending problem; “Reeling for the Empire” sticks with me more than any of the other stories so it must be the best one.
Favorite story: About half the stories are strong candidates for this, but I’m going to go with “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which is about U.S. presidents incarnating as horses after they die. It’s thoughtful and amusing, and the premise is perfect.
Creepiest story: “Reeling for the Empire” is the most horrifying story and others are rather uncanny, but I found “Proving Up” the creepiest because we know the least about what’s going on.
Funniest story: the most overtly funny one is “Douglas Shackleton’s Rules for Antartic Tailgating”, but I found myself chuckling most at “The Barn at the End of Our Term”.
More than the synapse buzz of sussing out the parallels and extrapolations, those bits of recognition, of things like oh, of course, the huntsman is going to be a Pinkerton man, and more than the forward movement of the narrative, which brisks along just like a novella should, the element which struck me most–both from a readerly and a writerly place–about Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White is the prose, which pulls some of its syntax from the Old West, but gets most of its effect from exquisitely precise details and masterful pacing.
This is a bit of a spoiler–it’s the scene where Snow White, who in Valente’s story is a half-native/half-white young woman with a mining magnate father, finds her stepmother’s mirror–but a) it comes early in the book and b) if you know the original tale, you know that it’s coming. So if you plan on reading the novella, maybe stop reading this post now, but if you have already or hadn’t up until now and need a taste to get you hooked in, well, here’s one of my favorite passages:
It was not like any of the mirrors Mr. H had brought over from Italy and France, with gold all over them and fat babies holding up the corners. It did not have any roses or lilies or ribbons cut out of silver. It was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The glass was so full up of dark it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror. The frame was wood, but wood so old and hard and cold it felt like stone. I reckoned if it came from a tree that tree was the oldest, meanest tree in a forest so secret not even bird knew about it. The tree saw dinosaurs and did not think much of them. I touched the mirror and my fingers went hot and cold, like candles melting. (29)
Now that is a magic mirror.
I recently re-read Dubliners 1 for the first time in a decade or so. As I did, I was looking to understand the structure of the stories in order to improve as a writer, but I also had in mind a comment I had come across at some point in my internet wanderings: that Joyce didn’t like his characters.
“The Dead” is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest novellas ever written (you can download it/read it online at Project Gutenberg). So much so that is often discussed out of the context of the entire collection. I agree that it stands on its own. What I discovered in this re-read, however, is that it is best experienced within the flow of the previous stories, and even more importantly, helps the readers understand the previous stories better.
The 14 stories that lead up to “The Dead” are an unsparing look at various slices of the Irish lower/lower-middle classes. I think that for many readers the pathetic-ness of these characters lives may overwhelm the pathos of the stories, especially since Joyce has come to mean impenetrable elitism. He very well may have intended to be eviscerating. But I don’t think so. At least not fully so: I think there’s also admiration, appreciation and recognition of the difficulties of the characters individual lives, and, above all, an attempt to understand their Irish-ness. This mixture, these layers are overtly treated in “The Dead”, and it’s that treatment that made me reflect back on the other stories and see them that way.
In “The Dead”, Gabriel and his relation to Ireland are challenged twice: first overtly by Miss Ivors and then indirectly by his wife Gretta.
The Miss Ivors challenge occurs early in the annual party hosted by Gabriel’s aunts. She confronts him about his loosely-veiled pseudonym, which has been using to write literary reviews for a pro-Britan paper. This perplexes him. Miss Ivors assures him that she was only joking and invites him on a summer excursion to the Aran Isles, which are off the west coast of Ireland. He is perplexed not only by the invitation but also why he would change his routine of a summer cycling excursion to France and Belgium. The following exchange takes place:
“And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”
“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”
When Miss Ivors asks why, Gabriel has no answer. He begins to rewrite his speech (his aunts have him give one each year) in his head:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to lack.”
Of course, he doesn’t get to aim his spring-loaded rhetoric at Miss Ivors because she decides to not stick around for dinner, but he does include it in his speech, even expands upon it, although he brings it around to his aunts in order to compliment their hospitality, which is roundly applauded by the other guests, and the evening moves on. But the whole thing seems to have put Gabriel in a bit of a mood–makes him want to be transported away from the unpleasantness of his own existence. So when, as the evening winds down, he sees his wife Gretta, “that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining”, he experiences a “sudden tide of joy”. As they travel home he feels warmly towards Gretta, warmth that also turns into sexual feelings, but above all the desire to connect strongly with his wife: “He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ectasy.” All this extrapolated from the gleam that he sees in Gretta, and then just like he did with Miss Ivors, he imagines what he will do and how his wife will react.
She dashes that scene to pieces. Just as Miss Ivors has made herself unavailable to Gabriel by leaving the party, it turns out that Gretta has also made herself unavailable because the wistful glow he sensed in her was not for him at all–it was the memory of a early love, a delicate boy from Galway who may have died from exposure because he just had to see her before she went off to a convent even though he was very ill. It’s a romantic, adolescent memory even though it was a pathetic, doomed gesture. It was all very Irish. And it’s something Gabriel can’t even fight: the dude is dead. Gabriel is not without his own overweening drama so:
He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
We readers see him as that too. All the characters in Dubliners are ludicrous figures and/or vulgarians.
And yet they are also human and worthy of being loved. And so as he contemplates his wife and her lost love, Gabriel, pathetic man that he is, experiences something that he calls love, something that conjures the ghosts, upon which the snow is “falling faintly” (224), the snow that also falls on the living, the snow that is “general all over Ireland” (223). And just as Gabriel lapses into romanticism, I think so do we as readers. By taking us through the emotional journey that Gabriel goes through and most especially by writing such a powerfully poetic ending that directly links characters from stories past to Ireland as a country, Joyce invites us to read his previous characters in that same light for the snow is falling on them too. Yes, at the same time he has undermined and lampooned such silly romanticism. But I don’t think he fully escapes it. Neither can we. Which is why re-reading Dubliners and re-reading “The Dead” at then end of re-reading Dubliners I came away with a fuller, warmer feeling towards the characters in the previous stories, pathetic though they may be.
- Page numbers are for (and cover art is of) the 1958 Compass Books Edition by The Viking Press, Inc. ↩
Michael Moorcock’s The City in the Autumn Stars holds many delights for the reader, including rambling metaphysical and philosophical discussions, over-the-top pulpy set pieces, and imaginative settings, but what I think I like best about it is the poetic (at time purple) prose. There is a dense, sometimes stilted, overwritten quality to it, which is intentional–intended to invoke the prose of the late 18th/early 19th century. If it were only that, it would get tiresome. Moorcock also beautifully weaves in luminous descriptive passages that are startling in their poetry and beauty and oddness, and it is those sections that move the work beyond a pallid imitation of the the prose style that the author is riffing on. Without them, it would be an interesting exercise in re-creation; with them, we have something delightful.
Here’s the best example of it — the second paragraph of Chapter Twelve:
The light which shone on this other Mirenburg was the light of a thousand senile suns; old light, dark gold and dull red, amber and ochre; the light of Autumn Stars diffused by a twinkling haze which was the fabric of some earlier universe, rotted and turned to dust. Shreds of weary starlight fell intermittently upon the bulk of the great town, making black marble gleam, reflecting a misty sepia before again becoming one with the massive silhouette above us. It was a unique illumination which set the city to moving like a slow ocean, creating shadows, sudden detail, so that not only buildings but faces were for ever revealing a different aspect, displaying a character which, because of the inconstant definition, possibly only existed in one’s imagination. One’s senses had constantly to be re-examined beneath the Autumn Stars. (194)
This whole choosing to write fiction regularly thing has been a humbling experience in the truism that to know something intellectually doesn’t mean that you can avoid it in real life. I was feeling rather smug in January and February as I blew away monthly word counts from my first year of steadily writing fiction.
And then March arrived. Part of it is that I’m working on a story that’s more difficult for me to write and for which I have a solid outline of the narrative but not a scene outline, which meant that my word counts for each writing session were below my pie-in-the-sky calculations of how my word count was going to soar this year. Part of it was that for some reason my body did not adjust well to the change to daylight savings time, and so I haven’t slept well. It’s hard to write when you’re tired, especially since my main time to write is on the bus ride in to work each morning.
Bottom line: I only did two writing sessions last week. And I fretted over the weekend about not writing and had moments where I wondered what the whole point was.
This morning it was cold and snowy, and I continued to resist. Wasted 10 minutes of prime bus time (when I first get on, there’s usually only one or two other people on the bus). But I finally sucked it up, pulled out the notebook, started up the music, and went for it, and because the bus ride was longer than normal because of the snow, I got in 48 minutes of writing time.
I don’t know why it has to be difficult every single time. But I do know that rhythm and routine works. And now I know that once you lapse out of that rhythm, it’s not any easier to build back to that routine. For some reason I thought it would be different now because I had almost 80k steady words under my belt (over 14 months). It’s not. And I knew that. But now I know that. And tomorrow I’ll be standing in front of the wall again.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees is less an album and more a collection of singles and b-sides. Because of that I vacillate between being impressed by the range of stories contained within its pages and feeling let down that there isn’t more cohesion to the work as a whole. The range is fascinating in that it’s not only across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum, but also across the spectrum of content, form and style. For example, I’d be entirely comfortable letting my 9yo daughter read “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles” and would not be happy at all if she read the very next story “Spar” (at least not at her age). Or: I’m pretty sure I understand all that is happening in “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” and yet only gleaned 30-40% of “Story Kit.”
The swings in reading experience from story to story is likely part of the point, though. Johnson clearly enjoys subverting readerly expectations (or maybe she doesn’t enjoy it and simply feels compelled to do so) and does so expertly. One of the things I like about this collection is that it isn’t wholly experimental and edgy. And yet there’s plenty of that too. Johnson takes the kernel, the metaphor, the situation and builds it out in the way to best express it. That is a rare skill. For example, going back to “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles” and “Spar”: the former is a fairytale that takes on themes of classic feminism (in that the cat protagonist self-actualizes during her journey and is thus prepared to settle down with a tomcat and start a fudoki [family/community]) while the latter is sci-fi that is thematically feminist but in a much more troubling, provocative way.
Three other things:
- Animals (and other non-human creatures) play a role in the majority of the stories, either as protagonists or major secondary characters. This is accomplished most successfully in “Fox Magic”, which is remarkably poetic and horrifying. In some stories, animals are representatives of the natural world; in others animals are anthropomorphic (sometimes literally) beings (as they are in fairy tales) and represent the fantastic; and in others they are aliens.
- I think my favorite story is “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, which is reflective of my more orthodox SF&F leanings, but actually may more be because of my love of characterization (which is not always present in other stories in such a straightforward way). But “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” may edge it out on some days as could “At the Mouth of the River of Bees”.
- The finely-honed, naked rage found in “Ponies” and “Spar” is breathtaking and darkly humorous. I suppose one could see these stories as just stunts, but they are high wire, no-net stunts that land (or at least they do for me).
I resonated more with the second half of The Apex book of World SF 2 (edited by Lavie Tidhar) than the first. I don’t know if it was the stories or the writers or because there were longer stories in the second half than the first, and I generally seem to prefer longer stories when it comes to SF so that the setting and characters can be a bit more fleshed out. But when all was said and done I either really liked or was blown away by at 10-12 of the stories. By my personal metric, that makes this a successful anthology.
With the Anthologizing series, I generally pull out the stories I liked best and put them in to a variety of categories, but with 26 stories and such a range of approaches and writers, instead I’m simply going to list…
The Stories that Stuck With Me (in order of appearance in the book)
“Mr. Goop” by Ivor W. Hartmann: This is a story about an adolescent boy named Tamuka who is jealous because everyone else at school has genetic constructs who/that are way more cool than his Mr. Goop, a stolid, hulking humanoid. But then when Mr. Goop saves his life, Tamuka begins to re-evaluate his feelings about Mr. Goop, his parents and his socio-economic status. The way Hartmann depicts the construct’s reaction to the trauma of the event is what makes the story stick with me as well as the ending. It went to a much more subtle and profound place than I thought it would.
“The First Peruvian in Space” by Daniel Salvo: This is a trick story. A (trenchant, searing) joke. But after reading I had to admire both the audacity and the execution, and, yes, I found myself thinking about it a day or two after reading it.
“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7″ by Nnedi Okoratfor: The setting here is astounding. The notion of biological computing is not unique, but the way in which Okorafor constructs the specifics of that idea makes for a very effective reading experience. This is the story that I devoured most eagerly even though it’s horrifying and sad.
“Zombie Lenin” by Ekaterina Sedia: This is cheating because this story also appears in her collection Moscow But Dreaming, which I have already reviewed, but I didn’t write about “Zombie Lenin” there because there were so many stories to gush about, although I could have because it’s a great story. So I guess I’m saying that it re-stuck.
“Electric Sonalika” by Samit Basu: I’m hesitant to spoil the surprise of this story so I won’t, but there was a part where I laughed even though this is a lyrical, harrowing story. It’s also a fairy tale riff and a good one, but much more than that, it’s a story with an evocative semi-post-apocalyptic setting and strange, vivid characters that is about gender and family and revenge and technology.
“A Life Made Possible Behind the Barricades” by Jacque Barcia: Two different types of steampunk constructs fall in love and run away and join a revolution. The characters are well-realized and the politics of the war are complex but well thought out even if we only a sliver of what’s happening. What really makes this story work is the constructs limitations (needing to be oiled, for example) and how those limitations are exposed by the war, but in a way that made me feel deeply for them.
There are more good stories in the anthology — “Trees of Bone” by Daliso Chaponda, “The Secret Origin of Spin-Man” by Andrew Drilon, “Branded” by Lauren Beukes, etc. — but those six were the ones I found infilitrating my thoughts in the days after I read them.
This the best passage (for me at this point in time) from Stephen King’s On Writing, which is quite good, but would have been much more useful for me five or six years ago:
Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and aks yourself why you bothered–why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?
When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re don, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book–at least every one worth reading–is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft–one of them, anyway–is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails. (200-201)
Writers often plumb nonfiction books for rich details, interesting characters, startling events, cool names, and more. The lifted details are often tranmuted or transposed, especially by genre fiction authors.
Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch is somewhat useful as a work to sift for details, but I grant it the status of recommended reading because of the usefulness of its core thesis for writers, especially creators of secondary, future or alternative worlds.
As Schivelbusch writes in the preface:
Their [that is stimulants] historical function was this ‘performance-in-the-process-of-enjoyment’ which at first sounds like a paradox. The effects they produce on the human organism were the final consummation by chemical means, one might say, of a course that had been well charted before in spiritual, cultural, and political ways. The morning cup of coffee and the Saturday-night tipple tie the individual into his society more effectively because they give him pleasure. (xiv)
To put it more simply: stimulants (and he includes spices like pepper and cinnamon in this category) aren’t consumed and valued solely for their stimulating effect. Rather, which stimulants are consumed, and how and where and by whom they are consumed are affected by (and also influence) socio-cultural and political and economic factors.
As with any social history, especially one as accessible and short (226 pages) as this one, I wonder if Schivelbusch is overreaching in some cases, but the beauty for us writers is that that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we think about what sorts of stimulants might be available in the world of our story and how they weave into the social/cultural/economic fabric of that world.
For example, Schivelbusch ties the rise in coffee in the seventeenth century to Prostentatism and the emergence of capitalism and the middle class. Wine and ale had kept humanity in a stupor, it was thought, whereas coffee invigorates the mind and body and leads to industry — it promotes rationalism. But it wasn’t just the substance itself: coffehouses, where coffee was drunk, were the incubators of journalism, literature (especially the precursors to the novel), insurance underwriting, stock brokerage and other capitalistic activities.
With coffee, the principle of rationality entered human physiology, transforming it to conform with its own requirements. The result was a body which functioned in accord with the need demands — a rationalistic, middle-class, forward-looking body. (39)
The effect of stimulants wasn’t just on the social level, though. One of the more startling sections of the book, one that I had been vaguely aware of but never seen so starkly laid out, is when he shows how the British were using plantations in India to grow and refine opium which they then forced (that’s a word overstates things somewhat but not much) on the Chinese in exchange for Chinese-grown tea, which the Empire then consumed in vast quantities.
Schivelbusch also tracks how various substances changes in meaning and consumption over time — the chapter on how tobacco moved from snuff to pipesmoking and cigars to cigarettes is particularly interesting. He also makes an attempt at prediction for own own time (he’s big on the meaning of water [especially mineral water]).
Stimulants and intoxicants, especially the kind that are consumed socially, are often used in science fiction and fantasy to add meaning and color. Reading Tastes of Paradise helped me understand how writers can deepen their deployment.
In part one, I wrote about Samuel R. Delany’s comments about structure in About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews in relation to the units of structure: sentences, scenes, chapters. That’s the easy, diagrammable form of story structure. But there are other implications to the way structures build story.
First, there is play among units of structures. This play includes parallel structure, counterpoint and resonance. For example, at the sentence level alliteration is a parallel structure. A character foil would be counterpoint that exists on the character level and you would establish the foil by using parallel structure and counterpoint on the sentence and paragraph level. And if you structured it right, at the end one gesture or act or phrase between the character and their foil would have resonance that would echo back through the story (and on through the end).
Second, structure builds in coherance. This may seem obvious, but: every sentence, paragraph and chapter affect how the subesequent sentences, paragraphs and chapters build the story in the reader’s mind. As that coherenace builds so do the readerly expectations. As Delany notes, both writers and readers have built up a store of models — structural models — for story. The more models a writer has at their fingertips, the more likely they will be able to find the right structure for the story they are trying to tell. Actually not just more likely: it’s required.
The first move the more experienced creative writer can make toward absorbing these models is to realize that “plot” is an illusion. It’s an illusion the writer ought to disabuse her- or himself of pretty quickly, too, at least if she or he ever wants to write anything of substance, ambition, or literary richness. (There is no plot.) That is to say, plot is an effect that other written elemnts produce in concert. Outside those elements plot has no autonomous existence. (128-129, italics in original)
If that intrigues you, you really should read the book because he then goes on to prove it by taking the same plot (Joe gets out of bed) and spinning it out into a bunch of different types of stories.
Third, structure is a way of creating readerly expectation (because of the models that readers bring with them to the experience). This doesn’t mean that every reader will have in-depth knowledge and awareness of the exact model that your work uses. In fact, for some readers a variation of and/or a lesser-used model may be pleasurable. For others, they prefer to read the same few models over and over.
Fourth, structure requires some indication of the social structure/milieu. This is not something that I have encountered in other essays/books on writing, but it rings true to my academic (the late 19th/early 20th century novel was my major concentration at Berkeley) and reading experience.
One of the strongest structural expectations shared by both short story and novel is that, somewhere at the beginning of the text or comparatively near it, the writer will let us know what economic bracket the main character is currently in (what bracket that character has come from). This expectation has been put in place by three hundred years of novels and stories that have answered this question within the first few pages. Because this expectation is strong in fiction, the ways a writer can answer it have become very subtle. (142)
That doesn’t mean that you need a five page treatment at the beginning of your story on the exact social conditions of your protagonist. It does mean that you as a writer need to be clear on the social milieu/economic bracket of your characters.
This notion of models and structure and generating readerly expectations is just one way to think about writing. I think it’s a good one, however, because it responds to/describes both experimental and genre works and can deal with all of the various elements that go into creating story.