Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elephants and Aliens

On the plane from Seattle to Buffalo -- a very long flight -- I read Sara Gruen's NEW YORK TIMES best seller, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. This is a lovely book. The writing is spare and clean, the characters complex, their stories gripping. It takes place in a third-rate traveling circus during the 1930's, an often sleazy and brutal world of exploitation of men, women, and animals. Young Jacob Jankowski, who is supposed to be earning a veterinarian's degree at Cornell and living a middle-class Jewish life, finds himself in this milieu through a series of accidents, and is forced by circumstances to stay. The book alternates present-day Jacob, now 93 and in a nursing home, with his memories of seventy years earlier. The result is poignant and shocking both, and the book's ending is one of the sweetest surprises I can remember reading in a long time. Highly recommended.

This book is not the sort that spawns merchandising tie-ins -- but you never know. I, for instance, possess a Jane Austen action figure, an object that would undoubtedly surprise the original Jane. The action figure sits upon my bookshelf, in front of the six Austen novels and other books about them. Usually Jane stands there proudly alone. Lately, though, I have been waking up to find her menaced by a variety of alien figures, such as this one from ALIEN:

Or perhaps she's being not menaced but embraced. Of so, please take note, Jack -- Jane is not that kind of girl!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thrilled At the Movies

Almost always, my favorite movies are not SF. There is a reason for this: SF movies, even when they contain strong ideas and characters, often get seduced away from them by a fascination with special effects, endless fight scenes, and dramatic car chases (witness INCEPTION).

WINTER'S BONE has no car chases. It barely has any cars. Also no video games, cell phones, or night-vision goggles. There may have been a brief glimpse of a TV. What WINTER'S BONE has is people -- striving, feeling, and desperate people. This is not a cheerful movie, but it is a very real one, and its unknown young star, Jennifer Lawrence, is amazing.


Lawrence plays Ree, a seventeen-year-old girl living in the ass end of the world somewhere in Appalachia or the Ozarks. Her mother is too mentally ill to function, she has a little brother and sister, and her father has disappeared. Ree has to find him or the family, barely surviving as is, will lose its land and pehaps even starve. Ree is kin to everybody for miles around, but her clan alternates between helping her and warning her off, sometimes violently. Ree knows why, and we gradually learn why, too -- the entire clan survives by operating meth labs. The law knows this as well, and they would also like to find Ree's daddy. If all this sounds like another set-up for complicated double games and shoot-outs, it's not. Ree's kin know where he is, both she and the law knows they know, and only torn loyalties and potential betrayals are in operation, not con games. It's more than enough. This movie is about courage and desperation and the ties of blood, and it is terrific. Not for the faint-hearted, but I can't recommend it highly enough.

And young Jennifer Lawrence is Oscar material.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What's Your Style?

A few decades ago when I was still part of a college faculty, there was a tremendous excitement in the English Department over computer analysis of texts. By analyzing such measurable components of fiction as sentence length and complexity, paragraph length, proportion of dialogue to narrative, and number of occurrences of common words, one could come up with a "fingerprint" for a writer's style. Then, should someone discover a "lost" manuscript by Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen, it could be scientifically vetted for literary authenticity. Or something like that.

This excitement has now moved to the Web. A much-visited site invites writers to paste in a section of their texts and purports to analyze it to see what famous writer you most write like. After Mike Flynn sent me the link (, I tried it, putting in three separate sections of STEAL ACROSS THE SKY. The first time, the site informed me that I write like Leo Tolstoy. The second time, also Leo Tolstoy. The third time: Raymond Chandler.

Can you think of a single thing Tolstoy and Chandler have in common? I can't!

A commenter on Mike's blog researched this further. He discovered that:

- The Gettysburg Address was said to be in the style of H.P. Lovecraft.

- Ditto for the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.-

-One guy entered a paragraph of (which I believe to be) the Odyssey in Greek (even in Greek letters) and it was identified as being in the style of Charles Dickens.

In a way, this is too bad. I was pleased to think I might write like Tolstoy. Another cruel disillusionment in a cruel world.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Conflicted at the Movies

Last night I saw INCEPTION, the new SF movie about dreams, reality, transnational energy monopolies, tortured father-son struggles, fugitive con men, murderous suicidal wives, and half a dozen other things. The plot is very complicated. I don't want to give any of it away in spoilers, so here are my general impressions, for whatever they're worth:

The plot is unusually complicated.

I was absorbed throughout the entire movie. At times I was also lost because:

The plot is really complicated.

Some of the film is moving: specifically, the parts involving Leonardo DiCaprio's family.

Ariadne's involvement, motivation, and quickness at understanding Cobb (faster than people who have known him for years -- in fact, almost instantly) make no sense. But they are necessary because she is necessary to explain things to, because:

The plot is amazingly complicated.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a heartfelt performance.

There is way too much shooting, being shot at, and fleeing shooting people on foot, in cars, on skis, and in null gravity. Way, way too much.

I recommend the movie, even though its central ideas could have been explored better IF:

The plot had not been so extremely complicated.

INCEPTION is, in microcosm, the state of much current SF. It is so complex and self-referential that much time is spent figuring out what is happening, rather than inhabiting what is happening. Is this good or bad? I guess that depends why you like stories. If you want them to be puzzles, then INCEPTION is brilliant. If you want them to be reflections of human experience, then INCEPTION is still good but not as good as it could have been if the film maker, Christopher Nolan, had kept things a bit simpler (for one thing, characters could then have spent less time giving us info dumps). However, judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction last night, puzzles are what is wanted. People applauded at the end. Lobby comments afterward were positive (I eavesdropped). This is, apparently, what SF means to a mass audience.

And I, too, am glad I saw it. However, for me, less would have been more.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Judith Merril

Autobiographies are tricky. How much to tell, how much to skip over lightly, how much is remembered accurately? The autobiography of Judith Merril, BETTER TO HAVE LOVED, is even trickier than most because the subject was dead when most of it got written. Judith Merril had written a few chapters of it, and after she died her grand-daughter, Emily Pohl-Weary, wrote the bulk of the book by using transcripts of interviews she had conducted on tape, by inserting essays Judy had written, and then by putting down Pohl-Weary's recollections of what Judy had told her -- but still in the first person. The result is an odd document, uneven in execution and wildly jumpy in content. Chronology is practically non-existent. Some things for which there are copious letters, such as Judy's relationship with Ted Sturgeon, rate a lengthy chapter. On the other hand, one entire marriage is represented by the caption under a single picture. But despite these oddities, the book is fascinating.

I met Judith Merril in the late 1970's. She came to read and lecture at the college where I was a graduate student and I was assigned by the English Department to drive her around. I received this assignment because I had published a few SF stories and because Judy, as an SF writer, was not of much interest to most of the department. (When Isaac Bashevis Singer came to campus, the Dean drove him around.) Judy was fun, gracious, and very kind to a star-struck young wannabe. But when the subject of ex-husband Frederik Pohl's autobiography, THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS, came up, she grew incensed.

"He sanitized everything!" she said. "I'm going to write those years the way they really happened!"

She didn't finish that project, but her grand-daughter has. Judith Merril was one of a kind -- brash, opinionated, highly political, a force of nature -- and her personality comes through strongly in BETTER TO HAVE LOVED. I have no idea how accurate her recollections are of Sturgeon, Pohl, Knight, Kidd, Kornbluth, McLean, Wollheim, and the other SF figures of that era, but they certainly make for absorbing reading. With nothing sanitized at all.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Graham Joyce

Last night Graham Joyce, in Seattle to teach week 3 of Clarion, read at the University Bookstore:

His reading was really well received, and so were his remarks before and after; one point was particularly interesting. Explaining that he came from a working-class background (his father and two brothers were coal miners), Graham said that this background had influenced his attitude toward writing fiction. He does not regard it as a "priestly calling, but more like a job." You go to the job, you do it whether you're in the mood or not, and you make steady progress. That is, he said, "the industrial method of writing fiction."

Graham's prose -- witty, polished, and sophisticated -- is anything but industrial. But his attitude is echoed by nearly every successful writer I know. In addition, his situation points up another facet of the writing life: writers come from all sorts of backgrounds, not all of them literary. When Graham's first novel came out, he reports, this exchange ensued:

Father: What's your book about, then?

Graham: It's about dreams.

Father: Dreams? What are you on about, 'dreams'?

Graham: It's about dreams and what they mean.

Father: They bloody well mean you're asleep!

An enjoyable evening.

Friday, July 9, 2010

YA Addendum

For two entire years now, a teenager named Colton Harris-Moore has been running around the Northwest, robbing things and eluding capture by law enforcement, including the FBI. When I say "robbing things," I don't mean convenience stores (although he has done that, too). This kid has stolen at least three planes and two large boats. He has survived partly in the woods and partly by raiding deserted summer cottages. Currently he has left the Northwest and has been spotted in the Bahamas.

Harris-Moore is 19 years old. When he escaped from a halfway house and began running, he was 17.

What does all this have to do with YA novels? Sometimes I think that YA protagonists (including my own in the fantasy I'm writing) accomplish more than a teen could. More outwitting of adults, more successful escapes from capture, more self-discipline and ingenuity and resourcefulness. Then I read about Harris-Moore and realize that no, these protagonists are not unrealistic. What is unrealistic are the low expectations we have for teens, treating them like six-year-olds ("Teacher, may I go to the bathroom?") until we suddenly allow them into the army, put a M-16 in their hands, and send them to Iraq.

For much of history, a 17-year-old was an adult, or so close as to make little difference. Perhaps YA fantasy and SF reminds kids of that. Perhaps we need that reminding. I certainly do not condone Harris-Moore's antics -- someone owned that $384,000 plane he flew and crashed. But he is a powerful argument that teenagers may possess more ability and resourcefulness than we give them credit for.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dystopias for Kids

The June 14 issue of THE NEW YORKER had an interesting article by Laura Miller on the currently popular crop of YA SF novels. She points out that many of them, including the most popular, all take place in settings that torture young people, either psychically or physically. Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES series puts kids into televised, to-the-death gladiatorial combat. Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES forces them to undergo cosmetic surgery. THE MAZE RUNNER, by James Dashner, puts teen-age boys into a walled compound surrounded by monsters. James Patterson's MAX series makes children the subjects of experiments in genetic engineering, carried out by sadistic scientists. And the list goes on.

Miller's point is that these are not realistic dystopias (she nicely deconstructs the non-logic behind THE HUNGER GAMES). Rather, they are fables or "psychomyths," mirroring how kids feel in adolescence -- particularly modern adolescence in huge high schools, too big for adults to effectively police them, and rife with extrme forms of bullying and ostracism of the unfavored. Such an environment, Miller argues, is a dystopia for most, and so adolescents feel beleaguered, outcast, manipulated, and in danger -- just as in the futures portrayed in these YA novels. For kid readers, she says, dystopia "isn't a future to be averted; it's a version of what's already happening in the world they inhabit."

Do I believe this? The truth is, I don't know enough about modern high schools to know what they feel like to their young inhabitants. But certainly one function of fantasy is to dramatize and give concrete shape to readers' inner lives. This is what Ursula LeGuin also argues in her new collection of essays, CHEEK BY JOWL: that fantasy is essential to understanding reality. She writes "And the stories that call most on the imagination work on a deep level of the mind, beneath reason (therefore incomprehensible to rationalists), using symbol as poetry does to express what can't be said directly, using imagery to express what can't be perceived directly -- using indirection to indicate the truthward direction."

If the inward truth of today's adolescents is best expressed by forced gladiatorial games, then America has a problem. But these books -- all of them cited above, and more -- are what kids choose to read, not what schools or parents choose for them. For that reason, Laura Miller's thesis deserves serious consideration.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Archie McPhee's

Yesterday I had lunch with Vonda McIntryre and, after intense discussion on the craft of writing (at least three minutes' worth), we went to Archie McPhee's. This, for those of you who have never visited Seattle, is the source of those catalogues of objects you never knew you needed until you saw them there. Among the weirder items:
  • an inflatable fruitcake -- "Just as inedible as the original!"
  • action figures of Wall Street zombies
  • underpants for squirrels
  • boxes of Nihilistic Mints -- they have no flavor at all
  • a wedding-cake decoration of a Reluctant Bride -- he is dragging her kicking and screaming to the altar
  • and my absolute favorite -- Cold War Unicorns. They are rearing up to fight. One is painted red with hammer and sickle and the other painted with the Stars 'n Stripes.
Now a serious question: Daryl Gergory is struggling with a zombie novel he's writing. I bought him a zombie finger puppet to encourage him, a fellow novelist. Does that make this trip tax deductible?