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Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

July 15th, 2014

Preorder <i>Sherwood Nation</i> from Small Beer Press

In a Pacific Northwest beset by hourly more plausible, climate change induced desertification, the city of Portland struggles under strict water and power rationing, while the government and the rich glut themselves on hoarded resources. A plucky group of rebels arises to oppose them in the name of the people, annexing the poor Northeast neighborhood to create a tiny utopian state within city limits. Idealism, triumph, smashed idealism and tragedy ensue, along with a healthy share of the soulstring-resonatingly surreal.

“…You’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”

“Mm, spurs.”

An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.

“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”

But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.

“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”

They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.

“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on.

“They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”

“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”

“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.

Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation is the sort of SF novel I’ve been waiting for someone to write, wishing I could write: a near-future utopian political adventure romp thought experiment. By page 50 I was crying and cheering. These are not common reactions for me when reading fiction; I wish they were. Now I’m waiting for someone to write the next one, while I struggle to do the same. Here’s hoping it be you.

It’s not nostalgic–no laser blasters, no spaceships with batwings and 50s car fins. It’s not escapist. No, okay, it’s escapist–dare I say all fiction is–but it escapes to something rather than from it? It’s not grimdark, where the escapism comes from reveling in hopelessness, forcing you to roll in hopelessness like a bully mashing your face in the mud so when you look up at the real world it briefly–falsely–looks less shitty. It’s realistic, it’s honest. It’s fun. It’s as fun as Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, which is saying a lot, and somehow it manages to be almost as silly even while realistic, sympathetic, human characters are making horrible decisions and getting killed. It’s full of heroic characters I can actually believe in, I can almost believe myself and the people I love capable of being like, in the right circumstances, under great pressure. And it puts those plausible heroes in a setting enough like our own that the hard solutions they find just might apply to the real world. And that is something we need. Something I don’t see SF or literary mainstream fiction or anything in between providing.

Parzybok manages to make it feel effortless, spontaneous and painstakingly well thought out at the same time.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Sherwood Nation gets caught up in its own myth and falls into wish-fulfillment. But it’s not often. As often, we’re shown the kind of horrors a Fox News pessimist might imagine of a dictatorial/socialist utopia. And as in every other post-apocalypse setting I can think of, there’s handwaving. The question of where the water comes from, the long view of a droughted state, fades away for most of the book. But the focus is on the social and political aspects of revolution, people getting caught up in ideas, people resorting to each other in ways they don’t, can’t, in other than extraordinary circumstances. All Parzybok’s really clever ideas for surviving water shortage and living with power shortage on a citywide scale may be considered to take the place of SF wow-factor trappings in a more traditional postapocalyptic novel–I think of Bacigalupi’s spring guns and engineered elephants. They’re cool, they fit the setting, they inspire–and in so doing set the stage for the radical choices that drive the plot–they’re not the story. But unlike in Windup Girl, really unlike in anybody else’s SF I can think of, Parzybok’s wow-factor trappings are actually practicable, now, to actual beneficial result for the individual and the potential future of humanity. And for me, at least, and for us climate geeks who are the likely target audience, that plausibility does absolutely nothing to reduce the wow-factor itself.

I confess I love everything Parzybok has ever written. I know he’s not for everybody. But I’d argue Sherwood Nation is also the most accessible thing he’s written. So…if you’re anything like me…give it a try, won’t you?

   Environmentalism, HM, Reading, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Towards a Borgesian Mythos

June 15th, 2014

I want there to be a Borgesian Mythos like there’s a Lovecraftian Mythos. Instead of, even. Lovecraft is worn out. Like Poe. You don’t even need me to enumerate the reasons, you know them. Whereas Borges is still and will I hope forevermore remain the shit. Mirrors, labyrinths, alephs, books, libraries, tigers, dreams, dreamtigers, roses, compass roses and every other easily encapsulated form of the infinite. Knives, swords, hronir, secret cults, the color yellow. Leibniz, Ramón Llull, Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Martín Fierro, Borges (both the fictional Borges and the real one). The Thousand and One Nights. The Quixote.

I said this to some people and they told me I should edit an anthology. That’s too much work. Also, it threatens to undermine the very purpose I’m trying to achieve. What happens when you edit a themed anthology? One of two things. First: it goes away. The original short fiction anthology as self-defeating prophecy. Once was enough, everybody stops caring about the idea and goes on with their tentacle porn. Second: everybody falls in love with it. Fifteen more of the same anthology come out, one from every micropress, until we’re all sick of it the way I’m sick of shoggoths and being asked to redeem that unsavory sociopath whose head is the World Fantasy Award.

(Can I get a bronze Borges head? Maybe I’ll commission one.)

So here’s this blog post instead.

Why isn’t there a Borgesian Mythos? There is–lurking just around the next corner in the library stacks, unassuming, impeccably researched, subtle, wry, brilliant, obscure.Christopher Brown did it hilariously in Strange Horizons. Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Danielewski all perpetrate patently Borgesian fictions. One step further away one finds Jedediah Berry, Stephen Millhauser, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. One step closer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou.

phobos

And me, yes, I do it. I’ve been trying to write Borgesian fiction for years. Not until lately have I (depending how stringently you’d like to define the term) succeeded. “The Immodest Demiurge Ezra Buckley” appears this week in Phobos Magazine. It’s a story based on a few lines from the postscript to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I’ll let you go look up. Panel notes where I came up with the idea are here. The title is modeled on a couple of his early “histories”, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” in particular. See also “Other Palimpsests” in Bibliotheca Fantastica, maybe my first attempt at Borgesianness, which went through quite a lot of iterations over years before I finally wandered across an enervated, obsessive academic POV ready to lose himself in an aleph-text, a page that is all pages.

bf-full-cover-72

The trouble with proposing a Borgesian Mythos–or of admitting you’ve contributed to one–is now you’ve talked about it. It’s not a secret cult anymore. Point it out and it ceases to be a fictional imposition on consensus reality, a comparative-cultural hronr like all those Borges fanboys in their yellow suits, and instead reverts to a fandom, the usual kind we all have to pick apart until it’s no fun anymore.

So forget what I just said. Forget all of it. This isn’t the blog you’re looking for.

Instead, just read this interview with Borges from 1966. He’s magic! Is there anything he hasn’t read? He’s like a santa claus of literature. Read the whole thing and tell me you don’t want to read about that guy for another couple thousand pages across all forms and genres.

Ready?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that a writer should never be judged by his ideas.

BORGES

No, I don’t think ideas are important.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, what should he be judged by?

BORGES

He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them, as in the case of Kipling’s Kim. Suppose you consider the idea of the empire of the English—well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them—No! No! Not because he thought them nicer—because he felt them nicer.

Lovecraft never said no such thing, let me tell you.

The defense rests.

Jorge Luis BORGES, Galleria Nazionale, Palermo, 1984

   HM, Monumental Metaphor, Reading | No Comments »

Woodpaths

May 20th, 2014

“The woodpaths shall be the aisles of our cathedral.”

–Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Is it time yet?

April 22nd, 2014

Is it time?
Okay, yes, this is just me measuring soil temperature to see if it’s time to hunt morels (not yet!) but I think it gets the point across.

Wikipedia says Earth Day is celebrated in 192 countries. Where? By who?

This week’s Cosmos episode was about how we probably would have all died of lead poisoning if somebody hadn’t convinced the corporations…or wait, not convinced…forced the corporations to accept that the absurd lead levels in the atmosphere were their fault and were likely to kill everybody if things went on as they were. Fascinating. It took 20 years between when Clair Patterson pointed this out and when enough people accepted it to actually do something. That happened in 1984, when I was five. This–2014–was the first I’d heard of it.

Why is this not a common cautionary tale, like the bomb?

Seems to me the science about global warming has been in since at least 1991. If we consider Wallace Smith Broecker to be global warming’s Clair Patterson, the science has been in since 1975. When I was negative five. Which would make the year we were supposed to have done something about it 1995.

How long is it going to fucking take?

   Angry, Environmentalism, Fungi | No Comments »

Willa Cather in Acoma

April 5th, 2014

Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man an his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I have a never-to-be-published centaur story that expresses this sentiment pretty much exactly, even from the same setting, in grosser, less polished, but no less problematic terms. So many layers of interpretation to get through before we come across anything remotely like objective truth, yet the core meaning remains as plain as a scalpeled-open vein. I’ve felt this feeling and its accompanying shame.

This is Willa Cather, frontier-raised, classically educated white woman of the 1920s, writing from the limited experience of travel about a time and place eighty years and two thousand miles removed, the mesa-top, precolombian settlement of Acoma pueblo, New Mexico, as visited by a French missionary bishop in 1848.

Her comparisons to turtles and crustaceans signify nothing so much as alienness. No female character has yet had a line of dialogue. The bishop’s Indian guide speaks broken English, she tells us, deliberately, because he prefers its simplicity and sound. The bishop himself thinks in French and laments this desert’s dearth of olive oil and good wine.

This is just the kind of experience I was looking for when I opened this book, honestly. It confirms and stratifies what I already know, that there’s no expressing anything without wading across disconnect and alienation. The struggle to communicate is the study of otherness and loss.

   Monumental Metaphor, Precolombians, Reading | 2 Comments »

Boskone

February 12th, 2014

I’m at Boskone this weekend, mostly for the chance to see friends and drink delicious beers in the city that once was mine. But I do also get to read a bit of fiction, as part of this thing:

The New England SF/F/H Workshop Alumni Reading (Reading), Fri 9-9:50pm, A rapid-fire reading featuring the alumni from New England’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing workshops: Viable Paradise, Odyssey, and the Stonecoast MFA program. Featured Readers: Scott H. Andrews, Julie C. Day, Michael J. DeLuca, Sean Robinson, Margaret Ronald, Hannah Strom-Martin, and Fran Wilde.

Hope to see you there.

Edit: Actually, banning the miraculous, I will not make it to this reading due to weather. But you all have fun.

   News | No Comments »

A Penance in Verapaz

January 30th, 2014

IMG_0396
Volcán Agua from the Hill of the Cross overlooking Antigua, Guatemala

Verapaz means “true peace”. The neighboring Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are so named because of the warlike Achí Maya, who like the Apache in the US stubbornly refused to be conquered until long after the rest of the country. When they finally did submit, it was because of the spread of religion, not the sword.

This is a story of breakdown and redemption, in which I strive again and again to interrogate and dismantle my assumptions only to find more awaiting beneath, until finally, mental and physical resources spent, I give up hope, only to be lifted up and saved by human kindness.

Before the dawn of January 25th in the mountainous jungle town of Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, I cursed out a small crowd of self-important American adventure tourists packed into a rickety minibus bound for Antigua. That evening, I danced goofily (the only way I know how) with a small crowd of teenage Achí Mayan girls to a marimba band at a saint’s day fair in the desert valley town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, then fell asleep on a cardboard pallet on their kitchen floor long past midnight on the 26th. These were serious breaches of character for me. I get angry, but I never vent it at other people no matter what kind of assholes they are; I bottle it up, then expel it into exertion or prose. I dance in public only under duress or the influence of strong drink, and I open up to people under more or less the same circumstances.

Understanding the cause of these transgressions perhaps requires a little backstory.

I’ve read much on the subject of Guatemala; I’ve written stories, blog posts; I’m working on a novel. I don’t consider myself any kind of authority. I’m a hobbyist, a tourist. But I try. I love Guatemala, and I want to do it justice, to treat its people and culture with empathy and respect. This is where the assumptions come in: privilege, whiteness, entitlement. I’m trying to see through these things to the truth, trying to understand what it is to be born to the opposite of those things in a place I love because of them.

At the end of this, my fourth and latest visit, I’d planned three days to myself. This concept was anathema to the white kids on the minibus, who with shrill laughter equated the notion of an afternoon alone even in Antigua, a city full of English-speakers, to waking nightmare. For me, though, those three days alone were a promise of release, a getting back to myself. Disinclined though I’d normally be to resort to Christian metaphor—particularly since the motivations in question include no small pagan influence—I thought of it as a penance. Penance for the cushy, full-bellied vacationing I’d done with my family up to this point; penance for the cushy, full-bellied living I’d been doing at home.

What I sap I am, I know. And this is long. So I’ll forgive you for not clicking….

Read the rest of this entry »

   Angry, Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel | 2 Comments »

Virginia Woolf

January 30th, 2014

“Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando

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The Stone Horse of Flores

January 2nd, 2014

The new issue of Betwixt, out yesterday online and in print, features a new story of mine, “The Stone Horse of Flores”, what I’m calling a post-virtual retelling of a Guatemalan folktale.

Being as how my rendition takes significant liberties and the original is awesome and not likely to be something you’re familiar with, I thought I’d share the story here the way I first heard it. If you have any inclination to read my version, however, might I suggest doing so first so as not to spoil it?

Betwixt_Issue_2

Flores is a little city on an island in Lago Peten Itza, in the southern (Guatemalan) portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was settled in the early 16th century by the Itza Maya, a sect of water priests, after abandoning their former home, Chichen Itza, to the conquering Spanish. This turned out to be quite a prescient strategic move for the Itzaes: the natural protection provided by the lake and the trackless jungles of the surrounding Peten helped keep Flores under independent rule for the next 175 years, far longer than any other Mayan settlement.

Cortés himself actually visited Flores in 1541, but his supply train had been so decimated by disease on the long trek through the jungle that he no longer had the resources to muster an attack. Instead he only rested a few days and moved on. He did, however, leave behind one injured horse, asking the Itzaes to care for it until he returned.

They did the best they could, but having never cared for a horse before, they didn’t know what to feed it or how to treat it, and it died. Luckily, Cortés never came back. Under increasing protest against his tyrannical policies from the colonies he himself had founded, he fled the New World for Spain within the year, never to return.

In 1618, seventy-five years later, two Franciscan friars visited Flores on an evangelical mission. They found its people dedicated to their own religion and made no converts, but discovered a stone statue of a horse in the city square, erected in memory of Cortés’s gift. They claimed the Itzaes had taken to worshipping the statue golden calf style. which maybe wouldn’t be so hard to believe but for the tellers, without whom this story would in all likelihood never have been carried down.

When the Spanish did finally capture Flores in 1697, they razed it to the ground, along with all its oral and written history. The usual story.

Thus far in my travels I’ve spent all of half an hour on a bus idling in a grocery store parking lot on the shore of Lago Peten Itza at four in the morning, gazing at the orange lights of the island flickering reflected in the lake.

In a few weeks I get to go back and, with any luck, spend some quality time there.

   Guatemala, News, Yucatan | No Comments »

Bamboo Phone Case

November 14th, 2013

These people offered me a free phone case if I reviewed it. At first I figured they were spammers. Then my lovely Snugg iPhone 5 Real Bamboo Wood Case came in the mail. Figured I’d better hold up my end.

bamboo phone case

The case fits snugly, with no forcing required and no wiggle room, unlike either of the last two cases I’ve used (likely because they were cheap–you get what you pay for, it seems, unless you write a review afterwards). There’s a thin layer of something velvety on the inside to facilitate sliding. The two halves fit together leaving a thin, visible seam I soon forget to be annoyed by. In the hand It feels substantial, real, and quickly becomes familiar: a cross between a cutting board and a speaker case.

Unlike my last case, this one leaves the buttons uncovered; I am pleasantly surprised to rediscover how responsive they are when not encased in glossed rubber. Holes drilled in the wood to accommodate buttons and ports are correctly placed and centered; perhaps my only real complaint about the whole thing is that, as with many, many other cases, the hole for the headphone jack isn’t wide enough to admit any of the myriad of mini stereo connectors I possess other than the one for my headphones. Unlike all those other cases, it seems not impossible that I might widen the hole in this one with an appropriately sized drill bit.

The best thing about it is that it’s not plastic. A living thing was destroyed to make this, but a living thing that will grow back, quite quickly as I understand bamboo, and it’ll sequester a little carbon in the process. Sustainable materials! At least if it’s done right. And when Apple inevitably makes the form factor obsolete in their fruitless quest for perpetual newness and I must leave this case by the wayside, it will obligingly decompose into organic matter, as opposed to merely breaking up into smaller and smaller nurdles over centuries as it passes through the digestive tracts of birds and fish that might otherwise have felt inclined to take part in the food chain.

Update: My phone gave me a splinter. I like it even more now.

Update 2: I dropped it, from a height of maybe 4 feet, and it split in three places, in such a way as to make gluing pointless, though I tried anyway. Cutting bamboo that thin has its drawbacks, apparently.

I really liked this case. Guess I get what I pay for. I used it for kindling, so at least it’s not clogging any landfills.

   Design, Environmentalism | No Comments »

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