Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith 1912.jpgAs I mentioned recently, I've been listening to a book of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories as I paint at night. My knowledge of his stories comes chiefly from the Ballantine books (Poseidonis, Xiccarph, and Hyperborea; the fourth Ballantine volume, Zothique, is inexplicably hard to find and expensive, and I don't have a copy). Some take place in the prehistoric, Atlantean past; others in the Dying-Earth future; and still others on weird planets circling unknown suns. I've also read a number of stories at the excellent, excellent website, Eldritch Dark, which features the text of many of his stories as well as images of his drawings and sculptures, articles, bibliographies, and more.

Smith was born in California in 1893, and stayed close to home until his death in 1961. He is said to have had a fear of crowds, and never went to high school, completing his education at home instead. You can sense his self-educatedness in his writing, which exhibits an encyclopedic scope and (perhaps) shallowness, and a varied, idiosyncratic, precise use of words, ranging from a staid, journalistic prose to ironic detachment to heavy-laden verbal ornament. His wide reading and knowledge of history and mythology add a pleasant depth to his fiction. Many of his stories are really prose poems, and he achieved some fame as a poet before becoming known as a fiction writer.

He had his heyday in the period from 1929 to 1937, when he was one of the First Triumvirate of Weird Tales authors, together with the better-known H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With the death by cancer and suicide, respectively, of these two author-friends, as well as of his parents, whom he supported through his writing endeavors, he largely ceased to write. To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows why. He married late in life, and seems a person who was fairly content with loneliness. He was generally poor, and supported himself through hard manual labor at times.

I am a great admirer of his work. My favorites in this particular collection (The Door to Saturn, the second volume of the collection put out by Night Shade Books) include the title story (a Hyperborean tale taking place largely on the superbly imagined, inhospitable ringed planet), "The Gorgon" (a George MacDonald-esque horrific encounter with mythology in a London backstreet), "The Red World of Polaris" and "A Captivity in Serpens" (long science fiction stories featuring the circumnavigating Captain Volmar and the crew of his ether-ship), and "The City of the Singing Flame" and "The Hunters from Beyond" (weird tales set – partly! – in California, and narrated by bookish pulp fantasy author "Philip Hastane," who happens to be second cousin to a middling sculptor of the grotesque).

Smith's Vathek-esque oriental pieces and Averoigne stories are less appealing to me. The stories I like best are those that take place in bizarre, surreal landscapes brooded over by cruel adepts and high priests and nightmarish yet eminently practical primeval monster-gods. But there's also something about the sheer inventiveness of the pre-Golden Age science fiction you get from the thirties; the Volmar stories exemplify this.

I identify with Smith for many reasons, including my dislike of crowds and almost paralyzing fear of personal interaction, my isolation in an insular provincial town, my self-education (for, though I have a doctorate in mathematics, I am largely self-educated – such are the vagaries of modern schools!), and my struggles with material limitations. His most well-known literary model was Poe, whose complete works I carried around in my backpack when I was a boy, but he also apparently admired George MacDonald (e.g., Lilith) and (later) Tolkien. He pursued his own lodestar, now through poetry, now prose, now painting or sculpture, all of a grotesque turn, with little regard for worldly approbation. My short fiction approaches his style more than anything else, though I feel that my pieces are both more serious and less charming. Well, everyone is different, as my mother would say.

Smith never has been extremely well known. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps he is too poetic, too insubstantial to appeal to a popular taste for plot-driven narrative. But if you have any interest at all in the idiosyncratic speculative fiction of the Weird Tales era, you'll want to take a look at Eldritch Dark.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Religion and Fantasy

Last spring I submitted a religious-themed science fiction story to a religious short-story contest. I don't usually submit to contests, and I never submit to religious markets, so this was doubly out of character. Still, the story was a speculative piece about a possible solution to a relevant bioethical issue that hasn't (so far as I know) been seriously considered yet, and perhaps rather too specialized for a more general market.

After I submitted the story I forgot about it, figuring it wasn't likely to get anywhere. So I was surprised when the editors contacted me to tell me that it had made it to the final round. Eventually it was one of the top fourteen (out of hundreds, with ten winners in the end). But when we spoke on the phone, I was informed that there were serious qualms about the story, to the effect that the thought of publishing it scared the hell out of them (well, the word they used was "heck," but I knew what they meant), and that one reader had had a very bad visceral reaction to a particularly shocking image.

Mission accomplished! Unfortunately, after some highbrow literary back-and-forth, the story was rejected. Structural problems were cited as the cause. Fair enough. How did it get as far as it did? Got me. Why was a personal interview felt to be necessary? I don't know.

Now, none of my other stories have religious themes. If anything they have philosophical themes. Religion is divisive. I suppose the same could be said for any strongly held opinion. All the same, there are plenty of religious sci-fi novels – VALIS, A Case of Conscience, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, to name a few famous ones. I'm not saying they're all necessarily friendly to traditional religion, but they at least treat it seriously and try to grapple with the issues involved, as opposed to the silly Carl Sagan, "Nightfall" approach.

So suppose I sit down to write a religious sci-fi story. Not a trite religion story that happens to take place in outer space, or a sci-fi story that happens to have an ironic genuflection thrown in, but a sci-fi story that has religion woven into its very fiber. Well, clearly speculative fiction can only be religious as such if it speculates about religious things. If you have what we might call a dogmatic religion, this involves the possibility of coming to the wrong conclusion about an issue that hasn't been settled yet, or deliberately denying or questioning some tenet that is held to be settled. And that bugs some people.

But what are the duties of the fantasist or scientifictionalist to his religion? Here I speak as what I happen to be, a Catholic. Our beliefs are clearly enunciated and organ-ized, but at the same time there's this constant outgrowth and deepening and process of maturation, or what John Henry Newman called the development of doctrine.* Sometimes an idea which was once seemingly universally rejected later becomes an article of faith. To someone interested in such things, there is a rich field for speculation. But suppose you get something wrong? Or suppose that you decide to write a story that clearly contradicts some received article? Is that bad? I think it's fair to say that a lot of people who consider themselves very religious would say, yes, it is bad.

Let's look to Tolkien, the great exemplar for Catholic fantasists. Tolkien, it is often claimed, wrote in a purely Catholic universe. This is debatable, depending on what one may mean by it. But he seems to have departed from established doctrine for literary effect on at least one occasion. In The Silmarillion it is intimated that death is the gift of Eru, the One, to Man, rather than a punishment for transgression.** In a letter he notes that this understanding of death is an Elvish myth, told from their perspective, and perhaps neither here nor there as regards the Christian myth. But he goes on to say:
I suppose a difference between this Myth and what may be perhaps called Christian mythology is this. In the latter the Fall of Man is subsequent to and a consequence (though not a necessary consequence) of the "Fall of the Angels": a rebellion of created free-will at a higher level than man; but it is not clearly held (and in many versions is not held at all) that this affected the "World" in its nature: evil was brought in from outside, by Satan. In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable.
Despite what he says regarding the divergence from Christian myth, this reminds me of the Catholic understanding of "physical evil":
[...] God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" toward its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection. [CCC 310]***
For my argument, though, that's immaterial. What seems clear to me, based on Tolkien's manner, is that he was not at pains to align his secondary world with his beliefs regarding the primary world, though he plainly regarded Middle-Earth as a mythical prehistoric precursor to Europe. In fact, the various parts of The Silmarillion contain a good amount of theological speculation.

My own opinion is that a story is a literary artifact, not a profession of faith, and that an authentic religious impulse in an artist will move him to make the best work he can make, regarded as a work of art and nothing more. Of course his faith will inform it, as it must all he does, but this is not a matter of particular concern to him, and may be quite hidden to casual observers.

Consider the bee. The bee spends her days gathering nectar and making honey. It is not her concern to deliver a message, to illustrate a virtue, etc. Her task is simply to make honey, and she goes about it assiduously until she dies. In this she glorifies God, for such a honey-maker God has made her to be. Be what you are, Catherine of Siena said, and you will set the world on fire.

Further, fantasy is a kind of play. We are regular mass-goers here at Casa O., and my children have played mass since a very young age, using makeshift surplices, thuribles, candles, and the rest. Well, because they're children, they sometimes don't get it exactly right. They even introduce terms and ideas that might raise the eyebrows of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Do I correct them? Of course not. Why? Because I'm not a narrow-minded wet blanket, and I recognize that playing is a way for children to process their experiences and grow into adults. Well, we are all children in the eyes of Eru Ilúvatar.

As regards Tolkien's popularity among my co-religionists, and my own seeming propensity to be put on the Index, well, there was a time when Tolkien's works were more beloved by heavy metal bands (and by Leonard Nimoy – watch only if you hold sanity cheap!) than the would-be architects of Catholic culture. But now he stands canonized. In religious circles one hears unceasing praises of him and Dante and Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh, but what really strikes me about these authors is that they established themselves on their own merits, in the world at large, and not in a religious literary ghetto. And if they didn't now have a kind of communal Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur one suspects they'd be rejected out of hand. As Solon said to Croesus, no man can be called happy until he's dead.

It's this perceived adherence to the faith, and not literary merit, that a certain religious critic looks for. They stand diffident, reserved, careful to neither praise nor censure, until they have some kind of idea about where the author stands. They want to be certain whether the author is on their team or the other team before they commit.

Take Anne Rice. Not many years ago she returned to the Catholic Church and proceeded to write a multi-volume fictionalized life of Christ. (I don't think vampires were involved.) She actually took out ads in First Things and sent a review copy to Richard John Neuhaus, who responded with a backhanded compliment, something about how it wasn't exactly Dostoevsky but maybe people would benefit from it. Anyway, everyone lauded her. Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something special about her vampire books. I actually heard a nun speak about it in front of a group of catechumens. Then, not long after, she left the Church again, in something of a huff, and Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something not quite right about her Christ novels, something not altogether real about her conversion.

Then there's Oscar Wilde, an author I happen to admire. He experienced a deathbed conversion, so he's canonized. But if that conversion had remained unknown, or if he had lived to repudiate it, then (one suspects) certain critics wouldn't care about him except to make snarky triumphalist comments about his lifestyle.

In the end, then, the attitudes here are not far from those of the diversity-obsessed. They're primarily concerned with secondary elements, and not altogether honest in their criticism. If you're religious and just want to write then it seems you must steer your way between this Scylla and Charybdis. Or, to continue the analogy, maybe just ignore all voices as you would the Sirens.

* As a matter of fact, Newman wrote a speculative historical novel about the early Church (Callista), which I read in grad school – read it aloud to my wife, in fact, if I recall correctly – but didn't much care for. It's richly detailed, but rather too minute in its descriptions, and the characters are wooden, which isn't surprising, seeing as Newman was a great admirer of Ivanhoe. My wife adores Ivanhoe, but me, not so much. I read it in the cab of my pickup truck during lunch breaks at a warehouse job across from a brewery when I was sixteen. I enjoyed it then, but have never been able to stomach it since: it reminds me of the overpowering smell of cooking barley.

** This would seem to be tied to the idea that the men of Númenor lay down their lives voluntarily, in full possession of their faculties, rather than seek to prolong their years through dotage, and are praised for it, another idea that is problematic from a Catholic point of view.

*** It seems to me that the ideas expressed in this part of the Catechism, about physical evil, the angels and the visible world, the intrinsic goodness of each created thing, the interdependence of creatures, the beauty of creation, the hierarchy of creatures, and the cosmic sabbath-rest, form the central theme of The Book of the New Sun, another monumental Catholic work.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Night Thoughts

A few random updates.

I've written a longish short story, an homage to some of my favorite pieces from the wild and free pre-Tolkien epoch, with flavors of H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Mervyn Peake, and others. Right now it's simmering on the back burner. Maybe I'll submit it, maybe not. I hold half my stuff back. They say you're not supposed to do this, but all the stuff I've actually published contains material incorporated from stories I've deemed unsuccessful for one reason or another, so I don't feel that I'm wasting my time.

My evenings have been taken up with painting. I'm still working on my groovy Ballantine-style mass-market fantasy book cover. I've gotten into the painting stage at last. I think it's going pretty well so far, but I never can tell if the parts will coalesce in the end. As I paint, I'm listening to the audiobook of The Door to Saturn, Book 2 of a Clark Ashton Smith collection put out by Night Shade Books. The stories vary from middling to excellent, but the readings are all quite good. Smith's stories are often mordantly humorous, and the best way to achieve the proper effect when reading aloud is to adopt a rather dry, reserved manner, as most of the readers, happily, have done.

Next I'd like to do a couple of maps. I'll need one large-scale "overworld" map and one local city map, perhaps with a cut-away view to show the layered structure. Seems to me there are two kinds of maps in fantasy: those that are shaped by the story (and therefore subservient to it), and those that shape the story. The latter tend to generate bad coupon-quest stories, but not always: Orson Scott Card's Hart's Hope, which I'm fond of, apparently began as a city map.

Me, I've been drawing fantasy maps since before I started reading fantasy. My third grade teacher was into various New Age ideas. She told us stories about having personally seen flying saucers and communicated with them with her mind; she made us talk to the plants when we were on watering duty, to encourage them to grow; and, most significantly, she conducted meditation sessions in which she would sit cross-legged on her desk, rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, and narrate a sequence of events beginning with a giant egg that was also a house and had our name on it. The egg-country took on a life of its own in my mind, and it wasn't long before I was peopling the land and drawing maps of it. These were always contour maps, and used standard map symbols, with a legend and a compass rose, as my dad had recently taught me map-reading and orientation.

So it should go without saying that the maps in Tolkien's books were a big draw when I encountered them in high school. The map in The Lord of the Rings is definitely the first kind of map, the kind shaped by the story, a literary artifact, as is apparent from his correspondence. What gets you when you read LOTR is all the walking. The story takes place in plains, mountains, forests, deserts, swamps; there is only one city to speak of, and it's a compact walled fortress. The sense of space is what really made the book appeal to me. My own fantasy is rather more urban, though it certainly isn't "urban fantasy." Most of it takes place along the weedy margins of a great city. Actually, my city is little more than margin, being long and thin and all-encompassing, like Dido's stretched hide.

Much of it is inspired by my own experiences in San Antonio, where I grew up. In its slow growth, the city has reached arms around tracts of countryside and then enclosed them on the far side, so that now you have these hidden pockets of farmland or brush country surrounded on all sides by urban development. Some of these pockets are quite old. On the South Side there's an old Spanish acequia and aqueduct that still function to irrigate crops. The inner city is a strange otherworld, larger on the inside than its perimeter would seem to allow, with very old things here and there, like fossils in a prehistoric fluvial deposit. My most recent story, "Day of the Dragonfly," was prompted by a quest into its depths to find an actual fossil, an ammonite, for my little boy, who requested one for his birthday.

I worked on a land surveying crew in high school. We had to crawl or hack our way through all the forgotten nooks and crannies of the city, through the back rooms of warehouses that stank of urine, under bridges and around stagnant pools lined with rank weeds, across back lots overgrown with mesquite where people had left old cars to rust decades ago, into the foyer of Planet Hollywood on the Riverwalk. Sometimes we saw beautiful things, like a family of roosting barn owls in a short brick structure with a twisted metal roof. At other times we saw ugly things, which I'll not describe here. Once I was bitten by a dog as we crossed a series of unfenced lots, and had to be taken to a hospital, where I shared a room with a young man who'd just been savagely beaten with a baseball bat as a result of road rage. It was summer, with temperatures in the triple digits, and clouds of mosquitoes in the heavy humid air.

The men I worked with had a certain Dickensian eccentricity. There was one guy who would sidle up to the rear-view mirror of the truck to pop his pimples, who liked to take us to the Taco Bell where his wife's former lover worked, to gloat. There was another guy who was so skinny and stringy he looked like he'd been microwaved too long; he lived on peanuts and coffee, until one day he turned purple and fell over in a juniper thicket, the victim of heat stroke and exhaustion. Then there was the guy with the braided hair, biker mustache, and red-white-and-blue bandana, who lived with his mother, and liked to get me alone to tell me cautionary tales about his former crack habit. Another guy, a Louisiana Cajun, had a vendetta against prickly pear, which he believed sucked the moisture from the land, killing the "good" plants; every time he saw one (which was quite often) he hacked it to pieces with his machete, not reflecting, I suppose, that this is one of the ways such cacti propagate.

None of them wore seatbelts, but they would loop the belts over their shoulders so as not to get pulled over. They honked the horn and shouted lewd things at every pretty woman they saw. They lied to their superiors daily, about the pettiest of things. Once they chewed me out for emptying the trash bucket in the company dumpster, because they knew the foil wrappers would give them away – they'd been getting breakfast tacos while on the clock, which wasn't allowed.

All in all, it was dirty, oppressive work. I lived from one little touch of beauty to the next. One morning as I left the house for work I looked up in the eastern sky and saw Venus centered just above the upturned horns of a thin crescent moon. That one vision bore me through weeks of work.

Like Tolkien, I find myself deeply troubled by modern urbanization and the general speeding-up of life. But unlike him I feel that I've had to make my peace with it. I'm not an Oxford don, but an anonymous guy of very mixed ancestry stuck – permanently, it seems – in the South Texas brush country. I write to cope with it.

On a related note, one reason for my low output on this blog lately has been a serious mental disturbance. It may seem ridiculous, but this stemmed from the renovation of the house next door. You see, I live next to this big, fine house built by a great public figure of yore for his mother. Harry S Truman actually spent the night there once, supposedly. I've seen the room he stayed in. Also, as everyone within a thirty-mile radius knows, the bathroom is marble and has gold faucets, and the master bedroom is big enough to play arena football in. Our own humble domicile used to belong to the family as well, and once housed the foreman of their massive ranch.

Anyway, the house is kind of a status item, and was recently bought up by an old branch of the local gentry. (We have gentry here.) They proceeded to cut down every one of their pecan trees, trees that provided my property with as much shade as theirs. The yard is a now a gravel pit surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence. Half the bricks and siding have been cut off the building. A sheet-metal portable lies alongside my driveway. There's a constant sawing and dumping and shouting and jackhammering. It's been going on for over a month. And I haven't even ever seen the owners! They've never deigned to stop by to say, hey, we're super-rich and are going to be causing some serious disturbance in your lives for the next half-year or so. This is Texas, the Friendship State, and we just don't do things like that here. But as I said, this is the local gentry, and around here I'm regarded as singled out for a special blessing on account of my new neighbors' mere presence.

It's the trees that really get me, though. They were big, old trees, and they just hacked 'em down. Some were kind of in bad shape from the drought, granted, but certainly not all. The tree trimmer himself felt so bad for us he brought us a pizza one day (hey, we take what we can get), and, on his own time and without my asking him, took up a big brush pile I'd had in the backyard, which would have taken me days to break up and haul on my own. Now that's Texas decency. Anyway, without the trees I feel like Sam in the scouring of the Shire, but I have no mallorns to plant. I've gotten more used to it now, but for a while I felt like I was just drifting through space.

Now I'm tempted to plant a line of hackberries down the property line, and maybe build a big ugly chicken coop for my chickens up against the fence.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Can-D and Other Matters

It's been some weeks since my last post. I've not been idle, for I've been drawing, writing, and taking part in various other weighty and time-consuming matters. But, as my humble blog is being plagued by referrer spam from the Ukraine, which creeps me out, and as the conventional wisdom seems to be that legitimate activity and real traffic drives these automated imposters out as the sound of church bells sends ghosts back to their troubled beds, I shall say...some things.

First topic. Science fiction has never caught my fancy much. I suppose it is the lack of affect. There are, of course, many exceptions, including Van Vogt, Bester, and Herbert. Heinlein and Asimov I read in my youth but outgrew. There are other big names I've sampled but found not much to my liking. Lately, though, the author I've grown most in appreciation for is Philip K. Dick.

I've written a bit about him before. You can see which of his books I've read recently on my sidebar. I think I enjoy them not chiefly for their genre qualities (which often are slight) but for their rather melancholy but intense human drama. His protagonists are always hapless losers and/or paranoid schizophrenics; they generally fall for beautiful, eccentric, unattainable young women and receive both tenderness and suffering at their hands. Wives are distant and cold or absent altogether. Much of this was autobiographical, I take it. His self-revelation in VALIS (which, for reasons I don't understand, is one of my favorites) makes this pretty clear.

One thing I appreciate about him is his willingness to grapple with religious issues in a serious way, asking questions and not doggedly pursuing some stale foregone conclusion. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for instance, explores transubstantiation and communion, disconcertingly through the use of Can-D. VALIS, of course, is about a kind of religious quest, while Through a Scanner Darkly takes its title from I Corinthians 13. Flow My Tears is another good example, especially since he later believed it had been modeled on Acts, or something. Plenty of others abound. He was searching, searching and not finding, wandering into the desert like his friend Bishop Pike and perishing there, perhaps, but never settling for a glib or facile contentment with some received idea.

More than that, though, I read him for his humaneness. Characters to him are persons, evoking sympathy in the reader, and not lay figures moved about on a stage. And his handling of neurological or psychological anomaly is masterful. Nowhere else have I found such a true depiction of the fractured, warped perceptions of the disordered mind.

Next topic. My children and I have finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis' seeming disdain for what he considers ugly, homely, or affected in physical appearance continues to bug me. It reminds me of nothing I've come across in Tolkien. But I was already unkind to Lewis in my last post concerning his work, so here I will say, my God, how beautiful the ending of Voyage is. My kids were spellbound.

It's strange, reading Lewis again after so many years, to realize how I'd internalized his writing. Time and again I come across a word, a phrase, or an entire sentence, and realize that something I'd thought my own had actually been lifted from his work. For example, in my recent story, "At the Edge of the Sea," I referred in the first draft to "sea-people." I was advised to alter this, and changed it to "sea-folk," a felicitous choice, I think; but now I realize that my "sea-people" came from the last chapters of Voyage. Altogether quite a writer, and not to be dismissed as some people do.

Voyage, incidentally, is where I learned the names of all the parts of a ship and other nautical terms. It's a recurring dream of mine to find myself crossing the Atlantic on the Dawn Treader.

Third topic. Something that really annoys me in planet-hopping TVF sci-fi is what I call the small planet syndrome. The most egregious offender is The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke crash-lands in a swamp on an earth-sized planet, and expects Yoda to be living right around the corner somewhere. If I told you, "Go to the third planet of the system of Sol, where you will find a man named Buddy," and you crash-landed in Madagascar or something, you'd be crazy if you met some random person and believed that they could take you to him. Maybe it was the Force? I don't know. I don't think it's even mentioned. But I haven't seen Empire since it was so sadly defaced by its maker, and I'll not see it again until they sell the original version (with models!) on DVD. Anyway, Star Trek is just as great an offender.

Well, I guess that's all I have.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Best of BCS, Year Five

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Beneath Ceaseless Skies' fifth annual "best-of" anthology will be made available on September 10. From the release:
A woman climbs an ice-mountain, feeding her
companion her own blood to stave off Death.... 
A fisher discovers the sagas and songs sung
by centuries-dead barrow ghost women.... 
An asexual sun goddess sets impossible challenges
that fail to deter her incessant suitor.... 
A lover wends through city canals and told
tales in a living boat to woo a golden woman....
View full versionThese and other awe-inspiring fantasy stories await in The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Five, a new anthology of seventeen stories from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the Hugo Award-finalist online magazine that Locus online credits with “revive(ing)... secondary-world fantasy as a respectable subgenre of short fiction, raising it from the midden of disdain into which it had been cast by most of the rest of the field.” 
The Best of BCS, Year Five features such authors as Richard Parks, Gemma Files, Seth Dickinson, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. 
It includes “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow, a finalist for the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Awards and the Parsec Award, and “The Telling” by Gregory Norman Bossert, winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award.
It also includes "Misbegotten," my first pro-published piece, which made Locus' recommended reading list for 2013. Please take a look here for a complete table of contents and purchase information.

The anthology will be made available on September 10 for $3.99 from all the major ebook retailers. All proceeds from the anthology go toward paying authors and artists, including your humble servant, for their work. Please consider buying a copy to support one of the only professional venues for secondary-world fantasy!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Logan's Run

The most recent selection in my program of seventies sci-fi films was Logan's Run (1976). (Previous entries here and here.) I'd been putting it off, as the reviews seemed somewhat middling, but I actually thought it was a really cool movie. It's based on a book, which I haven't read, but I understand that the plot is quite different aside from the basic premise. (FYI, this post contains a number of spoilers, so beware if you haven't seen it yet.)

The premise is a hedonistic future society where everyone is euthanized at age thirty so that no shadow of degeneration or death can cloud the universal satisfaction. Those who wish can undergo the quasi-religious rite of the Carrousel, rising up in a column of light toward the ceiling of the arena, with screaming throngs cheering them on, in a bid for rebirth. The ones who don't make it explode in mid-air. (Guess what? No one makes it.) Those who seek to evade their fate illegally are called Runners. They're hunted down by agents known as Sandmen. The city sees to reproductive matters, and the people are classified into genetic breeds with color-coded clothing; delinquent youth are shut away in the Cathedral, where they go feral in darkness.

The city is enclosed by an opaque dome, so that no one is even really aware that there is an outside. It's like a huge combination shopping mall and resort apartment complex (a lot of the film was shot in shopping centers and other businesses around DFW). But it's all very futuristic in a retro way, with lots of glass and neon lights, kind of like that salon you still see in malls nowadays, the one with all the black and mirrors. (Is it called Regis? I think it's Regis.) I've always been both fascinated and repelled by malls; when I was a teenager I had this recurring nightmare about being lost in a busy mall by myself. They're gigantic indoor spaces that just go on and on into infinity, kind of like the Library of Babylon, but with everything screaming for your attention, urging you to forget everything but pleasure and comfort. It's interesting and appalling to imagine a culture living inside a giant mall.

Incidentally, the set design (and plot) reminded me a lot of Blade Runner, though bright and glittering where the latter was grimy and rainy. The effects are generally good.

The protagonist is Logan 5, a Sandman assigned a secret mission by the city computer to find the location of the legendary Sanctuary where all the Runners go. He's artificially made a Runner but slowly becomes one in truth. Eventually, after various bizarre adventures and narrow escapes, he and his love interest find their way though the interstices and out into the world, where rocks are hard and plants are prickly, and come upon a ruined, overgrown Washington, D.C., evoked by some nice matte paintings. (I wish movies still used matte paintings. Crazy, I know.) There, in the Capitol, they come upon the Old Man (Peter Ustinov!), the first old person they'd ever seen, living by himself with a large number of cats.

For me this is the heart of the movie. The Runners are like children in the lap of their grandfather as they ask about his white hair, ask to feel his wrinkles. The film gets quiet and still, and just lets him ramble on as they question him, quoting bits of T. S. Eliot, mumbling about this and that, making little jokes. It's quite a shift from the frenetic pace of the first half of the movie. Logan 5 and the girl are filled with wonder to realize that there's nothing fearful about growing old and dying, that these are natural and even beautiful things. They resolve to take the Old Man back to the city to show everyone how mistaken they've been, imagining that their word and his presence alone will convince everyone.

Here I had the delightful surprise of discovering that some of the final scenes were filmed at the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which I visited this summer. I'd stayed downtown about a block away and taken my kids all over them. The most famous one (shown here in a picture taken by Yours Truly) provides the Runners a point of entry to the city, while the Old Man waits outside. It was neat to discover that I'd walked down the same steps as Peter Ustinov, though I didn't know it at the time.

The message preached by Logan is received with jeers and incomprehension. But when the computer melts down upon receiving his intelligence, and the city starts to destroy itself, he escapes and leads the people outside. Here the film assumes almost mythic dimensions as Logan harrows the "underworld" of the city. The liberated young people discover the Old Man and gather around him in wonder.

The point here, which I think many reviewers misunderstand, is not so much that people can live so long, as that it's okay to get old. I was surprised to discover the film to be so warm and life-affirming at the end. It's not a message you hear much nowadays, with celebrities striving to remain about thirty in appearance while aging well into their seventies, disfiguring themselves at last with countless plastic surgeries until they all start to look the same.

There's nothing wrong with growing old. Don't fly from it. Embrace it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thoughts on Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Author's Note: This post continues to get a lot of hits, so allow me to add something in preface.

I sweated over the post for many days before making it public. Since making it public I've continued to edit it, amplifying something here, removing something there, as continued reflection has seemed to call for. My blog is merely where I think aloud, and what's most important to me is that I be clear in expressing my thoughts, wrong though they may be. I'm conscious that this is a controversial topic, and it would probably be the part of discretion to leave well enough alone. But I'm a person of color in addition to being a "neuroatypical," and I desire my own voice to be heard, on my rather obscure blog if nowhere else.

What I discuss here is very difficult to talk about without being offensive to someone, and I sincerely wish to avoid that. If I have written something that offends you, dear reader, I would ask you to please consider it in its proper context. If I seem uncouth, arrogant, or ignorant on certain points, this can probably be chalked up to my limited experience or knowledge. But criticism is also welcome. Though I come from an ethnic minority, this doesn't make me immune to racism. It's the part of wisdom, I think, to recognize that one has never really "arrived," and to continue to grow at all times.

*     *     *

I don't like to go into politics and current events on my blog, so I'll just say that I've been thinking about racism lately. Certainly it's on a lot of people's minds.

A while back I wrote a post about declining to join the SFWA because of what I perceive to be an emphasis on "diversity" (scare quotes chosen advisedly) as opposed to writing. And I still stand by that decision. Authentic diversity is laudable, but "diversity," well, it's tied up with all kinds of things, and I don't want people telling me what I should and shouldn't write. Or rather, I don't want to pay people who are telling me what I should and shouldn't write. I'll grant that maybe my opinion is mistaken – I'm trying to find my way here – but anyway I don't have a lot of spare cash, and I already spent my SFWA money on a trip to the beach.*

On the other hand, there is to be found among those who decry the alleged political correctness of the SFWA a touch of bona fide racism. It's not universal, and it's not even as prevalent as some people say it is, but it's definitely there, a dark but very reasonable-sounding undercurrent. And there are a lot of people who deny that racism even exists anymore, or, if it does, then it's racism against white people.

Part of what's got me thinking about all this is Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," published last year in Apex Magazine and winner of the 2013 Nebula for Best Short Story. It can be read here, if you're interested. It's very short, and (to my mind, anyway) rather sweet, though sad. It appears to be the soliloquy of a woman beside the bed of her fiancé, a paleontologist, who lies in a hospital, beaten within an inch of his life by yahoos with pool cues. She imagines what it would be like were he a dinosaur, a T-Rex, and able to disembowel his attackers.

It's nicely written, more of a prose poem really than a story. What strikes me is that there aren't any speculative elements. So it was chosen for something other than its qualities as a science fiction or fantasy story. To a guy who writes yarns about warriors rescuing princesses and slaying dragons, this is kind of disheartening in a way.

So, what stood out to the judges? I'm guessing it was the part that speaks of "five blustering men soaked in gin and malice […] calling you a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not, shouting and shouting as you slid to the floor in the slick of your own blood." Five derogatory terms. Three related to sexual categories. One directed at persons from turban-wearing countries. And one directed at Hispanics.

We aren't told what sent this luckless paleontologist into a pool hall, nor what made him a target of gin- and malice-soaked pool players, nor what made them think he was a transsexual. The scene seems merely symbolic or representative, because it's hard to imagine such people calling someone both a towel-head and a spic, unless perhaps they suspect him of being a Morisco. Also, pool players are more likely to be soaked in cheap beer or whisky (and cured in cigarette smoke), at least in my experience. And "spic," well, I know the word, but I've never heard it in real life. Local usages differ, of course.

So the scene is clearly symbolic, an idealization. We're dealing with types here, not individuals.

One suspects, though, despite the choice of drink and terminology, that this story takes place in the boondocks, somewhere deep in the heart of Murica. Here's my projection, which may or may not be accurate: the paleontologist, exhausted from excavating fossils all day at a remote dig, yet exulting in his discovery of a nearly complete Acrocanthosaurus skeleton, decides to check out the local night life at Bob's Country Bunker. A savage beat-down follows.

Facetiousness aside, I once had an unpleasant experience of this nature, and I'd like to offer it by way of comparison. Read on if you dare.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Generations of Star Trek

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you the greatest Star Trek selfie ever, as seen on The Verge today:

What makes it so truly awesome is William Shatner's expression. He's like, "Who are all these people? I wish Spock were here."

(Who is that there on the right-hand edge? Is that Michael Dorn, a.k.a. Worf? Poor guy can't ever feel the love. And who is that guy in the back? Who are you, guy? Are you from Star Trek? No? Then get out!)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Archangelic Knight

My most recent piece:

Saint Michael the Archangel
5" x 7"
Oil on clay ground.
There's nothing particularly original about it. The format was sort of inspired by Pieter Brueghel's Fall of the Rebel Angels. Brueghel is one of my favorite painters. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was listening to The Book of the New Sun as I painted it, and I like to think that that came through a bit in the colors.

I'm hoping to sell it somewhere around here once I get tired of sitting back and admiring it. Saint Michael was a popular subject in the old Spanish days; one often encounters images like this in mission churches across the Southwest, which I'm fond of visiting.

For my next project I'm doing a big watercolor piece that's supposed to look like a groovy wrap-around mass-market book cover from the seventies. Whether it will actually be used for its intended purpose remains to be seen. But hopefully it'll at least be nice to look at as a painting.

Here's an initial sketch for the front:

It recalls certain Ballantine covers, but I've also been looking a lot at the Art Nouveau designs of Alphonse Mucha. The negative space will be filled out by mosses, critters, and swirls, of course. My plan is to use watercolor, like I said, though I suppose inks were used on the Ballantine covers. It's an experiment, so we'll see how it goes!
"O see not ye yon narrow road,
  So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
  That is the path of righteousness,
  Tho after it but few enquires. 
"And see not ye that braid braid road,
  That lies across yon lillie leven?
  That is the path of wickedness,
  Tho some call it the road to heaven. 
"And see not ye that bonny road,
  Which winds about the fernie brae?
  That is the road to fair Elfland,
  Where you and I this night maun gae."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Three from the Seventies

Lately I've been on this kick of watching sci-fi movies from the seventies. Being a child of the eighties, I grew up on Terminator and Robocop, and have never seen most of these. I started with The Planet of the Apes (which is 1968, I know, but close enough) and then Soylent Green (1973), which I reviewed here. Strangely, this is one of my most visited posts. Anyway, I've gone through a few more lately, including The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1972), Westworld (1973).

The Omega Man. Wow. I thought this one was really great. Based on the novel I Am Legend (more recently made into a film starring Will Smith), the premise is that biological warfare has wiped out practically the entire human race, except for one man, an Air Force doctor (Charlton Heston) who managed to inoculate himself during the catastrophe. He's the Omega Man.

The movie opens with Heston's character driving down a perfectly silent, empty L.A. street. There's something mesmerizing about these first scenes depicting his utter isolation in the quiet earth. Then he spies motion in a building, and opens fire.

For there are a few other survivors, but they're are all infected with the virus. Instead of killing them it's turned them into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants. They call themselves the Family, and live a communal, quasi-religious lifestyle under the leadership of a former news anchor. They dress like Dominican inquisitors, and their only purpose in life is to destroy all vestiges of the old culture and learning that brought about the downfall of man. Every night they assail the Omega Man's fortress-like townhouse, whose interior has a really cool, seventies-style ante-bellum décor going on. The Omega Man divides his time between playing chess against a statue and throwing firebombs out the window at the Family.

Every time he gets into a fight with the Family, this funky seventies music starts playing. It's just really awesome. And Heston is great at playing the cynical, self-confident a-hole with a penchant for snappy one-liners. Eventually he finds this enclave of people – children, mostly – who have the virus but haven't yet turned into psychotic nocturnal albino mutants, though this could happen at any moment, especially when the plot seems to call for it. They rescue him from execution when he's captured by the Family, and there's a great chase scene with him and Lisa, played by the lovely Rosalind Cash, together on a motorcycle. The seemingly ice-cold Lisa eventually warms up to him. Complications ensue. The finale is luridly dramatic and unsubtle as can be, complete with religious imagery, but still quite powerful.

All in all a pretty neat movie, and one I'm surprised I hadn't heard more about. I guess people find it dated. There are a lot of references to the Black Power movement, Woodstock, etc.  And the music, as I said, is pretty funky. Maybe it comes of being more a fantasist than a scientifictionalist, but things like that never bother me. The more authentically period the piece is, the better. My only real complaint with the movie is that the lighting is pretty bad in some interior scenes.

Silent Running. And then there's Silent Running. Silent Running is...special. It opens with a throaty Joan Baez song, and close-ups of critters sitting in moss like at the beginning of a Gnomes cartoon. A goofy-looking guy with unkempt hair comes into view, wearing something like a Franciscan habit made from terrycloth bathrobes, cuddling a bunny rabbit and talking to it in soothing tones.

In the future, it seems, man has stripped the earth of all biota, preferring to live in sterile, climate-controlled comfort. The only living forests exist in spaceborne biodomes owned by American Airlines hovering (for some reason) in the vicinity  of Saturn. (Why would the fleet fly into a gravity well like that?) Our very special friend lives and works aboard one of these with three other guys. He lives the life of a Carthusian. The other guys entertain themselves by crushing flowers and teasing him. He responds by blowing up at them and delivering impassioned monologues about nature and organic food. Maybe it's just that I'm a horrible person, but I find these tirades delightfully hilarious. Actually, I suppose it's because I was a lot like him when I was a kid, and would fly into passions in the defense of flowers and insects from the other boys.

The biodomes look exactly like life-size versions of model railroad forests, which I suppose is appropriate, because the models they use for exterior shots are clearly...model railroad forests. (The movie is directed by Donald Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. People say the effects for this movie are just as good, but I don't see it. The models are very model-looking, and space backgrounds just look like blown-up photos pasted to the wall behind the ships.) These forests are inhabited by rabbits, leopard frogs, red-eared sliders, squirrels, and garden snails. Basically, the kinds of animals you can obtain for cheap from any biological supply house or pet store, or see in Central Park.

When the crew is inexplicably ordered to destroy all the domes, our friend goes berserk and murders his three companions. He then fakes his death and takes off with the ship. At one point he has his robot drones bury the body of his friend in the garden, and delivers this bizarre, tearful eulogy to the camera he's using to watch their progress. (I guess he's too queasy to do the dirty work himself.) For a while he lives the simple life with his drones, who he names Huey, Dewey, and (posthumously) Louie. These are played by quadruple amputees in little metal boxes.

"This is actually one of nature's greatest gifts!!!"
Eventually our friend notices that the plants are dying. Panicked, he racks his brain for the cause. He consults books, but to no avail. What could be wrong??? Then a chance communication with a rescue ship gives him the answer: it's really dark way out there in space! Of course! Plants need sunlight to live!!! He then sets up some really bright lights. Problem solved. (They're seemingly incandescent bulbs, which can't be used to grow plants, but no matter.) All along I'd kind of been hoping it was all the processed food his crewmate had consumed, his decomposing body releasing the chemicals into the soil, but no dice.

So, one of the things I find strange about this movie is that, for all its tree-huggery, it actually shows an extremely superficial acquaintance with nature. It's like it was made by those granola hipsters who drive tiny cars plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers but don't really know the least thing about the real wild or spend any time outdoors aside from the city park. The syrupy Joan Baez ballads just top it off. Being a pretty ecologically aware guy myself, I was kind of disappointed with this.

So, if you like unintentional sci-fi hillarity, or are a granola hipster who drives a tiny car plastered with self-congratulatory bumper stickers, give Silent Running a watch.

Westworld. This is, of course, the famous precursor to Jurassic Park, written and directed by Michael Crichton. Unsuspecting tourists travel to a theme park "where nothing can go wrong." Things go wrong. Death ensues.

Here the park features hedonistic re-creations of the Old West (West World), ancient Rome (Roman World), and the Middle Ages (Medieval World), each peopled by lifelike androids. For a thousand bucks a day you go there and do what you like. This includes seducing lovely robot-damsels, which, to me, is about as appealing as romancing a bowling shoe, but, you know, different strokes for different folks.

The main plotline is about a pair of guys who spend their time in West World. One has been there before, and inhabits his gunslinger role with self-confident gravitas; his naïve newbie friend is less certain of himself, and more enthusiastic. What's cool to me is that when the robots start running amuck, as we knew they would, it's the experienced one who gets killed right off the bat, and his newbie friend who manages to survive.

I really enjoyed this one. You can tell Terminator took a lot from it, especially the sequence when our hapless tourist is being pursued by the relentless Gunslinger robot (played by Yul Brynner, who reprises his role from The Magnificent Seven). In comparing it with Jurassic Park, I find it less a cautionary tale and more a story about the consequences of unbridled self-indulgence. In this it fits in well with all those disaster movies they made in the seventies. The theme park is clearly based on Disney World (which opened in 1971) with its animatronic robot rides and vast network of secret tunnels for workers and technicians. As I hate Disney World, I thought this was great.

Next on the to-watch list is Logan's Run. What I really want to see is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I'm having trouble renting it. I may just have to buy a copy.