Friday, April 30, 2010

Inspiration from visual art

I'm reading a book on Goya, another artist whose work I saw in El Prado when I was in Spain. Some of that will certainly be worthy of including here, especially once I get to the so-called Black Paintings, if I decide to do another visual art post in the next week or two. But what jumped out at me this week was just a small image in the margins or a page about what was going on around Europe at the time of Goya.

The picture seemed vaguely familiar, though whether I'd actually seen it before or just fantastical works that had been inspired by it, I'm not sure. Either way, it turned out to be one of the etchings from Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons.

The whole series looks pretty amazing, and I requested a book from my library so I can look at them more closely and in more detail. Now I'm excitedly waiting for it to arrive.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

Something a little different today: "The End of the Garden" by Michal Ajvaz.

I've just finished reading his book The Other City and deeply enjoyed it. The image of the library/jungle that makes up a chapter near the end of the book is especially cool, and one that I could see people enjoying as a stand-alone excerpt (though it doesn't have much of a resolution within it). His new book, The Golden Age (which just came out in English translation about a week ago) also sounds very good.

So I came across this story by him as well. There's a surreal, shifting dream-logic to the story, and as with the library jungle chapter that I think could stand alone, it doesn't really have a resolution any more than a dream would, just an end. But I loved the playful philosophical references and internal debates the narrator engages in, trying to apply Kant's categorical imperative to the situation of a woman assaulting a komodo dragon...

If the story (or any of the other bits about the writer) interest you, here's a good essay about Ajvaz on his publisher's website.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poetic Inspiration for National Poetry Month

In part because it's National Poetry Month and in part because of Earth Day yesterday, I thought I'd share a pair of poems that I always find inspirational:

"Inversnaid" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

and [in Just -] by E. E. Cummings

rather than pasting the words, here's a video of Cummings himself reading the poem (EDIT: that is, the audio is of his reading, with video added--I didn't realize until just now that how I wrote it could be misleading)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Microfiction under Creative Commons

I found this contest sponsored by a new Canadian SF ezine on Ralan's the other day and decided to write something up. I hadn't realized until it came to the point of submitting it that just by entering the contest, the story was released under a Creative Commons license. So that means the story, even before the contest is over (much less judged) now shows up on the contest page. Scroll down to entry number 21 (the last entry on the page at the moment, though that's sure to change).

While you're there, since I always like to promote the various high-paying ezines out there, do check out the proposal for the new magazine and see if it's something you want to support.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a friend had recommended "The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change." I finally got around to reading it this week, and I concur. I especially love how formalized the dog stories are, the ritual opening, the standard, every-dog name of the protagonists. An excellent story that earns the accolades it received back when it was published.

From my e-zine reading this week, there were a pair of science fiction stories that stood out: I've enjoyed a number of Yoon Ha Lee's stories in recent years, so I wasn't surprised to find her "Between Two Dragons" to be a rich and elusive read. It's the story of a war hero made supposed traitor by political intrigue, and of what he chooses to do as a result of that. The specifics of what happened and how it's going to turn out are left largely for the reader to puzzle out or imagine.

Bud Sparhawk's "The Tortuous Path" is the opposite in this regard--the full story is spelled out in full view. It's the story of an apprentice to a religious-like order who guide star-faring space ships. He is unaware, though, of how their order is seen by those outside (with hints of Wolfe's Severian here a few times, it seemed to me) as well as what exactly it is that allows them to control the ships. I enjoyed the way the order works, as well as the discovery of their more sinister secrets and the sense of social change.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Monkey and the Inkpot

Another week of reading McWhorter's The Power of Babel. The most fascinating part I read this week was about pidgins and creoles. He tells the stories of a large number of these, each one interesting on its own, and each adding to a picture of the general pattern that lead to their development. I've always been interested in creoles, and this just adds to that sense of how rich language is, regardless of the actual language.

(As a brief side note, since several of the creoles discussed originated in Suriname, I also spent some time learning more about the three little countries along the northern coast of South American where neither Spanish nor Portuguese is the colonial-era-inherited language. It's so easy to forget about them, thinking that all of South America is the rest of the countries. I've even seen in trivia-type books for kids that all countries in South America have Spanish or Portuguese as their national languages. The three Guianas have their own very different history, which never even merited a mention in my college history classes, and unique geography, including some of the world's tallest and largest waterfalls. So it's too bad they get ignored.)

I also mentioned last week that the epilogue of McWhertor's book addresses the question of the original Ur-language, from which all others are descended. First, he affirms that there likely was one language. I've seen some arguments that language could have developed at various times among different human populations, but he finds this unlikely. Also unlikely to him, however, is that we could ever know anything about the actual words of that language. The sheer time scale means that even with the most conservative language change imaginable, every sound will have changed into something unrecognizable. Where there do seem to be similar words across proto-languages (the prominent proponents of the idea are Greenberg, Ruhlen, and Bengtson), the evidence is pretty suspect--often involving too small samples, questionable recreations of even those proto-languages, and a stretch to find words only tangentially related by meaning.

Alas--it would be cool to believe that tik was the original word for finger.

What McWhertor does argue, though, is that creoles can offer us a glimpse into the underlying structure of the original language. For example, even when the dominant languages that gave rise to a pidgin, and from there to a creole, have a subject-object-verb order, the creolized language almost always has a subject-verb-object order. It probably also was not a tone-based language, and probably did not have elaborate inflections. And you could probably change word class (ie you could verb nouns) without having to change the word (though even then you might have run afoul of the language police...). I've seen elsewhere an argument that clicks are also likely a more recent evolution. I'm not seeing that addressed in this epilogue as I skim over it again, but I seem to remember something he said suggesting the opposite, that clicks might well have been part of the original sounds of language.

We'll never know with any certainty, but it's certainly fun to imagine how that first language might have been.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Might as well add a Poetry Thursday this week...

Not a regular feature, but I just read Robert Borksi's "Rebranding" in Strange Horizons, and it made me smile. It's a zombie poem. Or a case could be made that it's vampires. It's never explicit. To be honest, I'm pretty fed up with zombies in fiction, though as a trope they're not quite as scraped dry as, say, vampires. But in comical pieces, especially short-ish, they can be fun. I think the clincher for me was calling the zombies (or vampires?) "homo semimortui." Bye bye, sapiens!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

I'm choosing Samantha Henderson's "Deutoroi" this week as the one that grabbed me most. I've enjoyed some of her stories (and poetry) in the past, and this one didn't disappoint. It's the story of a magical connection between a line of women and the hunt, where the woman must lose her sanity to lead the hunt for the White Stag (the Deutoroi of the title), thereby granting kingship on whoever kills the Stag. Merea, the current Thessa or woman of that line, is a strong character, the details of the cultural/magical bond/antagonism rich, and the result of Merea finally accepting her role a satisfying one.

This story is from Abyss & Apex. I often forget to check A&A for new stories when it comes out (because of its quarterly schedule, as opposed to the monthly, biweekly and weekly schedules of the main ezines I read regularly), but it's always nice to stumble on the discovery of a new issue when I happen to take a look at their website.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beers and Books

(Note: I'm thinking that this week I'll go with a short fiction Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday)

We met last night for our book club, to discuss A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean. It was a good discussion. The story is full of lines and scenes that memorable, often humorous. I've never seen the movie, but knowing it had been made into a popular movie, I was actually expecting it to be somewhat more dramatic and plot-driven. Instead it was much more anecdotal, its themes much more subtle and understated. Some of the guys in our group are fly-fishermen (or aspiring fly-fishermen), and I think they enjoyed the book even more--one considered it, along with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, one of the two best books we've read as a group. My experience in fly-fishing is limited to reading David James Duncan's The River Why and various other stories and essays (and my experience in fishing is droppin' a fishin' pole in the crick and being bored while waiting to catch something...bait fishing, naturally, which the fly fishermen look down on as so far beneath them it doesn't count as fishing). So while I wouldn't consider the book to be the best of those we've read, I did enjoy it.

Beer of choice: I decided to go with one of their new, limited-edition brews, the Bruiser Imperial Brown. A good bear, though not all that different from some of the other dark beers I've had there.

Our next book is Stephen Ambrose's Wild Blue, a book that had some controversy because of claims of plagiarism. I've never been hugely fascinated with the minutiae of WWII like some people I've known (except the resistance stories in occupied countries--those fascinate me), so I can't say I'm especially excited at this point. But I'm hopeful that it'll turn out to be well written and with interesting insight and details.

Friday, April 09, 2010


I'm still reading John McWhorter's The Power of Babel. I haven't spent as much time reading nonfiction this week, but I am enjoying what I read. He does a good job of showing why many assumptions people have about language are simply incorrect, especially relating to any kind of idea of a pure language. One that had me laugh was this quote from a John Cheke in 1561:
Our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borrowing of other tunges...
which as McWhorter points out the words "pure" and "mangled"...both French borrowings. This kind of language change (and actually much more extreme borrowings and interminglings) is the rule, not some exception, and is constant. Any snapshot of a language is like a a single glance at a lava lamp, though things like widespread literacy do slow down the rate at which the language changes.

Anyway, one interesting change he noted relates to a grouping of grammatical features common to many European languages. What's interesting is that as far as linguists can tell, proto-Indo European did not have these features, and neither did proto-Uralic (ancestor of Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian). Yet they're prevalent in many of the mainland languages descended from both of these, but not in the known Celtic languages, which were seemingly more isolated for a key stretch of time. Written records of early Germanic languages even show some of these changes spreading over time.

So I'm curious what's going on there? Where did these changes come from? It's clearly, given all the points McWhorter adds to the picture, a matter of grammatical changes spreading from language to language, a continent-wide Sprachbund (meaning a group of languages that influence each other). But McWhorter doesn't offer any explanation of why this happened. Did some of these language groups encounter people who spoke another language, something neither Indo-European nor Uralic, that's now lost? Or perhaps not entirely lost? Basque is an intriguing language isolate...but I've seen enough out-there, conspiracy-tinged theories connected to Basque that I'm hesitant to focus just on that. I'd think it'd have to have been a fairly prominent language at least somewhere, though I suppose it could have spread virus-like even from a less prominent language. Or maybe it was just a random mutation (of sorts) in one language and spread from there.

The epilogue of the book addresses the question of whether we could ever recover the original proto-language, probably spoken some 150,000 years ago (hint: chances aren't good, despite what some researchers claim). I've already read that part, but I'll probably take another look at it and maybe blog about that next week.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

"The Duke of Vertumn's Fingerling" by Elizabeth Carroll stands out this week. I wasn't sure, when I read the opening, that I would like it as much as I did, though rereading it, it's hard to capture why I had that sense. It's the story of Viola, a homunculus created by the court alchemist to be the duke's secret assassin. She's very self-aware, which leads to a thread of the question of whether something made can be human--not a hit-you-over-the-head theme or anything, just a nice teasing subtext to pull you along. And then there's the excitement of her work, her vulnerability to cats and rats, and the various intrigues of the court. It's a fun story with a satisfying ending.

I haven't had a chance to finish it yet, but a writer friend of mine strongly recommended Kij Johnson's "The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change." It's a few years old, and received a good deal of recognition at the time, but the recommendation was quite forceful, so I quickly added it to my tabs and decided to pass the recommendation along here as well. Any one else come across any stand-out stories lately?

Friday, April 02, 2010


I finished the Sykes book this week, and continued to find things fascinating, especially when he uses his discoveries to dig into things like immigration patterns. I also began a new nonfiction book, which is proving to be quite interesting so far--The Power of Babel by John McWhorter. The subtitle is "A Natural History of Language," and it explores how language changes constantly, like a 70s lava lamp.

But what's really grabbed my attention this week, interesting as both those books have been, was from neither but instead a stumble across a variety of articles, images, and video of the giant isopod. It's this weird, armored, deep-sea relative of the pill-bug that can grow up to thirty inches long. The deep sea has some wildly bizarre creatures that certainly deserve a home in weird fiction...and this has to be among the most alien, even of those. So I'll leave you with one picture of it, staring out of this post at you...

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Sale to Kaleidotrope

My flash fiction story "Cities of Nostalgia" has sold to Kaleidotrope. This will be my third time in that indie print zine, and I've always been pleased with my experience there. This story is another of my Yann Railroad stories, meant to evoke a touch of Dunsany and a bit more of Calvino. The story should appear in April 2011.