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Neal Stephenson's Anathem Sep. 4th, 2008 @ 12:27 pm
About half way through with Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem and greatly enjoying it. I reached a point yesterday where I started to feel itchy and anxious--withdrawal--whenever I stopped reading. I don't want to say much about it because it's been fun to figure out the setting as I read. As long as you don't go in expecting samurai/mafia pizza delivery action on page one, you'll be fine.

"Using a star as a flamethrower. That was new." Aug. 4th, 2008 @ 04:56 pm
Walter Jon Williams' novel Implied Spaces asks a string of questions about the far future of humanity: what could possibly hold our attention once advanced AIs and easy construction of new pocket universes make death and overpopulation obsolete? What threatens such a society? What would warfare look like in such a society? And why do we exist?

These are not really questions I care much to read a science fiction novel all about unless A) there is some interesting characterization based around them, or B) the plot is good. Here we have lots of the latter, and enough the former to keep me happy, so I can recommend this book quite highly. (The writing is good as well, same as in other WJW books I've read, but the plot is much bigger, bolder, and harder to put down here.)

I'm going to remain vague, because a lot of the fun of this book is in the details of how the society works, piecing together its history, and so on. Instead it might be fun to briefly contrast Implied Spaces and The Matrix. They both ask questions you might discuss in Philosophy 101, but where the Matrix movies' exploration of these questions consists of increasingly cryptic (contentless, I would say) pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, WJW goes down the route of the Singularity and quantum science, which is perhaps mumbo-jumbo as well, but is far less silly, and at least supports his point. Maybe you can tell from my loaded language that I think Williams' method works better.

There is also an early reference to Leeroy Jenkins, at which point I immediately forgave the prominent presence of a talking cat.

"Only strange people want to be friends with a machine" Jul. 2nd, 2008 @ 02:30 pm
In a writing book called Rules of Thumb I came across the following "rule," and I think it's very very important for beginning writers to hear: "We can't care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself." The book is comprised of various writing rules from various established writers, and this boneheaded quote is from Frederick Barthelme, and though it's maybe the stupidest writing advice I've ever heard, I do think it's very good to hear, because a sad truth is that no matter what you write, some people will think that it's worthless, and I guess hearing it put so bluntly just might be a good thing in a sort of band-aid tearing way.

To me, that's what the entire genre of fantasy is all about, the fun of it, the trick of it, the reason why writing good fantasy is not easy: it's making people care about sand mutants. Okay, so that might not be the only definition of fantasy, but for me, it's an important component. A failed fantasy is one where I don't care about the sand mutants. In a successful one I do.

In Ekaterina Sedia's book The Alchemy of Stone it was no sand mutant but a clockwork automaton I cared about. The basic bones of the story, artificial creature interacts with its creator, is a familiar one of course, Pygmalion and Galatea to Frankenstein and monster to Edward Scissorhands and Vincent Price's last mad scientist. So, as in most stories, everything rests on the particulars, and I liked them here very much. The setting is a city halfway between New Weird urban nightmare and fairy tale. I can best imagine it when I'm not reading it as a painting, bold strokes laid out in pastel greens and pinks, dark blues and golds, with sharp, sharp inks and etchings to provide the detail. The city doesn't have the feel of a real city, because it doesn't have the weight of history behind it, but it is the perfect city for this story. When I say weight of history I don't mean it doesn't have a past, because it does, just that the city's past isn't what sticks in my mind after reading. Instead it's the vivid present, with two fierce, colorful political parties at conflict, the mechanics and the alchemists. The constructor, Loharri, is a mechanic, and his creation, the clockwork woman Mattie, is an alchemist. Between those two factions is a nice distinction in philosphy, the one wanting to change the world through machinery and logic, the other through magic, poison, and sometimes explosives.

Why do I care about a clockwork woman? Because she's a person (Barthelme apparently doesn't realize that humanhood and personhood can be two very different things in a fantasy story), and though she's intelligent, she's also painfully naive in many ways, so that I worried for her, wandering among all those giant lizards and mechanical knights. Mattie is a wonderfully three dimensional character, with conflicting desires and a body that isn't quite robust enough to support them. When she's damaged, as happens several times over the course of the story, it's a not quite analogous to a human character getting injured--for one thing, she won't heal on her own, she always needs someone else to repair her--and I felt this pain for her, inexplicably more than when some guy gets punched in the head. Likewise, the story's closest thing to a sex scene is breathtaking.

The Alchemy of Stone moves with some of the softness and ease of a fable, but it's the solid details that make everything so memorable.


Enter the Octopus Jul. 1st, 2008 @ 06:36 pm
What's this? The website of Matt Staggs, a very cool conglomeration of book reviews, interviews, and a wonderful mixture of other things to read on the internet.



"Directions" at www.podcastle.org Jun. 20th, 2008 @ 04:14 pm
My story "Directions" is now available for download at www.podcastle.org in audio form! My recommendations for best enjoying it:

1) Get podcast ready to play in your car, do whatever it takes, mp3 player, burned CD
2) Set your alarm clock for 3:00 AM, get up, hop in the car, start the podcast
3) Start driving, following the titular directions in the story as closely as possible
4) Report your experiences back to me for sequel or possible franchise

American Dreamers in LCRW Jun. 10th, 2008 @ 10:14 pm
Friends, I would just like to say that my story "American Dreamers" is now available for your purchase and perusal in the twenty-second issue of the zine "Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet." Further information may be had here: http://www.lcrw.net/issues/lcrw22.htm

That's all for now.

$5 May. 5th, 2008 @ 07:02 pm
At the thrift store the other day I bought a nifty painting for $5:


Here's a closeup of the eyes:


I tell you, it would have been a bargain at twice the price.

I hear you... May. 4th, 2008 @ 01:01 pm
I remember, as a kid, hearing the phrase:

'I see,' said the blind man as he fell up the stairs of the one-story house.

The other day a more concise triple oxymoron occurred to me:

'I hear you,' said the deaf-mute solipsist...

"May we imagine them for a vector, passing through the invisible, the 'imaginary,' the unimaginable. Apr. 20th, 2008 @ 12:52 pm
Last 85 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

Funny how much can change in eighty-five pages. Some love affairs end, mired in sadness and flashbacks, while others bloom with babies in outer space. Revenge is served, though from unexpected directions, and outlandish inventions allow for spying on the past and the futures. Even so some elements of plot are left dangling, or more charitably, are left to our imaginations. The Q-Weapon, the alien invaders from the future, the tale of Cyprian the spy who became a vow-of-silenced nun. But much else, most, I would say, was concluded very nicely, not tied off with a bow, but rather given an expressionistic fade to black. I particularly liked the ending of the Chums' story, and also of the killer Deuce Kindred, moved to early Hollywood and become what I suppose was the natural extension of his trade. However, though her brothers were well served by the plot, Lake Traverse got the shaft, so to speak. In a novel so over-stuffed there are bound to be disappointments, alleys we get a glimpse down but never get to travel, and I do wish I could have learned more about Lake, and also, while I'm at it, Piet Woevre, who I thought at first would be this book's Blicero, but who in the end barely made an impression.

I'm glad I've posted these notes, sketchy and vague as they are, because they might help me remember, even in part, the breadth, width, height, and extension through time of this wonderful, tragic, hilarious, ridiculous, serious trifle/cinderblock of a book.

Inter-Pynchon Apr. 19th, 2008 @ 05:45 pm
Since for the past few months I've pretty much only been posting about Against the Day (the last post of the series should come tomorrow), I thought I'd mention briefly what books I've been reading along with the Pynchon, because some of them were very good indeed, and you should read them too.

Firstly, Barth Anderson's The Magician and the Fool. I don't have any particular interest in tarot, so this book wasn't a natural choice for me to pick up, except that I really liked his previous, Patron Saint of Plagues. Come to think of it, I didn't have any real reason to think I'd like that one, either. But greatly enjoy both I did, because Barth Anderson is a wonderful writer, exuding huge amounts of humanity and coolness that I can only aspire to match someday.

Secondly, Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel. My favorite book of fantasy might be Swanwick's Iron Dragon's Daughter. And you know what? This semi-sequel might be even better. (I say "semi" because though the worlds in which they take place seem roughly the same, the plots don't connect up.) Swanwick blows out of the water those old halfwitted fat fantasy sequences with spock-eared ringletted elves on the covers, and even the newer quarterwitted ones featuring dominatrixes, vampires, and sexy werewolves. Stay away, all multigeneration photocopies of hobbits. Swanwick once mentioned a blurb that didn't make it onto Daughter but would be equally appropriate on Dragons: "Toto, I don't think we're in Pern anymore..."

Thirdly, Jeffrey Ford's The Shadow Year. Ford's novels have slowly been moving from surreal fantasy with elevated language to surreal historicals with elevated language, and he's arrived this year at a schoolkid's surreal summer told perfectly in the voice of midcentury Long Island. The plot, a mystery as understood by a child, and so complete with misunderstandings and misemphasized details, is not as important anyway as the places, the feelings, the wonderful characters. So convincing that even the crazy elements seem like biography.

Fourthly, Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End. This is another mystery where the plot, though fascinating, is less important than the characters. I could read about these people all day. Actually I did, for several, and then it was over all too soon. The writing is hilarious in a very understated way, lots of sentences that I read out loud to whoever was around, only to realize that they were mainly funny in context, or because of something that had happened fifty pages earlier. In other words, everything is so well integrated that pulling quotes doesn't really have any effect. So I guess you'll just have to read it.

Fifthly, Iain Banks's Matter. This one had a slow start, mainly because there are about ten different alien species, all of which are integral to the plot, and there's this very complicated world where much of the story takes places, and then there might be digressions about how these worlds were built multi-eons ago, and so it's really a few hundred pages before the thing kicks into high gear, but once it does, it's science fiction heaven in a sort of highly literate yet nerdy kind of way. Plus there's a character inspired (I would say) by Sancho Panza, always a bonus in my book.
Other entries
» "Native magic makes you nervous, huh?"
Tenth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

Just when it seemed like the story couldn't get any darker... Pynchon obliged by turning around and giving us a fairly upbeat section. Happy sex, between the starcrossed lovers from half a novel ago, who finally found their way to each other, all barriers vanished, all phantom menaces rolled back up like monsters painted on window blinds. (Or so it seems--still eighty-five pages to go.) A baby born during wartime might not seem an upbeat story element, but in this war, her parents find abandoned machine guns at just the right times, trade essence of rose oil for good will, and discover an old companion amongst the Albanian irregulars who want to murder them, so it's all okay.

I like the evolution of genre the story has gone through. Boy's adventure leading to revenge western leading to spy thriller leading to war story. So far the spy thriller section has been the bleakest, the western has seemed perhaps slightly too prominent for my tastes, though it was an amusingly weird western, going down into Mexico as it did, featuring mummies and revolutionaries and hallucinogens, and the boy's adventure part has contained many of my favorite scenes. Pynchon's trick with the later? A boy's adventure story where the boys start to grow up after having been frozen in time by their endlessly serialized story. I'm still hoping for a bit of a conclusion to the Chums' story, though I'm also sorta getting the feeling that the book is going to have a "soft" ending, not some big huge dramatic sharp tie-off to all the many many plot threads.

Still be sad when it's over, though.
» "Must... Stay on feet..."
Ninth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

So the story is almost over, and I think it's fair to say that innocence is mostly well gone. This section is a tangle of reluctant spies chasing and being chased through a Europe that's tense enough for war at any moment. There's a little torture, quite a lot of sex, and a bit of light S&M to bring the two together.

One character who seems almost miraculously untainted by the world, Dally Rideout, has fallen in with a weapons smuggling crowd (for purposes of spying on them), people who know Basil Zaharoff, the Merchant of Doom himself. Zaharoff is interested in a mysterious weapon having something to do with 'Q.' I hesitate to think what might become of the world if he finds and begins to market it.

» "A heavenwide blast of light."
Eighth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

This section has much to recommend it, many jokes, concerning Yogi Berra and Tom Swift (referred to by the Chums as their "colleague" who's all tied up in litigation these days) for example, as well as several different groups of characters actually encountering what has seemed at times to be the ultimate goal of certain parts of this story: the city of Shambhala! All these aspects, even Shambhala, ironically, become less important, less memorable, than the cause of that quote at the front, which opens a chapter, by the way, and actually is the entire opening paragraph:

The Tunguska Event. (Incidentally this year will be the hundredth anniversary. June 30th.)

Now, this not being a Tim Powers novel, the Tunguska Event is not explained by Pynchon in terms that actually make some kind of logical sense. It's more the ultimate expression of some of his themes: light as antagonist? Here's a light that blew the bark of thousands of trees, that erased the night all the way out to Venice. Mathematics as force of mysticism? Many characters refer to a world turned on its axis into the imaginary. This brings up another interesting way Pynchon uses the Event, to indulge in a bit of montage, showing us what the main characters, far flung across Europe now, experience during what various people explain as an attack from the future, the test run of a Quaternion weapon, or even a compressed preview of the coming war all shot out of a cannon in a single instant.
» "the infernal lilt of yet another twittering waltz"
Seventh 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

The tension is rising as Europe (and, Mexico?) prepare(s) unconsciously for war. Pynchon's many characters shuffle between the cities of Europe, turning the screws here and there, or being screwed themselves. They're like emblems of the populace, compressed but elaborated versions of ordinary folk, and what they feel is what everyone feels but deeper, purpler, with more mayonnaise and mathematics, if you will.

Notable scenes include a crazy man, who, thinking he's a jelly donut, screams "Ich bin ein Berliner!", an encounter with a tatzelwurm in an Alpine tunnel, and a light opera based on Jack the Ripper. Actually it's a "ripperetta"...

I'm kind of missing the Chums right now. Though I'm also somewhat afraid to see what the advent of war is doing to their prophetic pysches.
» "And Kit tried not to stand there too long gazing after his deliverers from death by mayonnaise."
Sixth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day

Wireless network shenanigans prevented me from posting this yesterday, so just read it now and pretend it's a reread?

Part three of the novel is actually called "Bilocations," and this 100 pages begins with a stunning example of that activity, when a passenger ship headed toward Europe splits, revealing blue naval uniforms beneath the stewards' white, torpedoes beneath the decks, guns ports swiveling into place. Now there two ships. Two potential lovers, now seeming star-crossed, are separated, Dally Rideout continuing on the passenger ship to Venice, Kit Traverse, stuck below decks in the warship, ending up in the north of Africa. Math, mirrors. Though Kit and Dally had seemed destined for each other, other potential loves pop in and out of the scenes like shooting gallery targets. A mayonnaise drowning, as implied by the quote above, is narrowly avoided.

So, halfway, sounds like a good time to stand back and see what we have so far. I find three main themes. Actually, call it one main theme, the loss of innocence, and two motifs, bilocation and light. What's fun about methodically reading a book this way is that the progressions of theme become more apparent and more clearly defined. Bilocation, which was present from very near the beginning, now has a mathematical edge. Made possible by quaternions, it seems, a twist over an imaginary axis. Mathematics has a growing role in general. A mysterious quaternion-based super-weapon makes an appearance. Strange stuff, and quite wonderful/horrifying. The light motif is also strengthened and weirdened, in ways too peculiar to actually remember. (Halfway through is apparently where I stop being able to remember exactly what's happened/is happening very well. Maybe I need to start keeping notes...) And of course the innocence thing. Much is made of the innocence of the past--I mean people from the book's future (possibly?) trying to steal or borrow the innocence of their, and our, of course, past. Maybe part of what Pynchon is exploding is any myth that the past actually was innocent. True innocence lies in certain modes of fiction, the boy's adventure tale, and the western, with its helpfully signatory black and white hats...
» Free SF Reader
Free SF Reader (if you don't already know it) is a blog of "Science, Speculative, Superhero, Swords, Sorcery, Supernatural, Scary and Sleuth Prose Fiction Ratings for free fiction downloads." I realized yesterday that my story "Directions" has been rated:

"Driving to Xu needs plenty of liquids. 4 out of 5"

There's something bracing about seeing it so briskly summarized. Quite refreshing.
» "even coming to suspect that light might be a secret determinant of history"
Fifth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day

My favorite section so far. We began with a goodly amount of fun at Candlebrow U., a sort-of, dare I say, "Hogwartsian" institution located in Illinois (kinda) and which specializes in time travel, hence the kinda, like when one visiting professor (Heino Vanderjuice, a link between the unreal and the merely real-esque) waxes poetic about holding classes in the prehistoric past. These pages are lively, funny, and represented the tipping point for when I started finding it hard to put this novel down after I read my daily chapter.

The Chums are approached by the mysterious "Mr. Ace," a black-eye visitor from the future, whose people want to colonize the past. They are eaters of the innocence of yesterday. The Chums represent, I believe now, the loss of that precious commodity, gone as children grow up, as the world complicates itself, as carefree adventures becomes first tinged then more heavily colored with the stains of warfare.

More hints of bilocation, of the eerie sort, with the Chums of Chance relegated (for safekeeping?) to an alternate Candlebrow, a preposterous school for the study of marching-band harmonica playing, while their surrogates, possibly ominous and evil ones, have their adventures instead.

Rescued from an ignomious vanishment into a parallel world by the appearance of a shifty and untrustworthy agent, the Chums are thrust into another surreal situation when they are sent to aid Captain Q. Zane Toadflax, pilot of His Majesty's Subdesertine Frigate Saksaul. Somewhat like the Chums' airship Inconvenience, see, but it swims under the sand. Beneath the desert are colonies founded by Manicheans (ultimate devotees of light, as portrayed here) and the Venitians of antiquity, as well as giant, intelligent sand fleas.

Regarding the Chums: I'm always fascinated by fictional fiction, which is a simplistic way of looking at the Chums of Chance. Not nearly so cut and dried as, for example, the case of Itchy and Scratchy in the Simpsons, because the Chums occasionally interact with the first degree fictional, like Professor Vanderjuice and Merle Rideout, who in turn, are fully able to mingle with the rest of the characters.
» "The commandante, sensing psitticide in the air, came hurrying up."
Fourth 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

Most of this section is a western, albeit a strange--and, oh what the heck, Pynchonian--one. Mummies, jail breaks, crude talking parrots, mining for Iceland spar, that miraculous mineral which creates two copies of whatever refracts through it, one silver, one gold. Cactus-powered flights of fancy over the Mexican desert. The onus of taking on the anarchist bombing duties of a martyred father. What characters take from their parents has become, if not quite an obsession, at least a thread. Everyone inherits, for good or ill.

Pynchon is still casting out nets at this point in the story. He hasn't quite started yet to pull the plot back together. I don't know if he will, and if he gets enough nets out there I suppose just the nets will be thick enough to provide substance, or the appearance of overarching plot. If that metaphor makes sense. Focus is shifting toward Europe, with several characters Old World-bound, and with war (I suppose) on the horizon. The Chums of Chance are always a welcome break from reality whenever they appear. At the very end of this segment they are seeking a time machine at the mysterious Candlebrow U., which I'm looking forward to reading about.

It might be worth mentioning Pynchon's prose now. Students of writing are taught certain rules, but also that if you're good enough, you can break them. Pynchon breaks them. Avoiding words of dialogue announcement other than "said"? Characters here "pretend to object," "suppose," "recall," and "growl," their dialogue, for a start. I'm not sure if Pynchon is deliberately affecting a pulp style, or just being amusing. Overly elaborate dialogue tags are entertaining, after all. Likewise his twisted syntax. They told us, all those who would have us not write like Pynchon, to avoid adverbs, but, as I always tell myself, adverbs are funny.
» "An edge of steel--mathematically without width, deadlier than any katana"
Third 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day

Let's see, in this section we have a joke about the Vulcan hand sign, perpetrated by a member of T.W.I.T., an English occult society. And a reprise of the your momma joke, committed by a member of the Chums of Chance, the recurring half-real refugees from a boys' adventure series. The Chums are also involved in my favorite scene from this part, an airship battle over Venice, in which they fight their equivalents (and sort of friendly nemeses) from Russia, and some other force (as yet mysterious, though both this, and later suggestions of snakes and wings hark back to the Lovecraftian episode in the last part...) attacks both of them, bringing down staples of Venetian architecture. Hints of the Chums' ultimate assignment are revealed, and very intriguing ones--a warped map, the stations of the cross, Shambhala.

Then the scene shifts back to the old west, or actually the new old west. Electric lights and ore processing feature heavily. In a sequence I found rather puzzling and upsetting the daughter of murdered Webb Traverse takes up with his killers. What's up with that? Some oblique references to Stockholm syndrome (I think) later on.

The focus shifts again, to Frank, another of Webb's children, as he slowly starts the complicated process (much like separating valuable ore from heaps of slag) of finding revenge. One memorable scene, which supplies the above quote, occurs when a Japanese "trade delegation" visits a saloon and acts in the manner of stereotypical Japanese tourists, and they've had to resort to peculiar technology to recreate the storm of flashbulbs.
» "fiendish acts of semi-imaginary badmen"
Second 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

Explosions become an even greater preoccupation here, with most of the action centering around the dynamite-centric Traverse family. Webb Traverse meets his end and the chance for the extended search for revenge is set into motion. This storyline reads like a western, one with a sheen of weirdness. Lew Basnight also shows up in the west, assigned to track anarchists in Denver and the surrounding deserts. The Basnight section is particularly odd, with Lew, literally addicted to explosions, feeling their hallucinogenic affect just before they happen, (which of course makes one think of Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow...) sees a tiny chorus calling themselves the "Beavers of the Brain." Not sure where Lew's story is going, because it appears that now he's on his way to England, stowed away by two Oscar Wilde-influenced dandy/adventurers.

This section open with a remarkable scene involving a group of scientists in the far north digging up what pretends to be a meteorite, then the scientists taking it back to a city which is then ravaged by fires, as what is not a meteorite at all wakes up, presenting a horrible, serpentine visage. It's pretty clear that Pynchon is having fun in this book with recreating genres, western, boy's adventure, and here, I'd really like to ask him if he's mimicking 50s science fiction movies, or, what seems more interesting to me, H. P. Lovecraft. Has Pynchon read Lovecraft? I'm fascinated by that question.

Are the characters full or flat? A few are begin to swell now into three dimensions, Scarsdale Vibe's damaged explorer son Fleetwood for example, Lew, and with hints for the futures of the Traverse children. Of course, when you add hundreds of colorful (even) pasteboard characters together, the result isn't flat. It's a full, thick portrait, of, I'm not sure, a time and place as reflected through history and an extremely vivid imagination? Part of why I love reading Pynchon is the combination of characters who are functionally cartoons with characters who are at least oil paintings, if not photographs. The effect is funny and full of pathos at the same time.
» A Weird Story
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are asking for weird personal stories, in promotion of their anthology The New Weird. Post, and then they'll pick three winners with quite a cool prize. Check it out:


Here's what I posted. Certain ones of you might remember this story, because you might have been in the car with me...

"I got married last August in Missouri. Two good friends of mine, brothers, were flying from Vermont into St. Louis, which is about three hours away from the wedding site, and I drove to pick them up. No problems on the way up, but halfway back, we were driving through this woody, hilly area, very narrow, all twisty roads, and we crested a rise and found a car parked on the right shoulder just over the top, with the door open several feet into our lane. A woman was climbing out of the car, screaming something at us, waving her hands, and as we passed her, I could see a body lying by the side of the road, near her front bumper. Feet and knees and waist were all I saw, but he had that inert look of accident victims. The only scenario that made sense to me was that the woman in the car had hit (and from the looks of things, killed) the man in the ditch. I’ve always been secretly afraid that I don’t handle myself well in emergencies, but my hands and feet worked this time without even conferring with my brain, slamming the brakes, turning the wheel, and in about one second I had pulled the car over, grabbed my cell phone, and jumped out. The brothers got out too, and we started back toward the woman and the body. She was still screaming. But then we realized that she wasn’t screaming at us. She was screaming at the body. Which was moaning. And wiggling. She screamed again: “You’re drunk! You’re drunk!” Just then a car drove by, the third (counting mine and the woman’s) I’d seen in about an hour. In a coincidence I would have blushed to include in any work of fiction, it was a state trooper. He pulled over past my car, and as he got out and walked toward us, I mumbled something to the woman, something like, “Okay, I’m going to let him deal with this now.” The rest of the weekend (including the wedding) went without a hitch."
» "Four closely set blasts, cracks in the fabric of air and time, merciless, bone-strumming."
First 100 pages of Pynchon's Against the Day.

It seems that the overwhelming obsessions in these pages are air, light, explosions, and electricity. The epigraph from Thelonius Monk, "It's always night, or we wouldn't need light," plays along, as does the name of the first section, "The Light Over the Ranges." And the title of the book, for that matter. I'll be very curious to see how these obsessions figure throughout.

A recurring image, which I'm sure will grow important because of the name of an upcoming section, is bilocation. The scientist/brigand in Ohio being two parts of the same person, the suspicion of Webb Traverse's children that he can be in two places at once, even in a way the Chicago detective Lew Basnight's ability to "Excursion," stepping to the side of everything else and going unnoticed. Something interesting is going on here with, possibly related to light and prismatic splitting, but so far it's rather subtle.

A scene I found amusing was Franz Ferdinand as a tourist at the World's Fair, attempting to speak to bar patrons, telling "your mama" jokes and saying things like "'st los, Hund?" Strangest scene, the talking ball lighting named "Skip"? Most ominous scene, the sideways discussion of the Anti-stone, the opposite of the Philosopher's Stone, which is, it's implied, an explosive...atomic, perhaps? Thoughts? Or maybe you would like to mention other scenes you found particularly striking.

Some good character names so far. Perhaps not quite as effortlessly and ingeniously weird as in Gravity's Rainbow, but amusing. Scarsdale Vibe is growing on me. It makes me think of a man in a darkened hotel room, wearing a brocaded dressing gown, smoking a cigar, with neon eyes in a red- and green-glowing face.
» "Now single up all lines!"
Anyone interested in a group effort at reading Pynchon's Against the Day: now we begin. The plan is to read 100 pages a week, after which I'll make a post here (every Sunday or perhaps Monday) and we can share our thoughts on that section.
» "She found it inexplicably miraculous, that he should be so calm. Because he had caught fire."
He's a cat. And don't worry, they extinguish him. The book is Rupert Thomson's Soft!, a good read, dark and full of beautiful idiosyncratic details, has a plot that's sort of Guy Ritchie meets "The Hidden Persuaders." Several POV characters, all very different, mingling in ominous ways around London and relating variously to a nefarious soda marketing scheme. I think Thomson is one of those authors who writes a completely different book every time, which is always cool. He wrote one a few years ago where England is turned into a police state that segregates people based on which Medieval humor suits them.

Also read Pompeii by Robert Harris. A fine historical thriller, and it has one scene (a flashback) that almost turned my stomach.

P.S. Hey, been wanting to read Pynchon's Against the Day? Prepare your reading desk for the beginning of February. I plan on reading 100 pages or so a week and posting my thoughts here, if anyone else would like to join in the fun.
» Painful symmetry of the day
I burned my thumb while cooking a dish called "Chicken Vesuvio."
» Weird Tales Magazine
I've sold my story "Court Scranto" to Weird Tales Magazine. Very pleased about that, as you might imagine! The new fiction editor of Weird Tales, Ann VanderMeer, has been posting entries from the authors of some upcoming stories on her husband's (writer Jeff VanderMeer) blog. Mine was posted today.

» Martin McDonagh's Six Shooter
I borrowed a DVD from the library that had all the short films up for Academy Awards in 2005. Yeah, random, I know, but it had one film I really wanted to see, Six Shooter, which was written by the playwright Martin McDonagh (and which won, incidentally.)

Brilliant condensed McDonagh, which is to say: dark, bloody, hilarious, and very Irish.

It got me thinking a bit about black humor, which is in some ways perfect for both the optimist and the pessimist. A pessimist can enjoy black humor because the situation presented is either 1) funnier than what happens to them or 2) darker than what happens to them; bonus either way. And an optimist (like me) might feel terrible laughing at something so appalling, but then in the morning the bad feeling has evaporated and all that's left is maniacal glee. Everybody wins.

Here's a link to a short clip from the movie:

» Books lately read
Shiva 3000 by Jan Lars Jensen. Cool "so far future it's fantasy" story. Setting influenced by Indian mythology. Has some amazingly cool set-pieces, such as a street battle involving cannonades of deadly-hot spices, crane demons that enslave you and make you count things for them forever, and six-armed wooden battle-vest contraptions. Not incidentally, the author suffered a massive nervous breakdown in the middle of writing this book, brought on at least in part, it appears, by his suddenly becoming afraid that the book would be offensive to thousands of people. He wrote another book about the breakdown, Nervous System; or, Losing My Mind in Literature, about the experience of going crazy. Sounds fascinating, but I haven't read it yet.

Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder. Parts one and two (of a projected three) of an awesome, classic world-building science fiction series. The setting (I'll be vague here) has air but not gravity, and is fairly low-tech, so you have wooden, kerosene powered spaceships sailing past balls of water the size of houses, low gravity sword fights, and spinning towns built of rope and planks. Very swashbuckling. The most fun science fiction I've read in a long time.

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll. The second odd book I've read by this very strange author. Surreal, dream-like misadventure tied to reality with crystal-clear details. (Nothing like a good breakfast cooking scene to anchor a book.)

Jumper by Stephen Gould. Read this one because I saw the movie's coming out in a few months. It was pretty good; I certainly read it fast enough. Fully explored what it would be like to be able to teleport. As told by a very emotional teenage narrator. Smoothly written and plotted, but not quite peculiar enough to push all my buttons. Based on the preview, the movie will be nothing like it anyway.
» How I've been spending my time
Books: Terry Pratchett. For the longest time I thought his books were simple parodies of heroic fantasy. This summer some kind folks at Clarion disabused me of that notion (one of them was the author Vernor Vinge.) Turns out I got this impression by trying to read his first book, which pretty much is simple parody--his more recent books are something else altogether. They're not only very, very funny, but are brilliant social satire. I want to figure out how Pratchett can have a story that seems to silly at the beginning but gets more and more meaningful as it goes on, till by the end I feel for these characters as much as any other characters I've read about. How can I care about a character named "Moist von Lipwig"? (Hero of Going Postal, probably my favorite so far.)

Television: This goofy show called Pushing Daisies. It's about a guy who can bring the dead back to life by touching them. Until he touches them again, at which point they die, again. But if he doesn't touch them to re-kill them within a minute, something else in the vicinity dies instead. What I like about the show isn't so much the premise but it's willingness to be completely bizarre and surreal, such as last night's episode where one of the characters healed a carrier pigeon that had lost a wing in plane propeller accident by sewing on a formerly taxidermied parrot's wing in its place and covering up the gaps with a Bejeweller. And nobody thought it was strange. (And then someone mentions a "little birdhouse in your soul" and there's a musical interlude of the They Might Be Giants song.) The whole show is inspired lunacy, with much better dialogue than you normally see on network TV.

DVD: The first season of Deadwood. Now this is another great show. Tons of great characters, all flawed, most sympathetic, all interesting. This feels like the most realistic Western I've ever seen. I don't care if it actually is, it just feels that way, which is all I care about. (Though the horrible nitpicker in me noticed three possible errors. The panes of glass on the hardware store door seem ludicrously huge, and people mispronounced "Murfreesboro" and "Wilkes-Barre.") And the season finale was really, really good. They resolved some plotlines in satisfying ways, and they introduced a few things to carry us on to season two without leaving any giant annoying cliffhanges (I'm looking at YOU, writers of Lost...)

Writing: Oh yeah, that's what I should be doing instead of playing around on livejournal... Bye!
» Bumbershoot Day 2
So this was the day we took it easy. We meandered over to the festival in time to catch the Cody Rivers Show, a quite hilarious sketch comedy duo. Every sketch was an out-of-order fragment of a large, completely bizarre story about starfish-collecting clowns, cultists, sonnet-reciting cape-wearing first graders, and the weird things you can see at an aquarium. One of the funniest parts of the show happened by accident. They had taken a volunteer from the audience by pretending to interview her (this was all related to the cultist part of the story): "Are you a helpful person?" "Would you be willing to do a favor for a complete stranger?" "Do you like hand massage?" She said yes to all, and one of the guys was giving her a hand massage, and he asked if she had any injuries. She said she's hurt her hand mowing the lawn. He made some joke about "mowing the lawn," including a mysterious gesture, and everybody in the audience assumed he'd meant something obscene and started giggling, then laughing very hard. When he realized what was going on he stood up and shouted: "That's not what I meant! You people did that! It's hard to find something dirty in that phrase!" which ended up much funnier than what we'd thought he was saying. I'm always impressed when someone can pull a joke out of nothing.

At night we braved a huge crowd of sixteen-year-old indie kids to watch Andrew Bird, probably my favorite musician, who put on a great show. I love seeing him live because the songs sound completely different from the studio versions (but still amazing), often with totally new tunes and arrangements, and also because he's a joy to watch on the stage, twitching wildly and constantly swapping violin for guitar, then playing the glockenspiel while whistling as the strings loops behind him. When they left the stage at the end of the night the music kept playing for several minutes. Funniest moment of the show: the crowd was clapping in time during his encore, and he interrupted to say "I appreciate the sentiment but you're late on the beat."
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