Saturday, May 29, 2010

Up to my son's imagination

I was telling my son the story of the boy who cried wolf and ended it just at the point where no one came when he shouted the third time. "So, did he protect the sheep from the wolf all by himself?" he asked.

"The story doesn't say. It leaves that up to your imagination," I said.

After thinking for a moment, he said, "My imagination says that the wolf killed the boy, but then the main shepherd came and hit the wolf into space with his stick. That's what my imagination says."

That'll work.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Scans from Piranesi
Since I've mentioned Piranesi's Dark Prisons series of etchings a few times, I figure it makes sense to put in a couple of scans of them. These are two I haven't seen as often online, "The Staircase with Trophies" above, and "Prisoners on a Projecting Platform" below. (Actually Piranesi didn't name them, but those are the typical titles for them--they're numbers 8 and 10 in the revised sequence.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

A couple of stories are staying with me this week. First is Carol Ermshwiller's "On Not Going Extinct." I loved the opening here, especially the bit about the word "ramekin" being a part of the narrator's subculture that has spread to the culture at large. (No red squiggle under ramekin tells me it's a real word...and wikipedia tells me it's from either Dutch or Low German, by way of French. Huh.) This sense of the narrator losing her culture, of her trying to find others like her, was nicely done. The ending seemed a bit, well, conventional I guess. Not storytelling-wise, but the choice she surprised how quickly she accepted it. But that's not a complaint...just an observation.

I'm also reading a longer story and haven't had time to finish, one that I'm enjoying so far. James Lecky's "And Other Such Delights." It's a Dying Earth kind of story with musician who creates music out of found sound that he records with a high-tech/sorcerous recording box. Parts of it, especially early on, feel a bit awkward on a storytelling level, but the imagination of it and the nature of the world he travels through is keeping me reading (except alas, I need to sleep I'll have to finish it later and see how well the ending makes the story as a whole as good as those parts I'm liking so far).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Inspiration--more on Piranesi's Prisons of the Imagination

A month or two ago I blogged about discovering this series of etchings through a small side picture in a book on Goya. The etchings truly are stunning (perhaps I'll scan one of the pictures that are harder to find online and post that later...though it's much better to be able to hold a book of good quality images). In trying to find more about them, I discovered an essay by Aldous Huxley, reprinted on John Coulthart's blog. It sees in the pictures a sense of how society often forces us into mere mechanical roles (without stripping away our humanity, which would be kinder) as well as a sense of metaphysical alienation.

The blog post is a few years old, so this didn't exist yet then, but Dover Publications has just come out with a new edition of these etchings (as in, 2 days ago, according to the official publication date). I'm tempted to order it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When things go right

I've been working on and off on this mosaic novel idea for the past year or so (or much longer for parts of it, actually...but a little less than a year on the longer story that weaves the rest of the pieces together). I go back and forth on whether it's a any good or not. Some parts of it, as I reread and revised it a few weeks ago, had me thrilled, but other parts just felt awkward and silly. But I couldn't seem to adjust things right during that revision pass, so I was still going back and forth between telling myself it was well on its way to being a great work of experimental imagination and cringing as I thought of it.

I've started a new pass through the story now, and for the past week I've been staring at the first chapter before flipping to one of the other things I'm working on. But then today a bunch of things came together. Partly inspired by some of the visual art things I've mentioned over the past few months, I had some specific things in mind to fine-tune the atmosphere of the piece. And doing that helped me see where I could cut some big sections of the opening out and replace them with something much more fitting.

I'm feeling good about the story again. No promises how long that will last, but for now...I like it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Something quite different today: Wendell Berry's children's story, "Whitefoot." I've been a fan of Berry's poetry ever since I discovered it some 14 years ago in a class on contemporary poetry. I later discovered his essays, and while I don't always agree with him, I do more often than not, and I admire the strongly pro-environment approach he takes. I've enjoyed his fiction...but it often seems lesser than either the essays or poems. Discovering this (published in 2007), though, was a pleasure. There's a calm, quiet wisdom to Berry's writing, which is there even in this story of a mouse caught in a flood. I kept expecting it to be somehow didactic or parable-ish, but it didn't veer that way. Instead it offered up a story that readers could react to as they would. Even so, it touches on some of Berry's big themes, especially in the way that Whitefoot the mouse knows the acre she calls home so intimately.

There are a few stories from the usual zines I read that I'm enjoying reading at the moment, but I think I'll leave this post just to Wendell Berry. I see that I've labeled other posts with his name before (or at least one other post, anyway), so I'd definitely recommend hopping back to those to see about his Mad Farmer poems and whatever else I might have written about him.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beer Book Club

I just returned from Coopersmiths where we discussed the book The Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose. (I'll do my weekly short fiction post tomorrow, I think.)

Beer of choice: Not Brown Ale. Some of the local brewers are also holding a special craft brewers' week and worked together on something they called "Collaboration Kriek." Sounds worth trying in theory... But after tasting a sample, we agreed the results weren't worth it. They basically just threw together three kinds of beer. Presumably they tried to match the three so they would complement each other... Almost 50% of it was New Belgium's La Folie beer, which is a very sour, vinegar-y beer. I don't mind it alone in the right circumstances--a beer to sip, I guess, when you want to appear refined. I'm in the minority of our group even in that opinion. The combination brought out the same disgust of those who don't like La Folie anyway, and wasn't really in its favor.

We had a good discussion of the book. It's about George McGovern and the B-24 crews of WWII. There were some parts that dwelt in far too much detail on the mechanical specs of the planes, but in all it was a good book. I've never counted myself among those who are fascinated with the minutiae of WWII--I certainly knew some people who were obsessed with that in college (and didn't really want to be like them...). So it didn't grab me like some books we've read in this group have. What stood out, though, was the incredible discomfort of the planes, the tremendous attrition rate, and the youth of the soldiers. That and the mention that during McGovern's later run for president (long before I was born, and not really a focus of the book), some far-right groups accused McGovern of having been a coward in the war, which made me pissed off at those groups even forty years later.

Our next book is Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Monkey and the Inkpot--Archaeology

I grabbed a couple of recent issues of the magazine Archaeology from the library this week. Archaeology has always seemed like a fascinating fusion of strict science (appealing to the SF writer in me) and romantic discovery of other cultures (appealing to the fantasist in me). I'm well aware that the reality of archaeological work is far from that I'm very happy there are those willing to do the tedious work so that I can keep my wide-eyed excitement with the things they uncover.

These two issues range everywhere from Paleolithic India (where some scientists think the evidence shows a continuity of human settlement that doesn't fit with the usual dating of certain events in the evolution of homo sapiens) to 19th century New Jersey (where Napoleon's older brother had a mansion). Sense of wonder stuff.

One especially interesting article is on the Salado style of pottery, which spread in the American Southwest from about AD 1275 to 1450. The pottery is strange in the way it crosses cultures, bringing particular patterns and motifs with them...but most of the rest of the cultures keep their own distinct aspects. So it's not a matter of these various peoples all suddenly becoming homogeneous. The writer argues that a surge in women refugees (their men having been slaughtered in a series of wars) led to a new, as the writer calls it, "poor women's religion" as a way of forming solidarity among these people of various cultures and incorporating them, eventually, into the community. The cultures they came to were often matrilineal, so the refugee couldn't just marry in to the community. Instead, then, this new religion served to diffuse tensions and bring the refugees in to the local society.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Short Fiction (and a poem) Tuesday

I enjoyed Tony Pi's "A Sweet Calling" this week for the whimsical candy-magic and what seemed to me a Chinese feel to the setting. (I'd love to be told if it seems meant to evoke a particular era or culture within China or elsewhere in Asia.) The dilemma of hiding his magic but wanting to help the people was also nicely done.

I also read (just this morning) Patricia Russo's "Wishes and Feathers" and enjoyed that, especially the little details that Lopi notices that identify a person's origin. It flirted with the Eddings-style everyone-from-X-country-behaves-thus silliness...but it never fell over that edge. Instead it seemed to be very aware of the little quirks we pick up from our peers wherever we happen to live.

And just for something different, I loved this week's poem in Strange Horizons, F. J. Bergmann's "The Planet of Ideal Readers." If you're like me, the title alone should intrigue you enough to go read it (and it's short, besides...).

Friday, May 07, 2010

Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute

I picked up this book from the library recently, after just finding it as I browsed. Wikipedia has the background info on the book, but basically it's a story of a woman carried off to live among the nomads, where she lives for a number of years, marries, has two children...and then is ransomed by her people and must leave behind her husband and children. The basic outline is a true story, and the woman recorded her own experiences in poems. This book, though, is a retelling of sorts, rewritten by a poet some 700 years later.

The poems are pretty short and understated. Much is left to background knowledge and especially the beautiful paintings, one for each of the eighteen poems. I've always loved Chinese art, and these are wonderful examples of that. Not only is the composition of each individual painting exquisite, but they build on each other, creating a lot of the story through the variations from scene to scene.

I've blogged before about how I'm fascinated with the pairing of words and images, but that many graphic novels and similar attempts to fuse them just don't satisfy me. (Though I ought to state that I have found more that do, as I've continued exploring--though the ones that seem strongest are those graphic works that are word-less.) I'd love to see other artists/writers do more like this, things that satisfy as stunning and subtle art while also satisfying as written words.

That's really a side note, though, to this amazing work.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

First, two of my writer friends have new stories up: Lindsey Duncan has "The Weatherwoman" in Reflection's Edge and Barbara Barnett has "The Name of Trust" in Alternative Coordinates.

In my ezine reading this week, the one that stands out is Paul Jessup's "The Last Stand of the Ant Maker" in Apex Online. The story seems to hover between whimsical fantasy and visceral horror, which was a fun tension. It also has nods to the zombie apocalypse meme that usual doesn't do much for me (except occasionally in something comical), but I think because it's more of a plant-based infection (colonization, even), I enjoyed that part instead of finding it tedious. It's a story that leaves its images to linger in my mind after I've read it. So go check it out, and the rest of the new issue of Apex that just went up, while you're at it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A matter of labels

Sometimes I wonder if calling myself a fantasy writer or even speculative fiction writer is the best approach when talking with some people. Let me be clear, I'm not embarrassed to identify myself as a fantasy writer, and I think when talking with other speculative fiction readers and writers, that's the most accurate label.

When I meet new people, though, or when people I know want to know more about what I write...I'm not sure it gets the right idea across. "Speculative fiction," while in many cases the term I prefer, doesn't work for those situations, because they just don't know what that means. I can tell by their follow-up questions or later conversation that they imagine something very different. But swords, spaceships, elves, dragons, fire-summoning wizards...these rarely if ever show up in my fiction (swords more than the rest, but even that not as a prominent feature), and those are the things they seem to assume.

But the dilemma is...what would get a more accurate image across to someone who isn't steeped in the broad fields of speculative fiction? I've considered magical realism and surrealism. I have work that I think would fit each of those, and they'd probably conjure up a more accurate picture. But...the pedant in me wants to argue that most of what I write doesn't really fit either of those terms, or at least not the image I have when I hear them used. I recently saw a reference to "imaginative literature," as a tradition that includes writers like Borges and Calvino. I like that. Certainly both writers have influenced my writing significantly. So for someone familiar with that usage, it might get across a better idea. But for the most part it runs into the same problem as speculative fiction--most people are just going to say, "Umm, what's that?"

Maybe "literary fantasy"? Within the field, there's some definite resistance to the term--it smacks of arrogant pretension or something, I suppose. I used to use that in my head to describe the stories I liked, but I've shied away from saying or writing it. But I think to someone without those in-genre associations (and honestly, we're a relatively small and insular group who tend to over-estimate our numbers and influence) the image is going to be closer.

I don't know, though. Any other suggestions? To be clear, I'm not talking about rigid definitions of where the lines or genre are or anything of the sort. Just the best way to explain myself to others.