Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’
November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.
The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.
It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.
In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.
Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.
The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.
The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”
From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.
The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.
Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Houdini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.
This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.
In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.
Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.
Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.
The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.
The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.
From chapter one:
The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.
The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.
It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.
I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.
This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.
A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.
“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.
I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.
There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.
For all my fellow podcast junkies, or those who don’t know where to start, I highly recommend these shows that recently graced my ears. In no particular order, other than my memory:
Other People podcast with Brad Listi: Karl Taro Greenfeld
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of, most recently, Triburbia, a debut novel that follows his career in journalism and his previous memoir about his autistic brother. In this interview with Brad Listi, Greenfeld talks about his career in magazines, the trouble with memory and how it translates on the page, and levels of fabrication in works of nonfiction. After you’ve listened, you can read his Q&A with the Daily Beast.
Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler: RuPaul’s drag race, drag u, supermodel of the world
Aisha Tyler’s near-2-hour interview podcast is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Not only is she funny in this adorably nerdy way, she knows how to have a conversation. In a recent episode Tyler sat down with the legendary RuPaul, best known as the drag queen made famous by the 1993 song “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
In the interview Ru talks about his beginnings in California, moving to Atlanta, coming to New York City and making a name for himself in the club scene, first dressing in “punk drag” (think David Bowie), then “black hooker drag,” and finally moving on to the upscale diva he is today.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel: TV Fantasy Goes Mainstream
Live from the ATX Television Festival, Nerdist Writer’s Panel host, Ben Blacker, moderates a panel discussion with Jeff Davis (creator, Teen Wolf and Criminal Minds); Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time; Husbands; BSG; Buffy); Richard Hatem (creator, Miracles; Grimm); Jose Molina (Firefly; Terra Nova; Vampire Diaries); Ben Edlund (creator, The Tick; Firefly; Supernatural).
A show geared towards those looking to get into the television industry on the creative side, although highly enjoyable for all who love the inner workings of the entertainment industry, this all-star lineup discusses how they’ve pitched shows, mistakes they’ve made, and the climate for fantasy in television today.
Bookrageous: Stream of Consciousness Edition
For all of you unfamiliar with Bookrageous, this is one of the best book podcasts out there. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it simply because I think everyone should listen to it. Twice a month friends Jenn, a bookseller in Brooklyn, Rebecca, a book blogger in Virginia, and Josh, a blogger and bookseller in Maine, get together by Skype and talk about books. They start with what they’re reading—because all three have access to advance copies from the publisher, every so often a title to yet available sneaks in, which is good for other bloggers or readers who like to know about books early—and next they move on a topic for discussion.
Topics in the recent past have included essay collections, funny books, and the books they’d bring with them to a desert island.
For their most recent episode they came up with topics on the fly and it was just as enjoyable as their planned shows. Listen to what they have to say about parody books, books they haven’t read yet but wish they had, and “high fantasy” recommendations to the group from science fiction and fantasy expert Jenn.
Book Based Banter: Book Groups, Top Summer Reads, and Are You Literary Enough?
Another excellent book podcast. In this episode Gavin and Simon discuss book groups. They mention one in particular that instead of picking a specific book they choose a topic and everyone in the group reads a book within that theme. For example, Paris or a circus. I thought that was a great idea. They also ask themselves, and their listeners, what it means to be “literary”. What is a literary book? If you like to think about books, definitely listen to this one.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour: On Fall TV And Whether Criticism Is Too Nice
The Pop Culture Happy Hour is always fantastic but this week they discuss the recent article that ran in Slate about Twitter ruining literary criticism. This roundtable of three pop culture critics have some interesting things to say on the topic, but first Linda Holmes talks about upcoming television shows and after they all rave about “what’s making [them] happy this week”. Great show, you should subscribe now so you don’t miss an episode.
SF Signal: Steampunk Roundtable
If you like science fiction, and steampunk in particular, you won’t want to miss this round table discussion with authors, reviewers, and editors Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, Gail Carriger, Paul Di Fillipo, Phillipa Ballantine and Tee Morris. Listen to them hash out a definition, talk about the history of the movement, and discuss books within the genre.
Bookworm: Sheila Heti
Interview Editor for The Believer magazine, novelist, and Canadian Sheila Heti sat down in Los Angeles with Michael Silverblatt to discuss her latest novel, How Should a Person Be?. What transpires is a great conversation about writing fiction from real life.
Sound Opinions: Jack White
Even if you’ve never heard one chord of Jack White’s music from his now defunct band The White Stripes, you will still want to listen to this incredible interview with the talented and bright musician. Throughout this oral history of White’s life getting into and being in the business are clips of his songs. Heading up one of the best shows about music on the air, Sound Opinions’ hosts Jim and Greg are perfect for getting White to open up about the things that matter—music, music, and music. Check out this gossip-free interview with an incredible musician.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
There’s a certain amount of bracing one does before reading books about boys in the jungles of India and Africa written in the early 1900s by white authors. It was the height of the British Empire and feelings of racial and cultural superiority ran rampant; many viewed the native inhabitants of far-flung colonies as barbarous and backward.
As I began The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1894, I expected outdated and offensive language and uncomfortable representations of the local people. Other than a cursory glance at Just So Stories I’d never read him before and my preconceived notions stem from my tendency to conflate him with Joseph Conrad, an author of dubious reputation. Reading The Jungle Books was less about coming to a supposedly enjoyable classic than embarking on a sociological experiment.
The Jungle Books, as I found out, is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, the bulk of which make up the the well-known tale of Mowgli, the Indian boy orphaned in the jungle and raised among the animals. The other stories, dispersed between, are unrelated sketches of other animal stories set in various locations.
After reading The Jungle Books all the way through, I found the ancillary stories a distraction, and of mixed quality. Some were cute while others are entirely skippable. However, going back to my reason for reading the book in the first place, I was surprised to find that, with the exception of one mention of “Mohammedans,” a derogatory term for Muslims not often used today, there was very little, if anything, that bothered me. It could be that I missed something but I believe I gave it a good, close read.
Instead, it was Tarzan of the Apes, first published in 1912, another story about a boy raised by animals in the jungle, that made me cringe. Unlike The Jungle Books, which can be found in the fiction and literature section, Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is found in science fiction. Because of this connection with genre I expected Tarzan to be the more enlightened of the two. With few exceptions, sci-fi tends to be progressive, often questioning society’s norms and pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding through use of metaphor. For me, science fiction has always seemed forward-thinking.
Like Mowgli in The Jungle Books, Tarzan is orphaned at an early age. His father, John Clayton, an English nobleman is commissioned to investigate conditions in a British West Coast African colony. He brings with him his pregnant wife, Lady Alice, but soon there is trouble on the ship. Officers are murdered and the couple is left ashore with their belongings — marooned in Africa. John builds a small fortified cabin and Lady Alice gives birth to a boy. A year later she becomes ill and passes away in the night; shortly after, John meets his death at the hands of a king ape. The baby, thereafter known as Tarzan, is adopted by the king ape’s mate and treated as her child. He grows up with no memory of his birth parents.
The story continues, following Tarzan through his adventures in the jungle — biologically a man but part ape, strong and agile, by nurture.
The problematic part of the story comes when Tarzan spies other humans and stumbles into a nearby tribal village a number of miles away. They are native Africans and portrayed as the typical savages you see in old movies and cartoons: naked children and adults in dried grass skirts with brass and copper jewelry and large nose rings. They are superstitious and practice torture and cannibalism. The scenes were difficult to digest and I found it hard not to wince.
As if that weren’t enough, the only other representation of black people is Esmeralda, the nursemaid of Jane Porter, an American woman who arrives when Tarzan is a man. She is part of an exploratory group who also find themselves stranded on the island. Esmeralda is the only character in the group who speaks in dialect — a near-incomprehensible Southern pigeon-English — while everyone else speaks proper English. Gore Vidal, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition says this:
Aside from the natives who are underdeveloped flat characters, Esmeralda, an African-American, is the only other black character that appears in the novel. Weighing in at 280 pounds, she is nonetheless a trembling ‘frightened child’ (page 131) rolling her eyes from side to side before fainting in the face of the ‘terrifical’ (page 177) circumstances and ‘carnivable’ (page 242) animals roaming the ‘jumble’ (page 243). Her character is a convention, her malapropisms a joke. She functions as nothing more than a stereotype of black superstitious fear for purposes of comic relief. . . . Blacks are treated mostly badly in this novel as they were during the period in which it was written.
Unfortunately, for the liberal-minded, the story as a whole is interesting and highly readable, more so than Kipling’s comparable novel. While The Jungle Books suffers from its disjointed nature, the main story of Mowgli continually disrupted, Tarzan of the Apes is a novel in the proper sense — coherent and linear.
But this begs the question, a question many avid, careful, and contextual readers often ask themselves: “how much can one with twenty-first-century sensibilities bare to overlook?” For guidance we can, once again, look to Gore Vidal:
Reading ourselves into Tarzan’s adventure is not, however, without problems. From a twenty-first-century perspective, the book doesn’t always feel like an escape, because it can so easily be arraigned as an unfortunate manifestation of the period’s assumptions about race, class, and gender. If one were in a prosecutorial mood, it might be tempting to cast off Tarzan of the Apes and simply catalogue it as politically incorrect for its social and cultural values, but to reject the book on such grounds would provide, in effect, a rationale for editing out many of the writers contemporary to Burroughs, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. . . . A more productive approach is to recognize that such attitudes were pervasive in the culture contemporary to Burroughs, a strategy that doesn’t excuse or mitigate them but that attempts to create a better understanding of the novel.
The amount of forgiveness given to books and authors varies based on the offender and the offended. As someone who loves philosophy but with a strong aversion when it comes to anti-Semitism, I still haven’t read Heidegger. So, while Tarzan of the Apes, racism aside, is a great book, consider yourself warned. The Jungle Books, on the other hand, skip the stories in between and you’ve got yourself a great story.
The popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal hosts a weekly “Mind Meld” where they ask a bunch of people — editors, authors, science fiction and fantasy bloggers, and such — to answer a question. In the recent past they’ve asked for favorite scifi and fantasy movie soundtracks, thoughts on the current state of politics in science fiction, the best opening scenes, and what books everyone is looking forward to this coming year.
When I saw an email from the coordinator of the series, I was ecstatic. Finally, SF Signal wants me to contribute! Then I saw the question, “Who are your favorite villains in science fiction and fantasy?” I immediately said yes and then, just as quickly, knew I had some thinking to do. As a late-comer to genre fiction I skipped all those gripping stories as a kid. The ones that feature heinous characters. I wasn’t much of a Disney kid either so I didn’t have films to fall back on. The follow essay is not just a remembrance of a particular villain, it’s an exercise in defining villainy.
You can read what others came up with at SF Signal. There you’ll find some great essays with excellent reading suggestions. If you have a favorite villain, or guidelines for villainy, comments are open both here and at SF Signal.
MIND MELD: Who Are Your Favorite Villains In Fantasy And Science Fiction?
When I think of what makes a convincing villain, I think of stories where good and evil is clearly defined. No room for gray; the hero is infallible and the bad guy barely human.
Because I’m attracted to murky realism rather than the more exaggerated genres — superhero comics, epic fantasy, horror, pulpy spy novels — I haven’t had much first-hand experience with black and white worlds; and though Merriam-Webster defines a villain as someone who is “deliberately criminal,” the characters who are most memorable to me don’t fit the definition of villainy. Often you have a good guy with ethical fissures and a bad guy always on the verge of redemption. It’s this moral ambiguity that confuses things.
But I was determined. Before digging through my three-row-deep book shelves to go over what I’d recently read, I made it easy on myself and asked, what makes someone truly loathsome? I came up with something pretty fast: cruelty to children. Unlike the uber-fit men in comic books, their 6-packs wrapped in spandex, children are powerless: the ultimate victims.
Then I remembered, I’d just read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
On the first page of Dahl’s surrealist classic, James, a four-year-old boy living in England, is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros. Up until that point he’s happy; he’s had a good life. But then everything changes; he’s sent to live with his two cruel aunts. They beat him, force him into hard labor, isolate him, and, on occasion, refuse to feed him. The first few chapters are so unsettling, I was actually angry. I saw the abuse in my head, even as it was shown through language meant for kids. With every page I wished that James would take revenge, preferably with deadly consequences.
When the two aunts were finally run over by the giant peach, I cheered. It was a satisfying demise. Those two were true villains.
Serious or satire, on the page, on screen, or on-stage, the legend of King Arthur has inspired many artistic variations. With little knowledge of the original story, I set out to read T.H. White’s adaptation, The Once and Future King.
Hailed as “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic,” The Once and Future King was published in full in 1958, with the first three of four sections published separately beginning in the late 1930s. White opens his story with a young Arthur living under the care of Sir Ector, raised alongside Ector’s biological son, Kay.
Arthur, the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, the less-than-noble Norman King of England, and Lady Igraine, the once wife of the Duke of Cornwall, was conceived through deceit. In exchange for a roll in the hay with another man’s wife, Pendragon agreed to the wizard Merlyn’s demands of handing over the offspring that would come from the tryst.
One day, still a young boy living on Sir Ector’s land, Arthur set out on a hunting trip. He soon finds himself lost in the woods and is forced to sleep in a tree for the night. The next morning, hungry, he comes across a cottage and notices a man drawing water from a nearby well.
He was dressed in a flowing gown with fur tippets which had the signs of the zodiac embroidered over it, with various cabalistic signs, such as triangles with eyes in them, queer crosses, leaves of trees, bones of birds and animals, and a planetarium whose stars shone like bits of looking-glass with the sun on them. He had a pointed hat like a dunce’s cap, or like the headgear worn by ladies of that time . . . He also had a wand of lignum vitae, which he had laid down in the grass beside him, and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, being without ear pieces, but shaped rather like scissors or like the antennae of the tarantula wasp.
Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair.
The wizard invites Arthur in for breakfast before taking him back home. “Are you really coming all the way home with me?” Arthur asks. “Why not? How else can I be your tutor?” replies Merlyn.
Part of Arthur’s study includes shape-shifting into different creatures, allowing him to experience their lives firsthand. His first shift is into a fish: his legs fuse together and his toes and feet become fins; however, it was the lives of birds that Arthur enjoyed the most.
Right at the end of Arthur’s education, word spreads throughout the kingdom of King Pendragon’s death. There is no one to succeed him (only Merlyn knows the identity of Arthur’s father) and a contest is held to see who will be next in line. Knights joust for the chance to pull a sword out of a stone, the famous story of Excalibur: “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England”. By chance, Arthur has forgotten his stepbrother Kay’s sword, which he was tasked to carry as squire, and is forced to find a replacement at the last minute. Coming across the sword in the stone, he thinks to borrow it for the tournament. With ease, he releases the weapon from its fixed place and his royal origins are revealed. Arthur becomes the next king of England.
But alas, life as king is not easy. Pendragon had made a mess of the kingdom through violence and greed and it’s Arthur who is tasked with setting it straight, uniting the warring factions, and civilizing the land as a whole. Also to contend with is his famed right-hand-man Sir Lancelot’s love for his queen, Guinevere, and her mutual admiration for the knight. Internal plots to unseat Arthur and remove Lancelot spin throughout the pages as does White’s humor.
The Once and Future King, and the story of King Arthur itself, is a timeless drama, complete with elements of Greek tragedy: a love triangle, unclaimed children, matricide, and political sabotage. One does not need to be familiar with the original story or to have read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The Once and Future King stands alone as a comprehensive story; one in which you’ll lose yourself and never want to find your way out.
Science fiction author Lavie Tidhar is a busy man. He’s had two novels published in 2011 and will see two more this year. Along with his longform fiction, Tidhar fills his time writing short stories, editing anthologies and websites, and, of course, hanging out on Twitter. This month, science fiction publisher Angry Robot is putting out the third book in his Bookman Histories series, The Great Game. But for those of you who have yet to discover the first two, you won’t need to go back to the beginning, The Great Game is one of those few sequels that can be read as a standalone novel.
Infused with steampunk elements, The Great Game is an interwoven, alt-history tale of espionage, often with the feel of an old spy novel. Historical and fictional characters — Oliver Twist, Bram Stoker, Houdini, Jack London, and Frankenstein to name a few — mingle on the streets of Victorian-era London as a “secret shadow war” wages on between humans, a ruling class of lizards, and automatons.
In 2011, Lavie Tidhar was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for his international science fiction site, The World SF Blog, and recently, his book Osama has been nominated for the British Science Fiction Award. Lavie took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the writing process, the role of politics in science fiction, and his love of poetry. You can check out his site here and follow him on Twitter at @lavietidhar.
You’re a prolific writer — your Bookman series has come out in rapid succession and in between you’ve published another novel, a number of short stories, you’re Editor-in-Chief of the World SF Blog, and you maintain your own blog. You’ve also gained a reputation for your frequent Twitter usage. How do you balance your writing with your social media output? Your blogging, editing, and longer form writing?
I tend to do the blogs first — get up, check e-mail, have coffee, update blogs — that sort of thing. Then I can get on with writing. I’m not really a morning person, so it’s a good way for me to slowly ease into that semi-vegetative state required for writing.
Otherwise, it’s a catch-all for me, writing-wise – sometimes I have long stretches of novel writing, then I need a break and write a short story. I love short stories. At the moment I have four half-novels on the go so having to decide which one to focus on can be tricky! Generally I like working on a lot of different things, so I don’t get bored.
Are you someone who finds Twitter facilitates their writing process?
I do find Twitter quite helpful as an escape from writing. I tweet a lot, but only really when I’m writing. It’s like a lot of mini-breaks in between. I just get to be a big geek on Twitter. I was trying variations on The Wizard of Oz on Twitter a while back, came up with The Were-Wizard of Oz and thought, aha! Ended up writing that one and selling it to Ekaterina Sedia’s Beware the Night anthology.
In January of 2010 you wrote a piece for SF Signal about the growing interest in steampunk. You mention its current day relevance: the similarities between England as a colonial power in Victorian times and the US today. The title of your new book, The Great Game, brings to mind the struggle for control of Central Asia that took place between the British and Russian Empire during the 19th century. Your story involves a secret shadow war not only between nations but also between humans, lizards, and automatons. How do you use your work to draw parallels between the past, present, and future?
The Victorian era is so important, you know, in order to understand the world we live in today. Just look at the war in Afghanistan – the First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842, that is. Really our world was shaped so much by that British Empire – no amount of goggles or parasols or cogs or whatever can really obscure the underlying political force of that era, the way it shaped borders, ethnicities, economics and war today.
In my own steampunk trilogy I tried to assume a better 19th century, really – an America only partially colonized by Europeans, an Africa with its intact empires and trade networks, an era where women have more freedom than they did – Irene Adler (from Sherlock Holmes) is a police inspector and becomes chief of Scotland Yard by the third book, for instance. Kind of ironic when the updated-to-our-present day TV series of Holmes makes her into a sex worker! I wonder what it says about our age. The world of the Bookman Histories is not a much better world – there’s revolution, poverty, discrimination, everything the 19th century was so good at – but that’s part of the fun, too.
Read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown
In 2007 Tor published Brian Francis Slattery’s debut novel, Spaceman Blues: A Love Song. Set in New York City and its surrounding boroughs, Spaceman Blues is the story of Manuel Rodriguez de Guzman Gonzalez, a Latino immigrant who one day goes missing.
The book starts off with just another day in Manuel’s life: a whirlwind tour through the city’s various neighborhoods. He’s one of those guys who knows everyone, who, throughout his time in New York, has moved effortlessly between diverse communities, making acquaintances, and taking on a near-mythic persona. Visual and well-crafted, the telling of Manuel’s day is possibly one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs I’ve read all year:
It is his last day, and by six in the morning he is already drinking, drinking and shot up, eyes frantic, limbs flailing like he’s ready to explode. At seven he is on the wasted docks across from Manhattan starting fights with the winos and the mechanics; by eight thirty he’s up in the Washington Heights playing dominoes on a fire hydrant some kids are getting ready to crack open with a sledgehammer because it’s so damn hot and the Hudson’s so dirty and the ocean is too far away. By noon he’s been thrown out of thirteen bars. He gets hit by a bus, gets drunk again with some boys in Spanish Harlem bobbing to bachata out of a static-ridden radio. The afternoon he spends smoking sweet tobacco and watching old movies in Arabic with Egyptians in Astoria. He kisses Daoud’s hand in Egypt’s Cafe, whispers something in his ear; then he rides the G back to Brooklyn, hops the train to Brighton Beach, where it’s getting dark and the families are getting ready to go home. The men on the boardwalk totter with vodka, chase women, and eat boiled eggs, and he goes from club to club to tell the Russian Mafia he’s leaving, he won’t bother them anymore. By dark he’s face-up on the pier at Coney Island, watching the fire suns flare in the sky, the first stars of summer, out for that rare time when the humidity breaks and all is quiet, like the city is taking a breath, swelling the land under it, diverting water in the river and the bay to places farther out, deeper places; then it exhales, and all that was displaced returns, all that was disturbed tilts back into place, settles, grows quiet. And then, Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez vanishes. Poof
Because Manuel is the type of person to take off without telling people where he’s going, his disappearance remains unnoticed for twenty-six hours. It’s not until his apartment explodes that those around him begin to speculate. Many think he’s dead — a reasonable conclusion — and soon people gather to mourn. Quickly, the atmosphere takes on an air of nihilistic celebration, another glimpse into Manuel’s temperament and choice of friends. There are three people, however, who take his absence seriously, inspectors Lenny Salmon and Henry Trout, and Manuel’s lover Wendell.
Most striking about Spaceman Blues is the inclusion of minorities — both ethnic and sexual. It’s not often that a protagonist in a science fiction novel is gay; Slattery’s inclusion feels unforced and without stereotype. Similarly, the portrayal of New York City’s immigrant population never feels gimmicky or politicized.
Much has been made of the subtitle: A Love Song. The interpretations are varied, all accompanied by solid arguments; Spaceman Blues, while it houses many stories — lost love and an impending alien invasion — often feels like a love song for multiculturalism, specifically in and around Manhattan. While “melting pot” might not be an accurate description of this city, as it’s a term that assumes a level of mixing and blending we have not yet achieved, New York is a place where those who come from other countries retain pieces of their former life and share them with others. The immigrant experience, a theme often overlooked in everyday life, is certainly long overdue for a spotlight in genre fiction.
On the topic of themes, Slattery consistently merges his various areas of expertise with his novels. A violinist, fiddler, and banjo player, his passion for music manifests itself in Spaceman Blues. Much of it is subtle and flows naturally within the sentences. Other times, it’s overt, like when he describes the relationship between the two inspectors, Salmon and Trout: “Once, they were jazz musicians, riffing on each other’s half-formed thoughts until they arrived through improvisation at a new place”.
His second novel, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, taps into Slattery’s career as an editor specializing in economics and public-policy publications. The novel, eerily published in October of 2008, is a “speculation on life in near-future America after the country suffers an economic cataclysm that leads to the resurgence of ghosts of its past”.
The first half of Spaceman Blues is the strongest part of the book with the plot weakening in the middle, however, it should be noted that Slattery’s writing style is enjoyable throughout. In their review of Liberation, BoingBoing called his prose “complex, poetic, visionary and reeling, a cross between Kerouac and Bradbury, salted with Steinbeck.”
In April, Tor will publish Slattery’s third novel, Lost Everything, a “story of a man who takes a boat trip up the Susquehanna River, through a version of America that’s been torn apart by a mysterious war, in order to find and rescue his lost wife and son”. Brian’s now moving into publishing-veteran territory — I’m curious to see what he comes up with next.
You have four months to get ready. Let the countdown begin.
Spaceman Blues: A Love Story at IndieBound
Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America at IndieBound
Lost Everything at IndieBound
Brian’s fiction page on his website where you can find excerpts and short stories
Brian on the soundtrack to steampunk
Interview with Brian on the Bat Segundo Show
Interview with Brian on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
Brian’s Playlist for Liberation at Largehearted Boy
An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
BoingBoing’s review of Liberation
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m a huge fan of arts & culture radio programs and podcasts. One of my favorites is produced by the science fiction and fantasy site SF Signal. Once a week they have a round table discussion with authors, bloggers, and other genre experts on a specific topic and then an author interview on a following day.
Patrick Hester, an author and blogger, is the host of the podcast and musician and blogger John Anealio is a sometimes guest. Both of these guys host an offshoot podcast, or what I consider to be an offshoot, called The Functional Nerds, also a weekly favorite of mine.
Once a week these two knowledgeable guys interview either a science fiction or fantasy author and discuss writing, music, movies, occasionally video games, and any other pop culture happening that comes to mind. Lately, they’ve branched out to include guests who might not have written a book but who are capable of discussing something nerdy.
When they asked me to be on the show, having first gotten to know each other through an author and then on Twitter (isn’t that how everything happens these days?), I was beyond psyched. Together with author Karin Lowachee, the four of us were to each come up with something we were nerding out about.
Oddly, or perhaps eerily, Karin and I both picked the FX show Sons of Anarchy. In the following podcast, you’ll hear me attempt to describe it and then Karin save us all from my bumbling. She does an impressive job explaining the deeper themes of the show — bringing in the Shakespearean elements and discussing why the characters are so compelling. Patrick decides he’s nerding out about Christmas, which is difficult for East Coasters (okay, me) to think about because it’s barely below 60 degrees here. Karin, at the last minute, because we’d doubled up on our nerdy picks, gave a plug for the graphic novel Damaged, the story of three brothers who choose different paths for meting out justice. You can read her interview with one of the creators, Michael Schwarz, at SF Signal.
And then finally, John threw us all back to the late-80s with his thoughts on Crowded House (opens with sound), possibly best known for their 1987 hit Something So Strong. Him and I then discuss a brief history of electronic music, referencing Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, and the German techno scene happening now — with my suggestion, Pantha Du Prince.
A good time was had by all. I hope you’ll listen. Here’s the link.
China Miéville is one of the brainiest authors writing today. With a background in sociolinguistics, Miéville describes his latest book, Embassytown, as being about “language and subspace and lots of classic science fictional stuff.”
“For me,” he continues, “the book is not so much about actually existing linguistics necessarily so much as it is to do with a certain kind of more abstract . . . philosophy of language of symbols, and of semiotics, and indeed some of this crosses over into theological debates.”
But no need to worry about symbols and semiotics just yet because before there was Embassytown, there was Perdido Street Station.
Published in 2000, Perdido Street Station earned China a place within the science fiction writing community. He was nominated for the both the Nebula and Hugo Award, respectably losing out to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (because really, who can compete with that?). He is a two-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award: first for Perdido Street in 2001 and then again in 2010 for his novel The City & The City.
The first of his novels set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, specifically the large city-state of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is an experiment in alternate world cosmopolitanism. It’s a place where humans, mythical birds, and half-bugs mingle.
The story opens with the rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin waking up next to his khepri girlfriend, Lin, an artist who fled her provincial upbringing for city life. Those familiar with Egyptian mythology will know that the name Khepri comes from the god who had a scarab body for a face. In Miéville’s story, the female khepri have human bodies, tinted a shade of red, and, like their namesake, a scarab for a head. Unable to communicate vocally with humans, they’ve created a form of sign language using their “head legs”.
The multi-species community brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s with its tenuous interactions and irrational prejudices. The various races live amongst each other on different socioeconomic levels and interracial dating is taboo; if Isaac wants to retain his laboratory privileges provided to him by the university, he must keep his relationship with Lin a secret.
While the relationship between Lin and Isaac provides an interesting lens through which to view life in Bas-Lag, it’s the arrival of Yagharek, a garuda, the mythical bird mentioned above, that provides the catalyst. Yagharek comes to Isaac looking for help. As punishment for a transgression against his people, his wings had been sawed off, leaving him deformed and flightless. He asks Isaac to make him a new set—not just for show but for function as well.
While researching flying animals and insects, Isaac obtains a caterpillar on the black market. He allows it to grow, feeds it the only thing it will eat—a powerful drug flooding the streets of New Crobuzon—and takes no heed as the mysterious bug spins its cocoon. What hatches is a slake-moth, a deadly insect that exists multi-dimensionally and has no known predator.
Breaking free from its inadequate cage, the moth rescues four of its brethren from high-security captivity. Institutionalized corruption and unlikely alliances surface as the various organizations with varied interests in the moths go on the hunt.
Perdido Street Station’s strength is its rich detail. Powerful descriptions of the city and those of the often grotesque creatures living within its borders, envelope the reader in a world existing outside of anything previously imagined. It’s not a quick read, nor is it easy, but that is Miéville’s niche: the savored read. China Miéville’s sophisticated writing style puts him at the forefront of science fiction today and has given Perdido Street Station an enduring place within the canon.
Buy Perdido Street Station, or find one at your local store, at IndieBound
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (audio)
Geek’s Guide Interview transcribed at Lightspeed Magazine (text)
Guardian Interview: The Books that Made Me (audio)
Book Lust with Nancy Pearl (video)
3:AM Magazine Interview (text)
Excerpt of Perdido Street Station at NPR
Profile in The New York Times (for 2010 release of Kraken)
::[Other books by China Miéville]::
King Rat (2000)
“Obviously music was a big influence on King Rat. It was written during the high point of Drum n’ Bass. That was what I was listening to at that point. King Rat is above all a London novel but coming close behind it is also a music novel. The other two novels haven’t been quite like that. I write to music but music doesn’t saturate the book in the same way. To that extent King Rat was relatively anomalous. When a new music comes along that moves me in the same way that drum n’ bass did then I’m sure it’ll find it’s way into the writing.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]
“Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul Garamond’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.” [via IndieBound]
The Scar (2002)
The second novel set in the Bas-Lag world, is a maritime story set off the coast of where New Crobuzon is and it’s basically a pirate story. It’s about a big floating pirate city made of ships lashed together. People get caught by pirates and it goes from there. Again, it comes from my childhood reading and the trick with modern pulp and with anything good is to be respectful and true to the roots and to do something in that tradition and do it as well as you can. I don’t like post-modern nudges and winks. I’m not big on irony. So it’s not like I’m ironically winking at a fantasy tradition of pirates. This is a pirate book. Hopefully it’s also an interesting creative novel and one you can read on other levels but it is also a pirate book.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]
“Aboard a vast seafaring vessel, a band of prisoners and slaves, their bodies remade into grotesque biological oddities, is being transported to the fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. But the journey is not theirs alone. They are joined by a handful of travelers, each with a reason for fleeing the city. Among them is Bellis Coldwine, a renowned linguist whose services as an interpreter grant her passage—and escape from horrific punishment. For she is linked to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant renegade scientist who has unwittingly unleashed a nightmare upon New Crobuzon.” [via IndieBound]
Iron Council (2005)
“It is a time of wars and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming city to the brink. A mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places.
In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope.” [IndieBound]
Un Dun Lun (2007)
“[W]ith “Un Lun Dun” — a sooty, street-smart hybrid of “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Phantom Tollbooth” — Miéville’s talents have been brought into focus under the restrictions of the form. “Un Lun Dun” is not only sleek of line and endlessly (but not needlessly) inventive, it also offers a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs.” [via Salon]
The City & The City (2009)
“The City and the City is very different. It takes place in our familiar world, a post-Soviet locale which draws on string theory for its ideas and conventional experience for its story. Apart from one exceptional detail, this book could be a clever mystery story told from the point of view of a Balkan policeman struggling to cope with the problems of a society burdened by traditions and attitudes from its recent authoritarian past. Featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke Greene’s The Third Man and Vienna’s zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.” [via Michael Moorcock review]
“Kraken’s whirlpool of a plot zeros in on Billy Harrow, a young scientist at London’s Natural History Museum who recently embalmed the institution’s latest acquisition, a giant squid. When the squid vanishes, Billy gets sucked into a teeming, paranormal London underworld—reminiscent in some ways of Miéville’s bestselling young-adult novel,Un Lun Dun—that’s crisscrossed by magic constables; foppish Nazis; a pair of monstrous, father-and-child assassins; animal mediums on strike; an origamist who uses math to fold solid matter; and a cult of squid-worshippers whose apocalypse is on the fast track now that their deity is missing. Due to his contact with the creature, the cult considers Billy a prophet, and before long, he’s caught in a larger battle involving clashing eschatologies, reality written in squid ink, and even the personified sea itself.” [via the A.V. Club]
“Embassytown is a riveting trip through a monster-haunted subspace called the immer, and down into a tiny human ghetto called Embassytown on a planet called Areika, whose alien inhabitants cannot understand any language but their own. . . . If you are fascinated by stories of genuinely alien cultures, you need to read Embassytown (it comes out in May). And if you’re a fan of China Miéville, author of The City & The City andKraken, you’re in for a treat: This is his first pure science fiction novel.” [via i09]
“Literature is a product of its influences. We all riff on something, work against a certain background, mine a vein of thought or style to which somebody else showed us the way.” –K.J. Bishop
“The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even new?” These are the questions that began a 13,000 word response from authors, editors, and science fiction aficionados in 2003. The conversation may have started elsewhere but it reached fever pitch after author M. John Harrison brought the conversation to his Third Alternative Message Board. An abridged version appears in The New Weird, part anthology, part exposition, edited by science fiction power-duo Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
When the publishing house Tachyon approached Ann and Jeff the two were skeptical. Jeff’s writing, which includes the novels City of Saints and Madmen, Finch, and Shriek, has often been labeled “New Weird,” a distinction that has made him uncomfortable. Ann, a publisher and, up until recently, the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales, dislikes the term out of concern for pigeonholing authors. After some discussion between themselves and with the publisher, Ann and Jeff began the project. Both still have reservations about the supposed category but through their research, conversations, and readings for the book, they’ve decided that there is a “core validity” to New Weird. They see a commercial life beyond the unwitting creators’ original intentions as well as new writers further developing the style.
In his introduction, Jeff marks 2003 as the year “readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within the genre.” Taking elements from the New Wave of the 1960s, such as mixing genres and injecting a political point of view, and adding the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, exemplified by the writings of Clive Barker, New Weird, with its “understanding of and rejection of Old Weird,” became its own unique genre—or did it? Therein lies the question The New Weird sets out to answer. Does the New Weird exist? If so, what is it, why is it here, and who benefits?
The New Weird is carefully structured to present a comprehensive picture. The book begins with the section “Stimuli,” a collection of stories from the New Wave and Horror movements. Those included are M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head,” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia,” and Simon D. Ings’ “The Braining of Mother Lamprey,” among others.
New Weird, as a subgenre, takes strange fiction into the 21st century. Many of its writers are influenced by current political situations and offer a fresh, thought-provoking look at the issues we face today. It’s as writer and scholar Darja Malcolm-Clarke says in her essay, “One of speculative fiction’s greatest abilities is to defamiliarize our own world so that we can better see it — and the New Weird has a way of forefronting how the social terrain operates and affects everyday people.”
Throughout the book, British writer China Miéville is credited with launching the New Weird into the public’s consciousness. Miéville’s novel Perdidio Street Station, published in 2000, was the first commercially successful book of its kind; before that the subgenre only enjoyed a cult following.
China’s stands out in the crowd because of his academic background and demeanor. Even if you haven’t read his books, his interviews are a profound experience. His dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, written for his International Relations PhD from the London School of Economics was published in the UK under a historical materialism series. It’s no surprise that China’s fiction is submerged in political and social metaphor.
Konrad Walewski, editor, translator, and anthologist, says the New Weird is innovative “at the level of setting and characters,” dominated by “multicultural and multiethnic societies of humans, monsters, and all kinds of hybrid forms”. As for subject-matter, he says the New Weird “rejected many jaded fantasy tropes, including the clash of good and evil, and chose the exploration of such problems as otherness, alienation, and even from both in its physiological and existential dimension.”
In “Evidence,” the chapter of short stories from writers considered New Weird, Miéville’s “Jack” introduces readers to a prominent character type in New Weird writing: the Remade, a lowly class of citizens often comprised of criminal offenders whose bodies have been grotesquely, often painfully, modified, typically as state-sanctioned punishment. With an ending O. Henry would be proud to call his own,“Jack” shows the dubious side of law enforcement—just one imagined outcome of a destroyed society, a familiar setting in the New Weird.
In other examples of what’s possible with an oppressive government, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” imagines eating in public as a capital offense and in Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation” there’s a growing tension between “birthers,” a.k.a. humans, and “cultures,” those with a human-like form created specifically for industrial work.
If you’re involved in the publishing industry or if you’re an engaged reader, the most interesting part of The New Weird comes when the fiction ends. The chapter “Symposium” offers a look inside the initial debate, includes fleshed-out essays from science fiction authors, and thoughts from European editors and publishers.
When weird fiction writer Zali Krishna asked if the term “‘Weird’ refers back to Weird Tales – a pre-generic pulp era where SF, fantasy and horror were less well defined,” science fiction veteran, and forum moderator, M. John Harrison responded, “It makes an exact illusion to Weird Tales and especially the fact that, back then, in that marvellous & uncorrupted time of the world everything could still be all mixed up together — horror, sf, fantasy — and no one told you off or said your career was over with their firm if you kept doing that.” This historical remembrance naturally leads to the question: why do we have so many subgenres and do we really need another?
The conversation provoked varied responses, some of them admittedly self-contradictory. Many who are skeptical of genre-splitting feel as science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan does: “Labels are marketing gimmicks.” Concerned for the author, editor, reviewer, and anthologist Jonathan Strahan feels “any label reduces and limits perception of a work of art, and so is often less than helpful.” But as one of those self-contradicting types he adds, “I also note my own tendency to a) label and b) use labels. It’s something I try to fight.”
Although the VanderMeers didn’t include China’s remarks, the full discussion is archived online. There you can read his response to the “gimmicks” argument: “I’m astonished by the number of claims that this label (or all labels) is no more than ‘a marketing gimmick’. Undoubtedly, if this caught on, marketers would attempt to use it – just as they do, ad nauseam, with ‘surrealist’. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘surrealist’ isn’t a useful term”.
Speaking from the perspective of a reader, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, I believe, taps into the thoughts of many science fiction fans when she says, “on one level, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether the New Weird is ‘real’ or not — the New Weird as an idea led me to a set of texts I might not have otherwise pursued.”
Although the majority of bookstores break their fiction up into specific sections there are a few who, believing it to be a show of democracy, mix genre fiction in with their general titles. While this noble endeavor may work in smaller independent stores it can be a frustrating experience when implemented on a larger scale, say, in stores such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. For those who enjoy spending a good hour in the sci-fi, fantasy section looking for new books, merging all fiction into one section turns the foraging experience, once pleasurable, into a nightmare scenario.
Author K.J. Bishop, in her essay, also makes this point—with a caveat: “There is no doubt some advantage to be had from labelling fiction under rubrics of genre, period, style, and all else that helps a reader find, on the shelves of a bookstore, something to their taste. But there are disadvantages, too, for both reader and writer, the chief of these being, I think, that a label invites a particular reading of the work and discourages other readings.”
A tone set by some of the detractors is that publishers choose labels for sinister gains. Czech editor Martin Sust, when speaking of the New Weird imprint he created, said, “For the first time we can publish very good fiction in one great book line, with the most successful titles helping the others. The result? All of the books in this line have sold well, meaning we can branch out and buy a few experimental titles as well. . . . It has also forced other Czech publishing houses to make room for books by fresh new fantasy writers”. His sentiments are echoed by other publishers who contributed to the book—categories make it easier to sell books and while this means more money for publishers it also means more money, and ultimately more book deals, for writers.
Since the online discussion eight years ago and The New Weird’s publication in 2008, “many of the writers associated with the New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely,” notes Jeff VanderMeer. But as every diligent fan knows, history is important. The New Weird helps readers appreciate writers like Miéville, discover less-noted ones like Jeffrey Thomas, and calls attention to the legacy of great writers who came before them. The New Weird does not offer definitive answers, which is the point. Literature is complex.
For a genre—in the widest sense of the word—whose focus is analysing the world, it’s amazing there aren’t more critical theory books such as this one. The VanderMeers have expertly compiled a must-have for every serious reader’s bookshelf; but remember, as Jeff concludes in his introduction, “New Weird is dead. Long life the Next Weird.”
The New Weird at Tachyon
Buy The New Weird at IndieBound
Archived discussion on New Weird
The New Weird: Notes and Introduction at Jeff’s site
Michael Cisco’s essay “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene”
Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about The New Weird (opens with sound)
Interview with Ann and Jeff at the Functional Nerds
Contributor Jonathan Strahan’s science fiction podcast, “Coode Street”
Weird Tales magazine
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
*The New Weird features a full list of recommended readings
Paolo Bacigalupi is best known for his 2009 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, The Windup Girl, a story set in a near-future, post-peak oil, environmentally-catastrophic Bangkok. But before he’d written his highly praised long-form fiction, Bacigalupi came onto the scene with hard-hitting short stories. The 2008 collection, Pump Six, brings many of them together in one place.
Paolo and his work are followed closely within the science fiction community, and for good reason; in addition to the awards listed above, he’s won the John W. Campbell Award and the Locus Award, among others. His name is known outside of the genre world as well; mainstream news outlets, such as the Guardian, praised The Windup Girl to the hilt, TIME magazine included it in their 2009 year-end “Top Ten of Everything” list, and environmental outlets interviewed him asking for his thoughts on the future.
Just as the early science fiction writers of the 1960s were influenced by the space race and the cyberpunk movement of the 80s expressed concern over the coming technological revolution, Bacigalupi, often categorized as “biopunk”, asks us to think about our current environmental uncertainty.
In an interview with Orbit books, when asked about the near-future worlds he creates, where resources are scarce and the environment bleak, Bacigalupi said, “It feels like we’re on the cusp of a series of major shifts in the way our world works, whether that’s a loss of cheap and easily portable energy or global warming, and that raises a lot of question marks about what our future will really look like. . . . I don’t really see major trend lines pushing us in some other, more positive or sustainable direction, so it feels untruthful to me, if I write about anything other than depleted and broken futures.”
On where he finds his material, in an interview with the environmental site Grist, Paolo discussed the important role environmental journalists play in his work: “what they report provides almost perfect fodder for stories, mostly because they can only take the stories so far. Environmental journalists point the way toward saying, ‘The world is changing.’ What I can do with science fiction, then, is say, ‘Well, let’s see how that looks.’”
Instead of categorizing his stories as dystopic, he prefers to call them, if need be, “fear fantasies” or “if this goes on” stories.
Today, most people pay little attention when an obscure creature in the rain forest lands on the endangered species list but what would happen if in the future one of our most common animals, the dog, a household pet, ceased to exist? This is the set up in the Hugo and Nebula nominated story “People of Sand and Slag”. Set in the not-so-distant future, a small group of miners, maintained in their toxic environment by the medical innovation “weeviltech,” which allows them to eat anything and heal quickly, come across what must be the last surviving dog. The dog, its species having thought to have been killed off generations ago, has not adapted to the new surrounding and acts as a reminder of what life was once like. The group isn’t accustomed to, and feels pity for, its fragility and specialized needs: actual food, clean water, and time to mend from injuries. In the end they must make a choice, do they keep the animal alive, care for it regardless of the expense and inconvenience, or do they kill it and free themselves from the hassle created by this seemingly lesser being?
“People of Sand and Slag” reflects Paolo’s thoughts on technology and human advancement. Sure, we can create comforts in the future but will we be moral, will we live noble lives? “That’s what the story is really about. Yes, we can have all the technology in the world and still make some really, really bad decisions. We can create a hell where nothing is left alive except for us, but where we can be very comfortable, because we’ll accept whatever we have to in order to meet our immediate desires. Ultimately, the characters are given a choice between preserving something that’s natural versus their entertainment and expediency, and they naturally choose entertainment and expediency first. And we do that every day,” he told Locus magazine.
Similarly, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” a story inspired by reports of Colorado’s Glen Canyon Dam’s decreasing water level, asks what humans would do if they were faced with a long-lasting, devastating drought: would we help or destroy each other?
The one original story in the collection, “Pump Six,” is named after the sewage pump that facilitates the Upper West Side of Manhattan, roughly Columbia University and the surrounding neighborhood. “Pump Six” begins with indications that things are not quite right. The protagonist’s wife is checking the oven for a gas leak with a lighter, they’re having trouble conceiving, bacon is scarce, and there are degenerative “mash-faced monkey people” known as trogs squatting in Central Park, sleeping in alleyways, and copulating on streets in broad daylight. Even those who are supposedly normal human beings are behaving oddly: miscarriages and illiteracy are on the rise while trog-like tendencies become more widespread as IQ points drop.
Soon the failing sewage system, one-hundred years on since its last inspection and now with the manufacturer out of business, is releasing toxins into the city’s water supply. What happens when infrastructure fails and there’s no one to fix it? A chilling thought for all those dependent on public utilities.
Many reviews of The Windup Girl make reference to William Gibson, the man who coined the term “cyberpunk”. Pump Six opens with “Pocket Full of Dharma,” one of the more tech-infused stories in the collection. In it we follow Wang Jun, a street kid whose livelihood depends on clandestine errands and theft. After a failed attempt to rob a tourist, Jun is witness to a murder and tasked, by the killers, with delivering a data cube. After the hand-off goes awry, curiosity gets the better of him and he hacks into the mysterious object. In it he finds the Dalai Lama’s consciousness. “Pocketful of Dharma” is a subtle story about geopolitics in the future and one that most echos the work of the now-classic author Bacigalupi’s often compared to.
It’s worth noting that two stories in the collection, “The Calorie Man” and “The Yellow Card Man,” are considered prequels to The Windup Girl. If you’re curious about his longer work you have a preview, or, if you enjoyed the full-length novel, there’s more.
The stories Bacigalupi writes have an ambitious agenda: they’re looking to overthrow our modern day mythologies—the adventure and exploration stories that tell us we can become rich and successful. Instead, when Paolo writes he’s “wondering about the creation of another set of myths and models, where we start to get excited about the possibility of being a sustainable species rather than a rapacious species.”
Bacigalupi is roundly praised for his worldbuilding and Pump Six is evidence of his ability to place the reader inside the dark crevices of the cities he creates. While reading you can feel the grime that coats the walls, see the smog that blankets the horizon, and imagine your chemistry changing in some sort of Darwinian response. Motivated by fear of what we might become, Bacigalupi creates decayed worlds so palpable it makes utter devastation seem as if it’s knocking on our door—as if in 10 years we’ll all wake up short of breathe and unrecognizable as the humans we are today.
Buy Pump Six at IndieBound
Paolo Bacigalupi’s website
Interview on io9’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Interview with Grist
Interview with TIME’s Techland
Excerpts from interview with Locus Magazine (2007)
Interview with SF Signal
Interview with Rain Taxi
Interview with Orbit books Part I
Interview with Orbit books Part II
“There were always tears of joy; a man so beautifully married to machine was something that people needed to see after a war like they had been through. The technology in those days was weapons and radio signals; people needed to remember the art of the machine.”
Since the age of 9, Genevieve Valentine has been a fan of Circus du Soleil. What drew her in was the seemingly impossible artistry and athleticism of the performers. As an author of short fantasy stories, it wasn’t too far a leap to see the fantastical elements in this real-life traveling troupe. When asked by Prime Books founder and publisher, Chris Wallace, if she had any dark-fantasy ideas she wanted to flesh out, Genevieve went to her list and found Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, the story of a supernatural circus set in a post apocalyptic world.
Valentine’s Circus Tresaulti is one of the few travelling entities left in the war-torn world of walled cities, receded governments, and bombed out buildings. The group is composed of body-modified performers fitted out and led by their ringleader—a woman known only as Boss.
Through complex story structure, one that plays with point of view and time, the reader is given slivers of information from alternating perspectives. The details come in pieces, forcing one to hold them together in their mind until they can be taken as a whole. As the story moves forward, the circus begins to fall apart. Traumas of the past and current internal battles envelope the group—their relationships rife with competition and emotional inconsistencies.
The story of Alec, the beloved aerial performer last to possess a set of beautiful wings made of pipe and bone, who plunged, willingly, to his death, haunts those who knew him and who were there to witness his end. The reason for Alec’s self-destruction is shrouded in mystery and can only be surmised by a select few. The repetitive remembering of his fall is a warning, a foreshadowing, of what might come to whoever wears them next. The two newcomers, Bird and Steno, covet those wings, now stored in Boss’s workshop, not knowing the power they wield.
Genevieve creates an interesting contrast to the destruction of the circus as she moves the story backwards in time. In these interweaving vignettes she retells each performer’s beginnings, showing how the community was built out of the wreckage of war.
We’re introduced to Ayer, the strongman whose skeleton is externally reinforced with metal junk, and his assistant, Jonah, who was brought, near-death, to the circus and saved with clockwork lungs; Panadrome, a conductor of an opera in his previous life, a victim of a bombing, is now a self-contained one man band; and the aerialists, hollowed out, their bones replaced with copper pipes, are made light and easy to reconstruct if ever they fall. After the performers are modified, all are given new names, as if starting anew, leaving their old lives behind.
Throughout the story, in addition to the tension brewing inside, the circus faces an outside threat from a shadowy figure known as the government man. He hopes to co-opt Boss’s body-modifying talents to build an indestructible mechanical army. All comes to a head when Boss is taken to an undisclosed location and the troupe is split into two ideological camps—those who think they should flee the city before the others are captured and those who want to wait for her return.
Little George, the main narrator of the story and Boss’s apprentice who’s been with the troupe since the age of 5, reluctantly takes the reigns, finds his footing, and goes from mere helper to leader in a matter of hours. It’s a mini coming-of-age tale surrounded by a larger story of survival.
The driving force of Mechanique is the intrigue. You’re never given the full story, only brief glimpses, as if looking at a landscape through squinted eyes. The unknown creates a sense of unease and with it a sense of urgency; but Mechanique, although easily devoured, is a book whose every word is meant to be digested.
In his review, Jeff VanderMeer said Mechanique “represent[s] the future of fantastical fiction.” One can hope.
Buy Mechanique at IndieBound
Visit Genevieve’s website where she blogs regularly
Visit the official Circus Tresaulti site
Follow Genevieve on Twitter @GLValentine
Listen to her interview on io9’s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy
Aliette de Bodard, a 2009 finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, wraps up her Obsidian and Blood trilogy this November with Master of the House of Darts. The series is a “cross between a historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters.”
In all three installments, de Bodard masters the atmospherics needed to pull readers into this dark and magical world. The protagonist, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead in charge of the Sacred Precinct, a position that can be thought of as a mix between priest and coroner, is a sympathetic character with personality flaws that transcend time and culture. Time and again he finds himself unwillingly dragged into impossible investigations and forced to confront both internal struggles and external demons.
Vivid imagery, flowing prose, and natural dialogue are at the heart of de Bodard’s writing. One of the most original storytellers out there, Aliette merges her love of mythology and her desire to bring more non-Western influences to the science fiction and fantasy realm.
Aliette and I talked about the days of the Aztec Empire, the trouble with mainstream narratives, and how to pitch a book idea on the fly.
The Obsidian and Blood series takes place during the time of the Aztec Empire. This civilization was wiped out in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers and what’s known about them is largely taken from archaeological digs. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that part of your motivation in writing this series was to repair the damage done to their legacy. I hope I’m being accurate, feel free to correct me. What was most important to you when you sat down to recreate this world?
What was most important to me was to present the world in a fair way: as you mention, a lot of the narratives we have around the Mexica/Aztecs are Spanish ones, and the surface ones are deeply biased. I’ve mentioned it in other inteviews, but I was always struck by how often narratives reach for the Mexica when they need a bloodthirsty, evil culture. And it seems… wrong. I have issues with caricatures; and I don’t believe every single aspect of a culture can be irredeemably evil. Plus, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the conquistadors were hardly saints or trustworthy witnesses, and when I set out to tell stories set in the heyday of the Mexica Empire, what I wanted was to avoid falling into the same clichéd depiction of the culture. I’m no Nahuatl, but I did try my best to research the culture and bring to light its achievements.
What achievements did you unearth during your research?
Once you get past the stumbling block of human sacrifices, you realise that the Mexica civilisation was a very advanced one in many respects–that they had fantastic astronomy and medicine, that their women had vast amounts of rights compared to most medieval civilisations, and that their justice system was harsh, but much fairer than its English or French equivalent, putting the onus of responsibility on noblemen (who could afford to respect the prohibitions) rather than on commoners (who couldn’t).
And what about the notion that we only have archaeological digs to go on?
Archaeological digs aren’t the only source. We have at least three major sources for the Mexica civilisation: the remaining Nahuatl people in Mexico, though they did not fare well under Spanish rule; the accounts of the Spaniards such as the Codex Florentine, who attempt to account for the civilisation they destroyed, but which are–naturally–hardly free of bias; and finally, the archaeological digs themselves, though those are made difficult because the Spanish were thorough in destroying anything Mexica they could find, and also because Tenochtitlan itself is under Mexico City, not the most propitious of places to dig.