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Tempest’s Challenge

April 14th, 2016

Last March, I decided to accept Tempest’s challenge: read no books by straight white dudes for a year.

Do I need to explain this decision? Do I need to say why I thought it was necessary? I feel like I shouldn’t. Suffice it that when I started, I felt that the reading I’d done in my life had been woefully top-heavy with white men. And I still do. White male authors were pushed on me at every level of my education, and even in my pleasure reading I defaulted to them. Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan was the first book by a woman I can recall reading of my own volition. The first by a person of color? Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, as best I can recall. Both books completely changed my way of thinking, yet they were very much the rare exception. I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to realize how long I’d been working under this bias. And I have Tempest to thank.

Here it is April. I did it. It really was not hard. At all. In fact, it was so effortless and so satisfyingly mind-expanding I have felt quite a bit of inertia to continue not reading books by straight white dudes. So please do not take the fact I’m compiling this list as any indication I’m quitting right this second. I do have a small pile of books by straight white dudes waiting for me, accumulated over the year, and I’ll get to them. But maybe, first, I’ll finish this thousand page epic romance by a centuries-dead Japanese woman. And who knows what after that.

I decided to include among the restricted category Latin-American men of European descent, who I think according to the letter of the challenge would have been allowed. I’d read so much fitting that description what with my magic realist obsession that I didn’t think reading more would fit the spirit of the challenge. This is, I realize, an arbitrary line to draw. But they’re all arbitrary lines; the problem is that when we don’t interrogate our lines, they start to dig ruts it’s harder and harder to get out of, until they’re imposing drastic limitations on our understanding and thought. I wanted to pick up and move away from my ruts for awhile.

  1. The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
  2. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
    OpenVeinsCover
    I got into this one before I’d made the no Latin American dudes rule; I’m listing it here because see above about arbitrary lines, and because I’m really glad I read it. It’s a round indictment of the policies of economic imperialism that have persistently maintained the parasitic hierarchy of the first world over the third for the past five hundred years, maybe the first economics-focused text I’ve ever read, and it seems to me eminently appropriate to the spirit of the challenge.
  3. Spin by Nina Allan
  4. The Diary of Frida Kahlo by Frida Kahlo
  5. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
    9780143107613
    Stylistically brilliant and intensely immersive for such a thin volume. Now that I’ve read it, I feel rather embarrassed I had not before. Seems obvious now that she has influenced a lot of my favorite people.
  6. Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House
    Edited by a white guy, I am only learning now as I dig up the Powells link. Oh well.
  7. Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna
  8. The Liminal War by Ayize Jama-Everett
  9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  10. Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace
  11. Jagganath by Karin Tidbeck
  12. The Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta
  13. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
  14. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    The only Toni Morrison I’ve ever read.
  15. The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean
    A kind of fantasy novel I didn’t know existed, a sort of sociologial experiment in pocket-universe form. I was fascinated.
  16. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  17. Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
    I’d been looking forward to these for a long time. They were as brilliant as everyone had promised, but completely different than I’d expected. Harrowing, intense, thought-provoking, expanding my understanding of what fiction can do.
  18. Wakulla Springs by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan
  19. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
    I was fooled by this one. Ondaatje, I learned after the fact, is a Sri Lankan of Portuguese descent.
  20. The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948 – 2013 by Derek Walcott
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  21. A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel
    The first romance I’ve ever read–at least by the modern understanding of that term. I mean, I’ve read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice and The Romance of the Rose and etc, do those count?
  22. You Have Never Been Here by Mary Rickert
  23. Farthing by Jo Walton
  24. Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
  25. Dog Friday by Hilary McKay
    Delightful, contemporary, non-genre middle grade: I don’t think I’d ever read any of that before.
  26. Malinche by Laura Esquivel
  27. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
  28. Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
  29. Prodigies by Angelica Gorodischer
  30. Jaguar of Sweet Laughter by Diane Ackerman
  31. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  32. The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
    9781618731142_big
    The best thing I read this year. Brilliant mythmaking heartwrenchingly focused on love and war. I almost want to call it a mosaic novel. A Stranger in Olondria was great, but this is better.
  33. Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno Garcia
  34. Lifelode by Jo Walton
    Another brilliant thought experiment through worldbuilding, of a kind with and possibly intended in conversation with Pamela Dean’s The Dubious Hills above. Both are novels about how people fit together, how people help each other be themselves. I want to call them utopian novels—I could fit them in with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but using fantasy tropes instead of SF—but I think I’d be misusing “utopian” the way most people think on it. More about that in another post, maybe.
  35. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  36. Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala by Diane M. Nelson
  37. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
    7042
    Eleven hundred pages of quite dense ninth century Japanese court intrigue, considered the world’s first novel. I’ve been reading this off and on since I started the challenge, and I’m not yet halfway through, but I’ll get there. It is quite a thing.

If I may sum up, then: this was amazing. It has changed the way I think about writing and fiction and people and the world. I shall continue in this vein, and I encourage you to try it yourself. If you do, let me know how it goes.

   Reading | No Comments »

This Changes Everything

February 29th, 2016

My review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, by Naomi Klein.

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Around two-thirds of it I found to be an exhaustive litany of depressing information with which I was already familiar. Capitalism is a bankrupt mythology no more rational than an organized religion and with even more inertia and power. Capitalism is the force that puts fingers in the ears of politicians regarding the obvious and immanent threat of extracting and burning any more fossil fuels than we’ve already extracted and burned. Corporate greenwashing is a hell of a pervasive thing. Oil companies are fucking evil. International climate initiatives have been toothless windbaggery for more than thirty years. International environmentalist organizations, by virtue of their size and need for funding, end up in the pockets of those same corporations, helping with the greenwashing, in some cases even helping with the fossil fuel extraction and burning. Geoengineering is a reckless, shortsighted, stupid idea. The technology to save us (solar) already exists, but the fingers-in-ears, hands-over-eyes capitalist mindset that controls all the money will continue to cock-block its implementation right up until it doesn’t matter anymore.

The depth and focus with which she runs through this litany is impressive and not without value in itself. Reading it I found myself looking back on my past environmentalist actions (solar panels, electric car, permaculture, LCRW 33) and deeming them pathetically inadequate. I found myself looking back at those environmentalist projects I’d left hanging (convincing my family to divest from fossil fuels, starting a nano-nonprofit) and feeling newly motivated to take them up again.

I was a little disappointed to find the book had been written in 2014 and not this instant, now. It indicts the Kyoto protocols, but doesn’t cover the Paris climate agreement. There’s a chapter called No Messiahs: The Green Billionaires Won’t Save Us, but it devotes itself to the ways in which Richard Branson has failed to live up to the promise he made in 2006 to be our Climate Savior™ rather than speculating about whether Elon Musk will fail equally spectacularly at same (luckily, I have the internet for that).

The real value of the book, though, I found in that remaining third, where Klein starts talking about WHAT IS TO BE DONE. The glib answer is revolution. The harder, unavoidable answer is widespread, individual, overwhelming personal commitment, fighting the hard legislative and activist fight, town by town, street by street, taking hard losses every step of the way but gritting through it because it’s that fucking important. The people on whose shoulders the solution squarely rests, unfair though it undeniably is, are the people who are being most hurt. Indigenous peoples whose livelihood is tied to the land. People whose drinking water has been fracked into flammability or poisoned by austerity corner-cutting. People who have to wear masks to go outside. Citizens of low-lying island nations about to disappear. Ranchers and farmers along the paths of pipelines. People who look out their windows every day and see and acknowledge the incredible, beautiful natural resources that will be destroyed if capitalism is allowed to keep on as it has. I count myself among that latter group. And I daresay if you’ve read this far, you do too.

And that’s the thing about Klein’s book, as it turns out: it’s not trying to convince anybody of anything they didn’t already believe. I doubt anybody not on the environmentalist bandwagon could even manage to get through it. What it’s trying to do is galvanize those of us who do believe, to show us the facts, in exhaustive detail, and point to the painfully obvious conclusion some of us (yes, even me) are still shying away from: that it’s time to go all-in. Foot-dragging is not getting it done. Switching to reusable grocery bags is not getting it done. Giving money once a year to the NRDF is not getting it done. Waiting and hoping for the market to correct itself is sure as hell not getting it done.

We have maybe 35 years to get off fossil fuels completely or it isn’t going to matter anymore.

In the past, when something has gotten me this worked up about it, I have exhorted people to DO SOMETHING. I realize that’s no good anymore. It’s time to DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN.

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Progressive Fiction

April 3rd, 2015

(what is it good for? pissing people off
making pissed off people feel better)

I have an idea for a journal of environmental justice fiction. Will I follow through with it? Time will tell, wiser heads will tell against it. Tentative title, Reckoning: a word that means variously figuring out where one is, charting a course ahead, and settling accounts for decisions made in getting here. Also a Grateful Dead reference.

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinning at my window
All I said was “come on in”

Environmental justice? It’s where social justice and climate/environmental activism intersect. Indigenous peoples comprise only 6% of the world’s population and contribute basically not at all to climate change but suffer its effects in absurd disproportion; they also do an absurd disproportion of the work to try to stop it. Among industrialized peoples, meanwhile, access to natural resources tends to be a privilege of the rich, polarizing the demographics of climate activism over the long term–another devastating effect of institutional oppression. I grew up hiking, camping, traveling to national parks; I love nature and want to protect it. I grew up with limited access to people of other cultures and backgrounds; I had trouble understanding everything that meant, and I have to work at it constantly.

Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun
Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun

More and more, environmental justice seems to me the best way to come at climate activism, because it’s about people. People are part of nature, it’s meaningless without them, people will make or break it.

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   Environmentalism, Monumental Metaphor, Reading, Science Fiction | 10 Comments »

Hav of the Myrmidons

February 9th, 2015

I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier.

When I first read Last Letters from Hav ten years ago, its sequel, Hav of the Myrmidons, had already come out, but I had no idea because I was reading the original edition with the badass expressionist cover from 1985.

hav006

I loved it for the setting, for the incredibly complex worldbuilding, for the conceit of a fantastic city disguised as a real one. Hav itself was the product of thousands of years of real history; Last Letters from Hav was the product of decades Morris spent traveling and writing about real places, real people. And my god, the prose.

At the time I was desperate to find examples of a literary tradition that didn’t conform to “the rules”; I knew that was the kind of fiction I wanted to write, but hadn’t a clue yet what I’d gotten myself into. Last Letters from Hav was everything I’d been looking for: a novel drenched in character and setting, profound in a way I could appreciate but failed to fully grasp, all hanging on the barest implication of plot, an unspoken question to which the text forms only a part of an answer, the balance of which the reader only slowly becomes able to discern by the shape of the holes.

In the intervening years, I would discover Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Kelly Link, Angélica Gorodischer, Miguel Ángel Asturias and countless others unto reading bliss. Hav was a stepping stone on my way to all that. But because it was among the first stones, on first read, there were entire populations of subtexts that went right over my head. For example, it was only on second read–blasphemy of blasphemies–that I realized Last Letters from Hav may well be the purest exemplar of that chimera I raved about to such excess back around 2009, the Borgesian novel. Hav is a city built atop a labyrinth; Last Letters from Hav is the labyrinth the traversal of which provides our only means of comprehending that city. The only means, that is, until we find Hav of the Myrmidons.

Ten years later, I finally went out and got the omnibus edition titled Hav, the one with the cover featuring the almost photographic image of the burning House of the Chinese Master. I’d waited this long, and approached it now only with trepidation, because of the dread which accompanies my approach to all sequels: will it stand up to the original, or will its lesser joys only tarnish the memory of its predecessor? Was it written because the author really had something further to say, or because she’d caved under market pressures? I think of Harper Lee.

But even if the sequel’s terrible, I rationalized, it’ll give me an excuse to reread the original, and to give away my old copy and start someone else on this journey.

hav003

The sequel is by no means terrible. It is, heartbreakingly, a different book entirely, which of course is what all sequels must be. And yet, as it cruelly crosses out question after exquisite question left me by Last Letters, as it perfunctorily, exhaustively, mercilessly answers, and in answering destroys, each beautiful, hitherto unfathomable mystery of the old Hav, raising sterilized, Disnified corporate monuments from their ruins, it also raises new questions–darker questions, not so beautiful maybe but just as complex, more honest, more true to the world of which both the old Hav and its distorted modern reflection are themselves reflections, and therefore all the more pressing.

In fact, as I write this I’m realizing that Hav of the Myrmidons is an incredibly apt metaphor for that very process of engaging with sequels I described above, as it is for the process of aging, of losing the idealism of youth, gaining new perspective, nostalgia for that youth but also the recognition that it served its purpose and is irretrievably gone. Hav of the Myrmidons depicts a more cynical, more coldly practical, more efficient city, and the labyrinth that city describes leads to questions we would be irresponsible not to face.

If you’re like me, if you loved Last Letters from Hav and have hesitated, for fear of shattering the mirage it created, to seek out its sequel, let me encourage you to do so. It’s worth reading. In fact, I might even call it essential.

Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.

–Novalis

   Monumental Metaphor, Reading, Travel | No Comments »

De Quincey

December 28th, 2014

Homer is, I think, rightly reputed to have known the virtues of opium.

–Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Finally the moment has arrived for me to appreciate De Quincey. I’ve waited years, I’ve namedropped him in stories, I’ve wondered what it was Borges saw in him. But I stayed away until now, when a narrative about the pathologies of addiction carries lessons I’m actually ready to taken in. Serendipity. Fate. The grinding of the great wheels.

De Quincey is a windbag. The book is blissfully short and would be shorter if not for caveats, preambles and convoluted ex-chronological asides. And I’m reading the 1821 original, not the 1856 revision where from even further illusionarily objective remove he added yet more windbaggery. Still, I now completely understand Borges’s fascination. Because De Quincey’s mind–thanks in no small part, no doubt, to the opiates–is a labyrinth.

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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 | 1 Comment »

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.

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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.

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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

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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 »

I Bail on GoodReads

April 2nd, 2013

GoodReads is a social reading site I had come to be quite a fan of and used extensively to track what I read and wanted to read. The other day they were bought out by Amazon, a bookstore-devouring, everything-selling, future-eating juggernaut I do my level best to avoid interacting with whenever possible. I hemmed and hawed a bit, asked some people I trusted if I might be overreacting, but came to the conclusion, based on who I am and where my money comes from, that I should sever ties.

To that end, as soon as this post here gets syndicated over there (yes, I told GoodReads it could follow my blog, an indication of just how much fun I was having tracking my books in public where some mindless corporate algorithm could track everything I read and rub its hands together maniacally thinking about how much money it would make advertising to me based on that information), I’m deleting my account. I’m removing GoodReads from the sidebar of this blog. I have already removed it from Weightless Books.

And now we at Weightless and some others are thinking about how we might go aboutcreating something GoodReads-like that isn’t owned by our corporate overlords. If you’re interested, please join us.

   Angry, News, Reading | No Comments »

The Coder

October 23rd, 2012

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.

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