Sci Fi, Writing Tips

Sci Fi Glory Days

Last February, I posted about the decline of science fiction.  An article appeared today at The World SF Blog that picks up precisely where my piece left off.

The author, Guy Hasson, postulates that rumors of science fiction’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but admits that its glory days may be behind it.  He argues that Science Fiction has become too specialized, insular and familiar to be relevant for the larger culture.  When it should be about “being brave and different and new,” it is instead written for people “looking for more of the same.”  This he contends has created a proliferation of overly specific sub-genres for “fans who already have foreknowledge in SF matters.”

Authors need to step up and, as Ezra Pound famously remarked, “make it new.”

SF is neither dead nor dying. It is currently losing the glory it once had and the wondrous, glorious feelings it used to convey. All these points need to be corrected: SF is now mostly non-inclusive, alienating ‘regular’ or even new readers; SF is no longer influential; SF is no longer brave; and the SF genres are the straight path to killing the glory of original SF.

Who can fix it? Authors can fix it, by trying to return to write brave and influential stories that can be easily read by those who don’t like SF. Authors can return to seek originality, first and foremost by looking outside the established sub-genres.

But that is not going to be enough. Because publishers need to want to publish brave, genre non-specific and perhaps even political SF. For the publishers to change their ways, the readers need to do something, as well. SF readers need to stop being scared. They need to find feelings of comfort in other genres and read SF for the thrill of the threat it may have on their lives. SF readers need to clamor for something brave and new, original and breathtaking, glorious and frightening.

While I may not entirely agree with his assessment, Hasson is a sci fi author himself and practices what he preaches.  There’s an interesting interview in which he claims one of the major appeals of science fiction is “the ability to take things a couple of steps further than realistic drama allows us. When ‘normal’ people hear that you’re writing or reading science fiction, they think about spaceships and special effects. But the truth is that science fiction usually means going all the way with an idea or a thought or an emotion.”  Now that’s an inception I can endorse!


‘The Grotesque’ as a genre

Despite the fact that reviewers occasionally use it to categorize a work, I don’t think most people think of grotesque as a genre.  Instead the word is used as a description of something appalling: as in, Ew, that was totally grotesque. We talk about grotesque horror or grotesque satire, but not “the grotesque” so much.

So I asked myself, what if we did?  How would you distinguish works in the genre and figure out its aesthetics?

Wolfgang Kayser, author of The Grotesque in Art and Literature, felt the grotesque not only constituted a large body of work but that it was on par with (yet a completely separate form from) comedy, tragedy and history:

The grotesque instills fear of life rather than fear of death. Structurally, it presupposes that the categories which apply to our world view become inapplicable. We have observed the progressive dissolution which has occurred since the ornamental art of the Renaissance: the fusion of realms which we know to be separated, the abolition of the law of statics, the loss of identity, the distortion of “natural” size and shape, the suspension of the category of objects, the destruction of personality, and the fragmentation of the historical order.

The grotesque was a genre, he seemed to feel, that was gradually becoming more pertinent, because life is becoming increasingly fragmented and absurd-seeming.

The grotesque is not concerned with individual actions or the destruction of the moral order (although both factors may be partly involved). It is primarily the expression of our failure to orient ourselves in the physical universe. Finally, the tragic does not remain within the sphere of incomprehensibility. As an artistic genre, tragedy opens precisely within the sphere of the meaningless and the absurd the possibility of a deeper meaning—in fate, which is ordained by the gods, and in the greatness of the tragic hero, which is only revealed through suffering. The creator of grotesques, however, must not and cannot suggest a meaning.

In a sense he’s saying it is the anti-fable, that a grotesque story is one in which no neat moral can possible tie up all of its innuendo.  It can’t be summed up.  There’s nothing pat about the grotesque.

This isn’t to say that it’s utterly meaningless, but just that the place of revelation (the “oh, I get what’s going on here” moment) is filled by elements of contrast like distortion, ambiguity, intentional alienation, hybridization, and surrealism.  These are used to produce a feeling in the reader of a hyper-realized reality.

In the simplest terms, it’s about abnormal people and bizarre incidences in improbable scenarios that create a disquieting awareness in the reader.  Through strange visions, we receive a more clear view of our world.  At one extreme there are fantasies, such as Kafka’s or the work of E.T.A. Hoffman, so often called grotesque, and at the other there are realistic grotesques, like those of Flannery O’Connor and Irvine Welsh.

Then again, such a broad range of styles and approaches — many of which find themselves nested snugly inside other more well-defined genres — forces me back to the conclusion that the grotesque is, in fact, not a genre at all, but a technique.  Even a fable could be told in a grotesque way that undermined its own moral.  Hence our modern definition of the word: “distorted, deformed, weird, antic, wild.”

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: The Slickens

A short story of mine, “The Slickens,” appeared today in the third issue of the Lovecraft eZine.

This new web webzine is for fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and legacy.  Describing itself as “a free online magazine featuring lovecraftian horror,” the website has already nabbed stories by some great authors.  The site’s editor/creator, Mike Davis, is bootstrapping together a top notch publication, and best of all he’s paying his writers, which is a rarity anymore.  Altogether a class act!


Return of the Grotesque?

An unwinnable war, an economic recession, and an ecological disaster make it a good time to reconsider that beloved medieval genre, the grotesque.

So opined Jesse Tangen-Mills in a recent Rain Taxi review.  It’s a sentiment with which I tend agree, and recently I have been reading histories of ‘the grotesque’ to get a better handle on what it is exactly, and how it differs from horror, satire, surrealism and other things with which it is often equated.

What I have gleaned is that the grotesque came not from images of gore as modern use of the term might make you think, but rather from cave paintings (cave, aka “grotto,” hence “grotto-esque” or grotesque).  It was originally applied to a style of visual art featuring human-animal hybrid monsters as its predominant motif.  Over time (and here I’m cutting history to the nub), the art style inspired a theatrical and literary genre that featured sympathetic freaks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was eventually and indelibly linked to horror by Edgar Allen Poe, and has been applied as a descriptor for the literature of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and others.

However, like some semi-gelatinous clabber, it remains debatable whether it has truly solidified into a modern literary genre.  Nevertheless, it amuses me to believe that it could exist as a distinct collection of absurdist weirdness, surrealist satire and cosmic horror.  In other words, just the kind of stuff I like.


Films About Fiction: Californication Season 1

The main character in Californication is novelist Hank Moody (David Duchovny).  Hank has a bestselling book, God Hates Us All, that got turned into some crappy movie and that got him to L.A., made him rich and pissed him off.  Now his wife has left him and his life is ruined.  Seriously, that’s the plot.

The fact that Hank is a writer is, to use the proper term, a narrative device.  The show, at least in Season 1, isn’t much about writing.  The closest Hank gets is tossing his laptop against the floor in frustration, because he can’t write.  When he does finally write something, it happens off screen.

The thing is, Hank isn’t really a writer anyway.  Not in any realistic sense.  His life isn’t about sitting around thinking about syntax, grammar and all that literary garbage.  Hank’s life is all about easy women, drugs and booze, and sleazy adventures.  Hank is a sexy boy-man; God’s gift to women except the one he wants.

Hemmingway, Mailer, Kerouac, et al., notwithstanding, writing is not a highly manly pursuit.  You don’t kill anything or even chop down any trees.  There’s no grunting or sweating.  It mainly involves sitting in a chair.  If it is historically associated with men, that’s only because men were for a large portion of history the only gender educated in writing.  Nevertheless, there is a sort of myth or legend of the male writer as certain kind of man, and Californication works that legend as its fulcrum.

I don’t want to bag on the show too much, though, since I kinda love it, and also because embodying this mythological writer being has Ducovney producing some of his best acting since he was a transsexual FBI agent on Twin Peaks a million years ago.  But, I have to make the point, Californication is not about writing or being a writer.  It’s about being a *rock star*.  Although, in this case, that rock star happens to be rocking out on an Underwood.Californication Season 1

(Yes, literally.  The fact that he uses a typewriter for the one thing he writes becomes a major plot point.)

What gives the show its narrative drive, what it gets, is the dynamics between men and women.  Hank, whose baby momma left him because he never ‘put a ring on it,’ is sleeping with anyone and everyone who comes along.  And lots of people come along, one or two in every episode.  The way he flirts with, beds or avoids bedding all of these various L.A. tarts, is what the show is about and what makes it fun.

Californication is only about writing in the way that Sex in the City is about being a columnist — it’s a convenient setup.  It bears other unfortunate resemblances to that show, as well, but with the genders, and coasts, reversed.


Fyodor Dostoevsky

I have been reading Dostoevsky again.

Notes from Underground was one of the few books they made me read in high school that I actually enjoyed.  Something about the sheer pessimistic misanthropy of his underground man was so very appealing to my tortured teenage sensibility that I went on to read Crime and Punishment with great relish even though it wasn’t technically assigned.  As a teenager, I was too intimidated by the length of his other works to delve in, but then, while I lived abroad, I came across his short stories.   They struck me as hilarious!  Particularly the one about the dog-murdering cuckold paranoiac.  Then I read House of the Dead (which I assure you has nothing to do with the video game or Uwe Bol flick).  I found his worlds so vivid and his philosophies so profound that by 25 I had churned through The Brother’s Karamazov, The Idiot and The Possessed in a fever.  It was only when I tried to read The Double that I finally faltered.

There is an interesting piece about the tides of his literary reputation over at the Guardian‘s Book Blog that points out that The Double just about ended Dostoevsky’s literary career, so perhaps I’m not alone in being unable to read it.

I haven’t attempted a Dostoevsky novel since then.  But the other day I picked up The Gambler because it’s relatively short, which made it seem doable.  Turns out it’s all about obsession, and filled with smears against the French.  I suspect I will finish it.  I’m already half way and I hate to leave a book unread.  And then perhaps another run at The Double?  No promises, though.  Maybe I will just reread those hilarious short stories.

Authors, Writing Tips

Bacigalupi: try, fail, learn

If you’re not familiar with Paolo Bacigalupi, then allow me to make the introduction.  He’s the author of the excellent and highly critically acclaimed novel The Windup Girl.

I got my own introduction to Bacigalupi only recently through the io9 book club. If you visit the book club’s ‘ask Paolo‘ page you can see where I questioned him about how he plotted his intricate, multi-character novel.  (Actually, what I said was “Where did you start?”).  And he explained that plotting was indeed a challenge.

“One of my big concerns about the book was that it didn’t have an overarching plan or structure to guide it for a long time. I just kept writing drafts until the elements that interested me seemed to bind together,” he told me.  It’s a process I know a lot of writers can relate to.

In an interview posted Monday at Techland, Bacigalupi decribes writing as a “try, fail, learn cycle.  You have to be able to take that again and again. And those failure moments, you have to go, OK, why did I fail? What did I learn from this? How can I reapply this and go again?” Words to live by, if you ask me.

(You can also read my review of The Windup Girl at Goodreads.)


Films About Fiction: Swimming Pool

“I’m not the person you think I am …”

Why are films so often about writers?  Are writers inherently interesting characters?  Assumed to be bright, talented and loquacious?  Yes, and yes.  They’re also headstrong and insecure — an incendiary combination perfect for cinematic caricature.  (Plus we have a career that allows us to tell our own stories, some of which get made into films.)

On the other hand, some films simply require a character who has as much alone time as Jack Torrence.  And others need a genre writer to get caught up in his own genre, the way Rick Castle does.  Belgian film Swimming Pool (2003) is both.

Swimming Pool features a mystery writer whose attempt to find solitude gets her tangled up with people she doesn’t know, which leads to a murder.  The story ends up being pretty exciting in a thoughtful, European sort of way, but if you want to read a review, you can do that elsewhere.

I’m interested in the implications.

In Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling plays a British mystery writer named Sarah who is having a bit of a nervous breakdown and escapes to her editor’s villa in the South of France.  While she’s there, she refuses to swim in the swimming pool and starts to write.  There are no crumpled up papers in her world; when she writes, she goes nonstop.  Everything seems great until the homeowner’s wayward daughter Julie shows up, slips on a sexy bikini and uncovers the swimming pool.

This causes Sarah a great deal of distress, especially when the girl starts bringing home men for sex.  But Sarah responds like a writer:  She doesn’t get mad, she starts taking notes.  Things get dangerous when she steals Julie’s diary, seduces the gardener and … starts swimming in the swimming pool.  Is that a metaphor I detect?

Anyway, what started as a meditation on the solitude of the writer’s life, transforms into a more realistic portrayal of the way a writer mines her life for inspiration.  When curiosity turns into obsession, bad things start to happen.  Bad things that later turn out to be (spoiler alert) all in Sarah’s head.  Julie’s life becomes delicious fiction.  With a hot soundtrack.

Films about writers are allowed to blur the line between the reality the writer lives and the fantasy the writer later creates.  Yes, it’s cheating, but it’s metafictional cheating, and if you’re good at it pretentious people are going to think you’re awesome.  Well, Swimming Pool is great at it.  So good, in fact, I suspect there’s something more going on.

The way Sarah’s fictional story takes hold of the narrative, blurring the lines, tricking you, and hijacking young Julie’s life is a reminder that writers are powerful; say too much around them, reveal too much, and you might wake up one morning to find your whole life etherized upon the table, dissected and presented for examination.  You might even find it transformed, fictionalized, immortalized.

If that sounds attractive, keep in mind that in either scenario your life will no longer belong to you, and that this is a form of plagiarism against which there is no restriction or defense.  Writer’s have license.


A history of liquidated collections

I used to be a big ol’ book collector.  I had thousands.  But my collection has been whittled down over the years to just about one hundred books, mostly reference books.  I hadn’t really considered blogging about this change until, following my previous post about Jim Thompson, a friend asked if he could borrow my copy of The Killer Inside Me.   But I don’t have a copy anymore.

I had the entire collection of Black Lizard Press Jim Thompson novels, not to mention many other Black Lizard editions.  The collection took about three years to accumulate. I dragged it with me for three or four years, through two cross-country moves, and then one day I decided to liquidate the whole thing at Moe’s Books.  I didn’t even get trade, just cash money.  Perhaps it was an appropriately noir ending for a series of bleak novels about lust and betrayal, but these were beautiful editions, and there wasn’t really a good reason why I got rid of them.

But there was a reason and, no joking, it had to do with feng shui.  Let me see if I can explain.

The first collection I liquidated was my Stephen King collection.  I did that while I was still in college. Part of growing up, I guess.

Then I graduated from college and got rid of all the college books that had been overflowing my shelves since freshman year.  I made a heck of a lot of money selling those books and maybe got a taste for it.  I don’t know.

When I moved to Montana, I finally pulled the trigger on most of the rest of the books I’d held onto.  And when I moved back, I got rid of just about everything else, except Thompson.

That was supposed to be it.  I had taken the book collection down to the minimum.  I wasn’t going to get rid of anything else.  But then this coworker of mine loaned me her feng shui books.

It turned out the Thompson shelf violated feng shui in two ways: It was my biggest single-author collection, about 30 books in all, and they were collecting a lot of dust and who knows what kind of microorganisms. Worse, these novels are dark, vile rants as hard to forget as they are to put down.  They are guaranteed to leave you disturbed.

And when I learned that having something in your house that collects dust and disturbs you, no matter how beautiful it may be, is the very definition of bad feng shui, I decided to let them go.

Sometimes, like tonight, I get wistful, but as least my house doesn’t look like this.