Fantasy & Science Fiction July 06 – Review Part Two

I left off with Garcia y Robertson’s “Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star”. Let me resume with Ysabeau S. Wilce’s “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire”. It’s pretty long: the table of contents calls it a novella. The novella is rather a fascinating beast for us budding spec fic writers, or ought to be according to the popular opinion of our betters, because so few people bother to write them these days that if you can manage to churn one out you’re practically a shoe-in for a nomination to that category at the Hugos. Thus far I’m afraid I have not paid much attention to this particular piece of advice from my betters. I know next to nothing about what a novella is supposed to look like. The only things I’ve read at that length are classics: things so damn good I practically couldn’t help reading them. I am familiar with novellas by Conan Doyle, Poe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Henry James. This limited experience has, until now, deterred me from any interest in attempting to write a novella, simply because how in the hell am I supposed to live up to that? But if “Desire” is any indication, I’ve been giving the novella a bit too much credit. All you have to do is take a short story and pad it nice and fat with unnecessary establishing scenes and plot-stalling side-encounters and voluminous stylistic verbosity.

I guess I’m being cruel; it isn’t as if this story is without merit. An egomaniacal sorcerer embarks on a quest to save his resourceful uberbrat of a ward from the machinations of demonic kidnappers. Mostly the verbosity serves as a bolster to the comic over-the-topness. It only really bothers me when Ms. Unpronounceable-First-Name Wilce attempts to use it to suggest some overarching profundity. The title is a representative example: I would have been happier if the thing had called itself “Tiny Doom Visits the Underworld”. Had it done so, and had it taken novel form instead of novella-as-part-of-series form, I might have been more indulgent of its digressions.

Moving on.

Robert Onopa’s “Republic” reminds me too much of every other broken-prime-directive cautionary first contact tale I have ever read. The point at which I was most interested was when its linguist narrator gave me the brief impression he was making subtle reference to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. I’m afraid once that impression wore off, “Republic” was the worse for the comparison.

“Memory of a Thing that Never Was” is cool. A short and sweet and subtle spy thriller, nostalgic for the cold war, but with fatalistic aliens instead of Russians. A mood piece, really. It doesn’t try too hard, and thus it succeeds admirably. Yay, Jerry Seeger, whoever you are.

Heather Lindsley’s “Just Do It” is about a horrifyingly likely future in which the world is ruled by conniving corporate sellout supergeniuses, where all the conservatives are infallibly clever and all the morally tolerable liberals are just not quite devious and twisted enough to hold their own. God, it depresses me just thinking about it. Honestly, I’d much rather read something that *didn’t* hit so close to home…Phillip Dick and Stanislaw Lem’s political distopian futures of the ’70s seem quaint and cuddly by comparison. Well done, Ms. Clarion Class of ’05 Lindsley. You’ve managed to deter me utterly from any desire to criticize your writing ability, merely so I can drop the whole subject and find something else to think about. If I might, I’d like to offer you a challenge? Write this story again, but figure out a way for the liberals to win. Maybe you’ll give the real liberals some ideas.

That’s it for the fiction. I’ll skip the columns, if that’s all right with all of you. Again, many thanks to Gordon Van G for the blog/free copy tradeoff. I’d be glad to do it again… just as soon as I make it through the rest of my Never-Ending Odyssey crits.

Fantasy & Science Fiction July 06 – Review

(Hyper)critical thoughts as I work my way through the July 06 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

As usual I am far more pissed off by Terry Bisson’s story than I am even remotely entertained. Flippant violence, a couple of punnish one-off raunchy jokes, and it’s over. Apparently (at least according to the little byline blurb), Bisson has made a series out of the content-free exploits of this Billy character. That is pretty depressing. Just think–that space might easily have been occupied by a hundred-times-better story written by someone with an unrecognizable name.

The Steven Popkes story, “Holding Pattern”, starts off with a pretty cool premise–the haunted, remorseless retirement of a plastic surgerized clone of a fictional South American dictator. To this premise, it adds quite a promising array of ideas about the natures of identity and memory and self-determination, which it proceeds to juggle bewilderingly in the air for a cycle or two, not unlike the bulbous unmanned surveillance drones that follow its protagonist about. Then it drops them all at once and walks away. Retaining this structure, I think it might have worked better as a short short. Unfortunately the story lasted just long enough that I was getting vested in the character, wanting to know what it was really about, when it ended. And I looked at the title at the top of the last page and thought, “How appropriate”.

It took me two and a half pages to come to terms with the odd profusion of esoteric vocabulary apparently intended to create a distinguishing style for a world called “Old Earth” in Matthew Hughes’ “The Meaning of Luff”. Having read neither any Jack Vance nor any of the previous works in Hughes’ series, I don’t feel I’m in the best position to judge his extensive vocabulary’s function as a unifying thread. I’m not sure that particular two and a half pages of self-indulgent overarticulation was the best way to start this story, but once the plot actually kicked in the language thing started to grow on me.
This was quite a satisfying story, actually. A fat, greedy bastard, given the opportunity to profit by divining the meager meanings of rich people’s lives, finds, instead of the despair that any person of even the remotest merit would find in same, a sublime justification for his own sorry existence. Surprising, profound, adeptly executed.

The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said for those byline bio blurbs. I get the sense they are intended to give me the sense that I am witnessing a slice of a venerable institution, a subculture all unto itself, and it would be a damn shame if I didn’t sign up for a subscription and join in on the fun. For my buck (or more accurately my withholding thereof), they are trying too hard. Case in point their sorry misuse of everybody’s (except mine) favorite SAT vocab word, ‘penultimate’, in their intro to this story. Rather than trying to impress me with how facilely you grok your author’s elevated intent, why not impress me with your discretion? Stick to the facts, and put them at the end of the story, not the beginning.

This might be an opportune moment to admit that not only do I not have an F&SF subscription, I’m only reading this issue because Gordon Van G made me a deal: one copy of the magazine for one blog entry. Matter of fact he even gave permission for said blog entry to include nothing more than, “I’m only writing this blog entry about F&SF because I said I would to get a free copy of this sucky magazine.” But I’m not that much of a bastard. Anyhow, it’s more my self-imposed shoeless poverty that prevents me from subscribing than any kind of literary-elitist grudge. What would all us aspiring short fantasy writers do without F&SF to aspire to?

Which brings me to “Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star”. The headliner. I’ll stick to the formula and lead with the bellyaching. Yet another oh-so-trendy, oh-so-clever classic fantasy retelling with a twist. Grumble, grumble. My inclination would be to hate this story on that basis alone, were the twist not so very clever and so very well-executed. Unfortunately, I have a soft spot in my heart for Oz, and Garcia y Robertson treats the source material with such reverence, even while completely turning it on its head, that I can’t help but be swept away. He has recast Oz as an SF world, if the title doesn’t give that away. There are a lot of parallels to the original two or three Oz books, parallels not just in the obvious Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion vein, but in the fundamental themes, the mechanics of the world. And yet he manages not to take the metaphor so far as to wander past the brink of taste into aping. This world is a modern, distopian Oz that reflects our own world as much (and as little) as Baum’s world did dustbowl-era Kansas. And it’s a fun story to boot–not just some halfassed adventure plot thrown together just for something to hang this world on, but something with real characters and real emotions and real stakes. About halfway through this, I flipped on to see how much I had left, and found myself lamenting there wasn’t more. I thought this could have developed into a good little novella, at the least. But seeing how well-wrapped up it all was, and how delicate a line he was really walking between homage and overkill, I’m glad he didn’t run on and give us a Witch of the West and a Princess Mombi and a Gnome King. My only real complaints at the end were a wish that Garcia had lingered a little longer on the climactic rescue, and that he’d taken a bit more care with his description.

But I digress, as I usually do. And that’s as far as I’ve read in this issue so far anyhow. So I think I’ll break here and come back in a few days with more.

Boskone, MFA, Acoma, Unholy Angels, etc.

So… what have I been doing, then?

Went to Boskone. That was good. Got some crazy Allen Steele stories. Heard an evocative little SF tale Tobias is getting published in Nature. Had some in-depth discussions with Jeff on the state of the publishing industry. Found out the Green Line inbound is free from Prudential. Sweet!

Paid a long, rambling visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in which I almost completely ignored the hip new exhibits of the moment (some Picasso sketches, I think, and some Degas), in favor of rambling through the usual humdrum ancient artifacts. And damn, did I have a good time. I mean, these are exhibits I must have seen a dozen times in the course of my life, and yet… Well, seeing them again under a writer’s gaze is just a completely different experience. I could probably fill several entries talking about it. Maybe I will. Here I’ll limit myself to one example:

There is a suite of rooms on the second floor devoted to 18th century Chinese furniture. Doesn’t sound too interesting does it? Furniture? No, not really. The kind of thing that on an 8th grade field trip might make me want to gouge my eyes out. Yet somehow I was fascinated. At one point there’s a mockup of a little courtyard in the Chinese countryside at dusk, complete with crickets chirping and distant music. I sat on an authentic three century-old decorated stone stool and had a genuine moment of zen mind-blanking buddhist bliss.

I’ve also been working on a big ole organizational/graphical update, an mjd.com 2.0 so to speak, using new-learned MovableType arcana discovered in the course of working on FeatherfootFarm.net and Chessmaine.net. It’s going to be much easier to navigate, administrate and update. And prettier too. You’ll like it, I promise.

Reading up on the history of the pueblo of Acoma, an ancient cliff-top city in New Mexico–in particular on a pair of consecutive massacres visited by the Pueblo Indians on the Spanish and by the Spanish on the Pueblo Indians. One of those events in history where it’s impossible at this point to figure out what actually happened, but boy, isn’t it fun to speculate? One tertiary source claims the Spaniards had attendant on them in their righteous siege an honest-to-goodness, blazing-eyed, sword-carrying, avenging angel. Following their victory, their punishment of the surviving Indians involved cutting off the right foot of every adult male, enslaving every person over the age of twelve, sending everybody else off to the convent, and forcing the slaves to build a church. Which church remains one of the oldest colonial structures still standing in North America.

Hoo. You just can’t get fiction like that! Damned if I’m not going to try, though.

I don’t see how I can not use this story in a piece of fiction. And don’t doubt I will totally be influenced by that angel. A lovely opportunity to experiment with the formation of myth out of reality, the nature of oral history, the play between belief and self-delusion in the conversion of fiction to fact.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

What is Magic Realism?

What is magic realism?

I guess It would have made more sense to open the series with this question, make sure we were all on the same page before I started to tear them out and paste them together haphazard-like. Matter of fact, I meant to ask myself this question months ago, well before Odyssey, when it was still my sworn, deluded intention to write nothing but magic realist fiction while I was there. As it turns out, it’s lucky I didn’t. My definition has been drastically altered since then. Indeed, it may yet continue to change even as I’m sitting here trying to pin it, like the poorly-embalmed undead butterfly, to the page. Among many, many other things, Odyssey taught me wariness of terms. Does it show?

Still, I’m certainly never going to figure out how to write it unless I can ramble on about what it means long enough to work certain things out. I want a definition I can work from, which means a definition that allows me to write what I love. Beware. Here there be self-indulgence.

As I believe I’ve now made abundantly clear, what immediately gripped me upon first picking up Borges (upon first encountering a magic realist author termed as such), was the incredible gripping depth of his ideas, the complexity of his metaphors, the profound level on which his fictions engage the human condition. Yes, the preceding all sounds very pompous, and maybe makes me sound cleverer than I am. I believe what it all boils down to is the emotion they produced, which is awe.

Had I ever experienced that feeling before? Of course I had–it’s very much the same emotion that drew me to genre fiction in the first place. To Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper, when I was still just a kid. Before I’d become all jaded, before I’d grown accustomed to their tricks, to the standards they had set, I loved that awe so much that when I’d exhausted the good stuff I moved on to the Forgotten Realms and wondered why it all left such a foul taste in my mouth.

College caused me to break with that tradition (or rather, perhaps, intellectual aspirations originated by Michael Milan in my junior year high school english class, but only brought to fruition in the free, individualist environment of university-style education). As I couldn’t get the original pleasure out of the genre anyhow (or so I thought) I figured I must move on to the literary, refine my tastes, and attempt to get some similar pleasure out of the the inspiring quality of the writing itself as opposed to that of its content.

I loved Borges, and went on to hunt down everything else I could get my hands on that some unknown critic somewhere had convienently lumped together for me under the confusing heading ‘magic realism’, because it gave me a way back to the original raw emotional affinity I felt for fantasy without having to sacrifice the rarer pleasures of intellectual aspiration.

Magic realism, then, is for me rather like the cocaine to fantasy’s weed and literature’s alcohol.

Which is NOT my working definition.

Hell, I might just as easily say “magic realism” is merely “literary fantasy”. I have no desire to go into my immense dislike for THAT self-contradictory term and the writings which wedge themselves beneath its leaky umbrella. Suffice it to say that “literary” is a term reasonably applied by critics, not writers, a term, in other words, entirely subject to opinion. I’d much rather refrain from insulting the writing of any still-living author by referring to it as “literature”, and reserve that term for the works of the dead. Even the term “fantasy” carries problematic weight when applied to a contemporary work. For me, it connotes a great deal of derivation from fantasy of generations past. And frankly, how many gryphons/dragons/wizards/airships/magic swords does one find in Borges, Garcia Marquez, Bioy Casares, Calvino (just sticking to my canonical magic realists so as not to rock the boat)? None I have encountered. Now, there are a lot of writers I’d like to shift into the magic realist category who do in fact derive from other speculative fictions–Castaneda is my prime example–but they derive from what I’d call primary fictions. Myth. Tradition. Belief.

So, I’d say magic realism requires a more direct, distinct, and independent form of derivation from fictions that precede it than do either fantasy or literature. Indeed, it’s just possible that’s all it requires. Let’s look at something really borderline, then, shall we? To see if fits this theory. Consider Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, or indeed any of his several other works that deal in transmigration of the soul, along the lines of Frankenstein. Are these not science fantasy? Is Frankenstein then a magic realist work? No. No, I do believe there is a distinction to be drawn, and here we come close to the definition Jeanne used for “magical realism” (my emphasis, as that “-al” will become important as we move on). Dr. Frankenstein treats his work as scientific. Shelley herself treats it as such. And while passion may overwhelm science as the driving force by the story’s end, science never ceases to be a subject of the conflict–science as exclusive province of man, indeed as one of his defining attributes, the way divine creation is attributed to God. The same could be said of Dr. Moreau. For Dr. Morel, on the other hand, fictitious science is merely the means which allows for the plausibility of a unique sequence of situations meant to illustrate the combined nature of love, memory and apprehension. Science is neither a theme nor a concern in the narrative. Passion is. Emotion is.

I use the term “magic realism” as opposed to “magical realism” at least partly because it is the term to which I was introduced. It is also, as I understand it, the older term. It originated in the 1920’s, intended, somewhat arbitrarily, to describe a style not of writing but painting, a style not entirely divested from post-expressionism and surrealism. But it was Miguel Angel Asturias, a Guatemalan writer if possible even less readable than Borges, who first chose the term to describe his own work, and it’s his example I choose to follow. “Magical realism” has always struck me as a critical rather than a writerly term, and I suspect its adoption by the modern English-speaking critical community may have been the result of a mistranslation. Mistranslation though it may be, however, it does serve a practical purpose in conveying one aspect of the meaning of the term. What sort of realism can justifiably be referred to as “magical”? The sort, I should say, that strikes the same chords as magic in a reader’s emotion–the sort that invokes awe. A magical realism, in other words, need not involve magic at all as the supernatural force we know from fantasy, so long as its realism evokes the same emotions. Thus can something like The General in His Labyrinth, by Garcia Marquez, a completely realistic, if fictional, memoir, still be accommodated by my definition.

Asturias, however, certainly did not choose the term for his own writing because of this literal interpretation of its mistranslation. Rather, he chose it because his writing does indeed involve magic of the traditional, supernatural sort–only not safely removed to some well-distant fairytale, but here in the real world. Asturias’ Men of Maize postulates, albeit with certain subtle reservations pertaining to fiction and belief, that Mayan mythology is true, that the Popol Vuh is real–or at least it was. Here then is the last, the broadest, and likely most the controversial facet of my definition of magic realism–the facet which allows me to include, not only Castaneda, beloved fraud in half-truth’s clothing, but the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, the Popol Vuh, etc, etc, on down through every divinely-inspired text of human belief ever produced. So long as you’re willing to admit they’re all fiction.

The second half of Jeanne’s official Odyssey definition of “magical realism” is that it must take a matter-of-fact approach to the fantastic, taking it for granted, so to speak, that magic is real and nothing to make a fuss about. A good example is the five-year rainstorm in One Hundred Years of Solitude about which nobody seems to bat an eye, so preoccupied are they with their wars and tragedies and suchlike. I’ve already established that the inverse of this rule also applies–that an everyday event treated as magical can have the same profound impact on the reader. But don’t the Popol Vuh, and indeed every other form of cultural mythology, fit Jeanne’s criterion? From our enlightened, English-speaking Western perspective, sure. They are fictions which, because they were once believed true, treat their fantastical content as real.

There are certainly others aside from myself who consider Carlos Castaneda among magic realists. There are others who consider him a writer of nonfiction, who would scoff, or even take offense, were I to suggest otherwise. But isn’t that true of any religion? My opinion in the matter originates with what Michael said when he lent me his copy of The Art of Dreaming. I paraphrase: “He claims it’s true, but there are complications. It’s best if you read this as fiction.” There is in Castaneda, however fraudulent, however tongue-in-cheek, an assertion of realness. And so long as I take Michael’s advice, and, for the purposes of pleasure, choose not to take Castaneda at his word, I am able to include him among magic realists.

A particular complaint leveled against the use of the term “magical realism” by Western critical circles is that it’s merely a postcolonial means of marginalizing colonial fiction, depriving it of the respect it deserves from the literary mainstream. I haven’t bothered to address this, because I couldn’t care less about the literary mainstream, whereas I hold the utmost respect for a great deal of what hovers on its fringe. But it’s this particular and peculiar distaste of mine for the cultural mainstream which gives me such perverse pleasure in including this last cagetory of magic realist works–those that people still do believe in. If that which brings me utmost pleasure in reading either fantasy or magic realism is awe, what then can be more awe-inspiring then the possibility, however far-fetched, however seemingly absurd, that the magic of which a ‘fiction’ speaks could indeed be real?

At last I reach a point of relative confidence. So. What constitutes a magic realist fiction?

1. Independence from the line of descent of mainstream fantastic fiction, either via the use of primary fantastic fictions such as myth, folklore and belief, or through individual creative thought.
2. The capacity to foster intense emotional responses in the reader, which I’ll call awe, through an uncanny, near-magical depth of understanding of the human condition demonstrated by monumental metaphor, or through the ability to reverse the roles of the fantastic and mundane, to create the possibility, however slight and by whatever means, that the fantastic is real, and the real fantastical.