Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

3/31/2005

[update: Blogger has been miserable lately. Very slow and spotty. So I hope this goes through.]
Back from Erie. Gray. Gray gray gray. But it was good to see the family. Good writing weather, actually.

Jonathan Safran Foer's latest novel sparked this review, an except of which is below:
It's good to see that Foer is sticking to his original, successful formula of milking historical tragedy for yucks and book sales while remaining blissfully indifferent to the historical details of those tragedies: well, it's good because the emerging pattern removes any doubt that Foer has no qualms about exploiting the sympathy that naturally gravitates towards victims of tragedy to lend weight to his puerile and essentially solipsistic narrative and linguistic gymnastics. Foer is painfully inadequate to the task of grappling with the horrors amidst which we find ourselves: a close familiarity with the work of writers who patiently attend to the gritty reality and the real victims of history's traumas (Elie Wiesel, W.G. Sebald, even Kurt Vonnegut for Pete's sake) would make this clear, but the vacuous amnesia of the Eternal Media Present ensures that such familiarity is a rarity. I'm sure that deep in his heart Foer is a decent person who actually cares about the types of people his cartoonish characters are meant to represent. But this genuine decency is unfortunately marred by a number of different factors: a self-indulgent impatience with the details of history, an excessive faith in the redemptive power of his own considerable inventiveness (fueled no doubt by his success), a sensibility informed too much by bad Hollywood and not enough by good literature, a facile and predictable application of postmodern literary technique, and a public and critical establishment so starved for anything remotely serious and original in contemporary fiction that they're eager to be suckered in by shoddy pretenders to the throne.

3/22/2005

Kristin and I are going to be in Erie until Tuesday night, so our internet connection will be spotty at best. Not that my posting lately has been all that. It will be good to see my family and I love them dearly but...Erie in March is not fun weather wise. It's going to be 40s and raining the whole freaking trip. Aside from familial stuff, I hope to get some good semi-monastic writing time in and play Super Nintendo...all...day...long!

I wanted to talk a little bit about this criticism that arrogant, pretentious writing involves only "writing for other writers." You see this criticism, or covert forms of it, a lot in neopro hangouts. What's most frustrating about it is that it assumes as a baseline a deep antipathy toward pleasure in writing itself. It also assumes as a baseline a deep divide between The Fiction Writer and The Ideal Reader. That writing and reading are almost two unrelated activities.

But aren't most if not all readers, in some capacity, writers as well? I'm not saying this to be flippant. But my mother writes me letters; my father writes little notes in his St. Augustine tome. The point is that language is everywhere. Both writing and reading are two sides of the same social currency. This has a peculiar historical resonance in science fiction, where many writers have come up from fandom. There is no such thing as a "general reader". And general readers have rights in much the same way as corporations do; that is to say, in the not-very-helpful abstract. This notion is used as a bludgeoning instrument to exacerbate arbitrary divisions between writers. In Peter Middleton's essay "Dirgibles," he says something interesting about poetry that can easily be applied to speculative fiction: "With 'accessible' poetry the obscurity of history and intersubjectivity in poetic form is obscured, so that a false confidence can distract attention from the harder questions."

And there are a shitload of harder questions. We inscribe emotion in our stories, but how? Are we going to achieve a Platonic project through Aristotlean means or vice versa? (More on that in another post, hopefully?) How this is done in a speculative sense is not unfathomable, but the surface has only been scratched.

(ps. I think science fiction is, or can be, a form of melodramatic Language poetry. And I mean that as a compliment. I like melodrama.)

3/17/2005

I love this poem by Will Alexander: "Optic Wraith" (from Facture

Her eyes
like a swarm of dense volcano spiders
woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory
consuming
clinging to my palette
like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now
my understanding of her scent
is condoned as general waking insomnia
as void
as a cataleptic prairie
frayed at the core
by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes
& scents
& balances conducted
within the spore of a freshly cut alum

so that she lends to me
a de-enlivened motion
a tortured hummingbird’s sortie
as if

I had buried my breathing
in vitreous claims of acid
condemned to wearing on my back
the remnants of a dark inferno laundry

because her presence exists
I always write to myself
notes of withdrawal
notes of flameless nautical urges
igniting my disappearance
as if a flame had blown my body in two
ruined in its essence
by an animated squalor
like a disrupted stone
divided
in a blazeless infidels’ mirror

at times
I feel bi-form & theriantropic
therefore
sullied
unclassifiable with rumor
with omens
with sabotage
like a sun in a squandered maelstrom house

a love affair by debit
by shattered interior pulley
with one of my meandering acts
raffling off poison by camouflage

say
after 5000 hours of post-battailous fervour
I became anonymous incarnadine
salamandrine in ethos
trapped
by her insidious optical infiltration
my powers then suspended
in an optional well of dice
wandering its bottoms
in distorted plastique
with the rays front her body
more pertaining to the subtrahend
more pertaining to the feelings
that have abandoned themselves across blizzards

life now
occurring within contagions
occurring
within the 5 caliginous motives
spun from acts of devastation

so I apply myself
to the sculpting of treacherous grain
creating from depletion
a dense ambiguous treatise on wood

as combatant on a galleon
I am boiling
faceless
transcendental with display

so that
I’m rooted & ceaseless with movement
withdrawn & cataclysmic
then ambiguous with rain
never mentioning
to any one of my motions
despair
or any rift
in terms of climbing or pattern

so when I think of her optics
each of my shadows
corrupts around a pole
of a fierce & blazeless assessment

identity then collapsing
around a stunning shift of Myrmidons
of blood eidolics
of steam from the pores of mirages

I am de-identified in brokenness
my atoms subsumed
in harems of spittle

therefore
I wander within the fright
within the moon of her blank volcano arms

her sensations
like a thrice conceived lava
pouring from a riddled torturing urn

an urn
which I know to be destroyed
eaten by aphotic transparency

I remain then
the riddle from the blazing galleon
the pariah
plunged through psychotic mirages

perhaps I hail front a spinning suborder or vacuum
or from a hamlet which post-exists
without a fecund monetary climate

again
her mazes have left me dim
aroused with perpetual perplexity

I have not risen from the sea
to simply capture a body
or break a series of flamelets in two

here I am
left in dysphotic trance
my actions subdivided
like a pestilential mark
struck from obsidian lightning bells

yet I remain
alphabetically living
as plain abdominal hunger
mired in the dalliance of aboriginal mirage

philosophically half-voided
crimson
with a trenchant folio as debate

3/16/2005

On one of the Asimov's message board threads, Gardner Dozois mentions as an aside...

(some of the people who run slipstream-oriented sites seem particularly anxious to have SF die, so they can replace it with their own genre)

Can anyone name any semi-credible "slipstream" sites that want science fiction to die die die? (Remember those 80s coffee commercials, when they slipped in Folgers at restaurants? "We've secretly replaced...")

And what the hell is a slipstream site anyway? "Slipstream" was coined, pretty literally, as a joke back in the day, with a completely different meaning then it seems to have today. It has about as much relevance to a specific type of writing as "mainstream"; which is to say, close to none.

Anyway, this sounds like a very dastardly plot to kill SF. INVESTIGATION BEGUN.

3/11/2005

Is there a reason Odwalla is still in business? No matter what the "flavor" of their beverages, it tastes like piss from a goat that just drank a smoothie.

This is pretty much all I'm good for today.

3/10/2005

Not surprisingly, they give us Shakespeare at his most Gothed-out, which is to say his most existential. Or at least what I call existential, where it's all about risky undertakings weighed against heaven's displeasure and the nearness of death and bats.


David Larsen guest- and book-blogging on Romance of the Forest by Anne Radcliffe.

3/06/2005

I have a question to ask. More of a challenge. Has there been any movie with Judge Reinhold in it that has NOT had an "Eighties Montage"? You know what I'm talking about--the Bette Midler workout montage in Ruthless People, car-washing montage in Fast Times. Crappy 80s music, while not a requirement, is often present. The "Beverly Hills Cop" trilogy ALL have to have Eighties Montages, right??? Even #3 or did the montage die out as an art form by 1994? Please help me.

Btw, South Park has a great "Montage" song.

3/04/2005

I came across (pretty randomly) this essay by Dale Chapman called "Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Paranoia and the Technological Sublime in Drum and Bass Music". Aside from the interesting things it had to say about drum and bass and the movie Pi, the article had a lot of eye-opening thoughts about science fiction:

As I hope to demonstrate, the specific coincidence of elements that we find in many drum and bass tracks--the coexistence of a volatile rhythmic framework, an affect of cyborg artificiality, and the traumatic impact of the sublime--lend them a prophetic quality in the face of recent events.
The phrase "traumatic impact of the sublime" really hit me--and it made me think about the old SF standby "sense of wonder". How is it, and how can it be, traumatic? Awe-ful? Chapman has this to say about trauma later in the essay:

Trauma is, in short, the experience we have of an event so violent or disturbing that our mind shuts down in the attempt to represent it; the event creates a break that ruptures our sense of the way in which the world is organized. Framed in this manner, we might say that trauma articulates the experience of the sublime--that massive, unlimited awe and terror--in the form of a single punctuating act.


This inverts, esp. in our 21st century, of the "trauma as spectacle." But is "sense of wonder" in of itself, at least latently, traumatic? Whether for characters who are involved with it (or observing it) or the readers reading it? I had once thought of dour, affectless near-future prose as the vehicle to deal with contemporary terrors, but I'm pretty sure I was wrong. The trouble is that at times even some of the most sophisticated SF has a sheen over it that masks these complications. The terror's there, but sublimated.

One of the common techniques to create this sense of the sublime is a kind of blitheness (pioneered by Heinlein?) that characters in the story have in regards to awe-inspiring events, e.g., a star collapsing, a space elevator. "Yeah, we see this all the time, what's the big deal?" This is bread and butter for science fiction writers. The effect is to have the reader unidentify with the character to an extent; that is, to create distance through banalization of the unreal. At its best, this can often, also, "three-dimensionalize" the world-building, by showing glimpses of "unseen corners" of a given world. At its worst, it leads to a kind of talking-out-of-the-side-of- one's-mouth glibness, a smoothing over of this distancing to drive the story forward.

And that, ultimately--the belief that the very act of "moving the story forward" is the prime requirement for a sense of wonder--is what is so frustrating sometimes in SF. If I'm driving my car at 75 mph, a lot of the time I'm not even thinking about it; the fact that, in the whole history of humankind, the vast vast majority of it could not even fathom going this fast. But occasionally, I do think about it, and it provides a "holy fuck, what am I doing here" kind of tension. (Then I turn off and try to find a parking spot.) I think everyone has those moments. It's this multiplicity teetering of perspectives--not just the bludgeoning home a point about technophilic kicks--that can provide amazing, volatile textures in science fiction. I wish some stories would slow down enough, or get off their own predestined track enough, to let these kinds of moments seep into the authored worlds. (This dissonance, of course, is a milder version of "trauma", or maybe not related to it at all. But amplify this on the often-broader scale of future-fiction, and a wider range of thought can be incorporated into the narrative.)

ps. I have not read China Mieville's first novel, King Rat, which I heard has a lot to do with jungle, though I have no idea whether it tries to embody it with a "volatile rhythmic framework"... anyone who's read it, I'd be thrilled to hear about it.