Tuesday, December 18, 2007
You can vote for up to three stories.
Obviously, my story "Qubit Conflicts" is one of them, and if you really liked it, you could even vote for it (a little egoboo here, where Blue Tyson selected it as one of his personal year's best).
Also, the more votes get in, the better the feedback for the Clarkesworld Magazine people.
It's strange, because my 'receive acknowledges' went fine to these email addresses a couple of weeks ago, and now I've tried resending my response several times and get nothing but permanent errors.
Anyway: Bruce Golden and Luke Jackson: if you read this, please contact me at Jetse (dot) deVries (at) gmail (dot) com.
UPDATE: I got through to Luke Jackson on an alternate email address. However, in the meantime there's another netzero bounce: Scott Rollsen, if you read this, please contact me as well, as my reply to you bounced, as well.
Also google itself is blocking some of my replies, thinking I'm sending out spam! They do get through on a resend, but it surely can't be the idea to repeatedly resend messages. This happened four times today (December 22), and it's quite annoying.
I struggle onwards.
UPDATE 2: signs that your brain is trying to tell you to stop writing responses for the night sometimes manifest as typos.
- comaprison (when I meant 'comparison);
- meatfiction (when I meant 'metafiction');
Monday, December 10, 2007
And I won the competition by guessing 8 (out of 17) right.
To summarise, dear Watson:
--The ones I had correct:
MMM -- Delicious by Reggie Oliver
England and Nowhere by Tim Nickels
(Typically, these two were, for me, the hardest to guess. But I'm quite happy that Tim Nickels indeed wrote "England and Nowhere", which I rate very high indeed.)
Undergrowth by Mark Valentine
Red Velvet Dust by Ursula Pflug
(I was pretty certain of these two. However, I was also pretty certain of others that I had quite wrong.)
Blue Raspberries by kek-W
Berian Winslow and the Stream of Consciousness Fortune Teller by Dominy Clements
(Quite happy that I got those two right, as well. After "MMM -- Delicious" and "England and Nowhere" these were the second hardest to guess. And I love "Blue Raspberries".)
The Secret Life of the Panda by Nick Jackson
Upset Stomach by M. P. Johnson
(I was fairly sure of "Upset Stomach", and in retrospect am a little bit proud of my sleuthing for "The Secret Life of the Panda": also a very tough one. But then, of the remaining 9 I thought I was pretty much on the money. Those seven are now laughing...;-)
The ones I had wrong:
Word Doctor by Daniel Ausema
I thought it was Scott Edelman! Scott must have been laughing all the way to the bank -- that is, the same bank on which he sits with the panda, discussing his secret life and the fugly truth about the circus, like a stream of consciousness word doctor, eating delicious blue raspberries (mmm) until his stomach was upset, releasing a coughin torsion that plunged into the undergrowth like red velvet dust -- a nightmare to this reader, I tell ya.
The Awful Truth About the Circus by Scott Edelman
I thought it was Patricia Russo! That'll teach me to a) automatically assume that stories with a female protagonist most probably have a female author; and b) to assume that Scott writes mostly metafictional stories.
Ze egg is on ze face.
I'll buy you a drink in Denver, Scott!
Fugly by Patricia Russo
I was doubting between her and Ekatarina Sedia, and gambled wrong. Part of the game (I gambled correctly in two similar situations, so can't really complain). Congrats to Patricia for writing such a fine story.
The Coughin Coffin by Charles Black
I so expected this to be Steven Pirie. I wasn't the only one: two others thought the same thing. Against stereotype, Steven Pirie wrote something quite different. Good on him!
Terminus by S.D. Tullis
Which I so cleverly thought would be by Charles Black.
The Plunge by Brian Rappatta
And I attributed that one to Scott Tullis. Quite bad, as it now appears that Scott has *two* stories in Zencore! (that evil mastermind of a DFL tossing in a false anonymous to throw my blood hound off scent. What will he think of next?)
The Nightmare Reader by S.D. Tullis
And I attributed it to Brian Rappatta. If I had only made a last second switch, but the truth is that I was just guessing very hard, here.
Marie's Gift, the Stars and Frank's Pisser by Steven Pirie
I had really not even the faintest notion of who could have written that one (even after considerable sleuthing), so I threw in the towel and called it 'anonymous'. But it's Steven Pirie, and I'll congratulate him on writing a fine tale.
Torsion by Ekatarina Sedia
I guessed Daniel Ausema, and was wide off the mark. Again, here I am punished for assuming that a story with a male protagonist is written by a male author (a tactic that did pay off with other stories, but you just can't assume it all the time, of course. Which is definitely a good thing). Still, I'm quite happy that authors keep surprising me with their versatility.
Which brings us to "Cone Zero". My first tactic is to send Des a story for that one (hope I'll have one ready, as I'm way too busy now. Hopefully in the new year), thereby trying very hard to have myself automatically disqualified for the next guessing game.
Otherwise, dear Watson, we must sharpen our wits.
Friday, December 7, 2007
Problem is, their ideas are not quite radical enough.
At WFC in Saratoga Springs I had a very enlightening conversation with an estimable man -- let's call him 'Al Golden' -- about this very subject. We worked out the solution:
- An SF magazine should be run by the mafia: this not only provides excellent coverage in North America, South Italy, Japan, Russia, and China; it also means a backer with deep pockets;
- Subscription policy: "Subscribe, or your spouse (or kids) get it";
- Subscription policy, continued: "and be happy that we've only raised our rates by 10% this year."
- Submission policy: not all those whimpy cents rates: $100 dollar per word on pre-acceptance;
- Submission policy, continued: we don't reject stories, but shoot unsuccessful authors(*)
(*) = while 4 might lead to a slushpile the size of Mount Vesuvius, 5 should ascertain that this is only a one-time occurrance. Although an informant who prefers to remain incognito remarked that 'there are not enough bullets'.
Mafioso SF: an offer you can't refuse!
Anyway: Interzone November email stats: 404 stories adding up to some 1931100 words.
I'm reading through some 150 of them, while having been under the weather this week, and hope to send out responses over the weekend. The plan until Christmas: work, read slush, send out responses, and build up lack of sleep.
But I've already read one story that (almost literally) twisted my guts -- in a good way -- and one that made me laugh out loud. Good signs!
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
I've been busier than usual, but I am reading, and have started sending out responses. More later, and I intend to finish reading everything before Christmas.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
I’ve tried to guess the names of Nemonymous writers before, but was very bad at it (I think I only recognised Jay Lake as the writer of “Apologising to the Concrete” in Nemonymous 4, and Paul Meloy as the writer of “Running Away to Join the Town” in Nemonymous 5). Now, however, we have been given the names of 16 of the 17 authors (one is still ‘anonymous’), so we can try to match the author to the story.
For this, I divided the writers into three groups: English male, American male, and female (no need to subdivide the female group as there are only three). Then I tried to figure out which stories were written by an English author (spelling, atmosphere and location being the giveaways), or an American. Similarly I tried to guess which stories were written by a male or a female (choice of protagonist and sensibility being the main factors).
Of course, I may guess horribly wrong, but that’s part of the fun.
The English male group consists of eight authors: Charles Black, Dominy Clements, Nick Jackson, kek-W, Tim Nickels, Reggie Oliver, Steven Pirie and Mark Valentine. The American male group has five authors: Daniel Ausema, Scott Edelman, M.P. Johnson, Brian Rappatta, and S.D. (Scott) Tullis. The three female writers are Ursula Pflug, Patricia Russo and E. (Cathy) Sedia.
Since the smallest group should be the easiest (hopefully), I looked at which stories I thought were written by a woman. This worked out like this:(both in alphabetical order)
The Awful Truth About the Circus
Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser
Red Velvet Dust
The stories are, quite simply, those with a female protagonist. Also, I thought that they all had, to a certain extent, a strong feminine sensibility (possibly some author is laughing very hard now).
The easy one is then “Red Velvet Dust”: story set in Ontario, Canadian spelling (which is a strange and inconsistent mix of English and American, which drives me nuts: sometimes it’s English, sometimes it’s American, and this story had – on page 117 — both ‘color’ — ‘the color of magic’ in the fourth paragraph — and ‘colours’ — ‘the colours of Canada’ in the last paragraph on the same page. Canadians: sometimes they use ‘o’ in nouns like color, sometimes ‘ou’; sometimes they use the ‘er’ ending of nouns like theater, sometimes the ‘re’ ending; sometimes they use ‘z’ in verbs like serialize, and sometimes ‘s’, and I’ll be damned if I could find some consistency in it. So you can get a sentence like “The theater’s bright colours mesmerized her”, or “The theatre’s bright colors mesmerised her.” which both make the consistency-preferring editor in me go cross-eyed). In any case, since this story is firmly set in Canada (Toronto and Ontario are named), with Canadian spelling, and since the story is about a woman trying to come to grips with losing her mother, it’s a safe bet that the writer is a Canadian female, which leaves only Ursula Pflug.
Which leaves two female authors and three stories I think were written by women. All the other stories have male protagonists and, I think, a strong male sensibility, so I’m guessing here that the ‘Anonymous’ author is female, as well.
Patricia Russo has been published several times in Tales of the Unanticipated — which I remember — and Not One of Us, Space & Time, Fantasy Magazine and Talebones — Google is your friend, and I assume she’s not the Alcatel/Lucent chairwoman — and following a few reviews, and a quick glance in Talebones #35 that just dropped in my mailbox curtesy of BBR-Distribution, I get a sense that she writes subtle fantasy stories that sometimes edge close to literature. This would make “Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser”quite a bit too ‘in-your-face’ for her, and “Fugly” possibly too. “The Awful Truth About the Circus”, which is a gentle fantasy, seems to be closest to her sensibilities.
So I’m guessing Patricia Russo wrote “The Awful Truth About the Circus”
Ekatarina Sedia: I’ve read quite a few stories from her (both in and out of the slushpile). She’s widely published, both in magazines like Clarkesworld Magazine, SciFicition, Analog, Fantasy Magazine, Aeon and Book of Dark Wisdom; and in anthologies like Poe’s Progeny, the Elastic Book of Numbers, and Bare Bones #7. So it’s a toss-up between “Fugly” and “Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser”.
Now I’ll go out on a limb (even more), and guess that E. Sedia wrote “Fugly”, and that “Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser” is written by Anonymous. No reason, pure gut feeling.
Before we look at the rest of the (male) stories divided up by English or American sensibilities, I must owe up to some doubts. I thought I found an easy one: “Terminus” is written in the first person, with a protagonist who is called ‘Charles’ (on page 139, second paragraph from below: “I had to, Charles.”). Also, it’s a weird story, and Charles Black — on his MySpace page — calls himself a ‘writer of weird fiction’, which his publication list (H P Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Horror Carousel, the Black Book of Horror and more) confirms.
A near perfect match.
Still, the spelling of “Terminus” is American (gray, centers, color, humor), while a lot of the references have a more British air (Chatham Road, Churchill Road, Harwich, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Livingstone, a driver saying ‘suh’ for ‘Sir’).
Also, if “Terminus” has American spelling, then I run into a slight mismatch: while there are six stories with American spelling, there are only five American authors (subsequently there are seven stories with English spelling, but eight British authors).
So I’m going to assume that Charles Black — in the name of nemonimity — deliberately muddled the waters and on his spellchecker used American English, and replaced all English spellings with American.
Thus, “Terminus” is written by Charles Black.
Twelve stories left. Next smallest group is American male authors, and I did indeed think that six stories were written by American males. Hence:
(both in alphabetical order)
American Male Authors
American Male StoriesThe Nightmare Reader
Of these writers, I know Scott Edelman best. Since Scott has a tendency to write metafictional stories — such as “This Is Where the Title Goes” in the Journal of Pulse-Pounding Narratives, vol. 2 and “The Scariest Story I Know” in, indeed, Nemonymous 5 — I am guessing that he wrote the metafictional piece of Zencore!
Scott Edelman wrote “Word Doctor.”
I read somewhere in the myriad of Nemonymous/Weirdmonger related websites that there was an author that called the stories in Zencore! ‘weirderature’. When checking out the authors I didn’t know I found that M.P. Johnson coines this term on his website , giving as the third meaning of this neologism: “3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the weirderature of fast food muck-spewing.”
Also, according to his site, M.P. Johnson is quite a bizarro, punk horror, and gore aficionado. Bizarro + ‘fast-food muck-spewing’= “Upset Stomach”.
M.P. Johnson wrote “Upset Stomach”
(Which has the author sprawled on the floor laughing because possibly he wrote “The Plunge”. But I plunge onwards…;-)
Yeah, “The Plunge”. I’ll leave that one for last.
Similarly, when checking out Daniel Ausema’s blog — typically called ‘Twigs and Brambles’ — and trawling the net, chancing upon an interview with him here, I found that he had a story called Knock on Wood” where he introduced ‘mobile tree stumps’. That’s two links to forests, where also “Torsion” is set.
So I guess Daniel Ausema wrote “Torsion”.
Then, by process of elimination I’m guessing that S.D. Tullis wrote “The Plunge”. Actually, seeing his previous nemo appearances — “The Death Knell” in Nemonymous 4 and “The Hills Are Alive” in Nemonymous 5 — it doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Which brings us to the English male writers:
(both in alphabetical order)
English Male Authors
Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller
The Coughing Coffin
England and Nowhere
MMM — Delicious
The Secret Life of the Panda
Again, the easy ones (or what I think are the easy ones) first.
Steven Pirie is a predominantly comic fantasy writer, has written a novel called “Digging Up Donald”, and is working on a sequel with the working title of “Burying Bob”. There’s a humourous fantasy piece in Zencore! called “The Coughing Coffin”.
Steven Pirie wrote “The Coughing Coffin”.
“Undergrowth” features a book aficionado looking for an almost impossible to get first print of Francis Brett Cox. It also mentions Arthur Machen. Mark Valentine’s website has a whole supernatural fiction database, his short stories feature the exploits of “The Connoisseur”, so:
Mark Valentine wrote “Undergrowth”.
Comes the difficult part, where I am clutching at straws (this should be amusing).
The first straw: after some desperate trawling for info, I chanced upon Nick Jackson’s bio on Whispers of Wickedness, which mentions that “none of his short stories can be rounded off without some kind of animal making an appearance, apart from dogs, which he positively dislikes”, added to a picture where he strokes a dog.
More pertinently, the reviews I checked of his collection Visits to the Flea Circus give the strong impression that his style and sensibility match that of “The Secret Life of the Panda”.
So Nick Jackson worte “The Secret Life of the Panda”.
Four to go, and the ice I’m skating gets thinner and thinner. From my review it’s clear that I really liked “Blue Raspberries”. It struck me that this must have been written by a British author with a strong European sensibility. Since Dominy Clements lives in The Netherlands, he’s my first suspect. Furthermore, “Blue Raspberries” has an SFnal tone (A Phil Dickian sensibility), and kek-W — according to this bio — writes ‘deviant SF pulp fiction’. Also, when going over his blog I see quite some references to German bands (Glockenspiel, Buffle, Nina Hagen, Klaus Nomi) which gives him a European angle, as well (and he mentioned that ‘Sometime or other, I'll shock everyone by just getting on a plane and actually turning up at one of these things...’, so he may not have visited the European mainland, but he’s definitely interested).
Now “Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller” is also basically SF. One character’s name in one of the stories the storyteller tells is ‘Marieke’: a typical Dutch name, which I would suspect could come from someone living in Holland.
So to me it’s a toss-up if either Dominy Clements wrote “Blue Raspberries” or “Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller”; or kek-W or vice-versa. So the coin dropped as:
Dominy Clements wrote “Berian Winslow and the Stream of Consciousnes Storyteller”
kek-W wrote “Blue Raspberries”
Two stories and two names left. Tim Nickels and Reggie Oliver; “MMM — Delicious” and “England and Nowhere”. Another very hard one. I only know Reggie Oliver by reputation: I haven’t read anything from him. His wikipedia entry calls him an English playwright, biographer, and writer of ghost stories (emphasis mine), and says the following about his fiction: “Some of his work is set within the rather seedy end of show business, a world in which, as a playwright, theatre director and actor, he has had ample experience.” That seems to point towards “MMM — Delicious”, which basically is a ghost story, and indeed deals with the seedy end of show business.
On the other hand, both of Reggie Oliver’s collections (The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, and Other Strange Stories and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler) have a strong reputation. And I wasn’t quite so impressed with “MMM — Delicious”.
Then Tim Nickels. I must admit that I have bought his collection The English Soil Society but haven’t had time to read it (together with approximately 300 other books). So I check a review (written by fellow Zencore! author Mark Valentine: synchronicity in action!) of it, and an interview with him. The former concludes that the stories in his collection are either a complete miss, or succeed spectacularly. In the interview Tim says that it sometimes takes him years to write a story. So it’s quite imaginable that he either wrote a miss (“MMM — Delicious”), or a hit (“England and Nowhere”).
I’ll go with my gut feeling here, and attribute “MMM — Delicious” to Reggie Oliver. It has the themes he seems to like, and every (reputedly) good writer can have a lesser story.
Similarly, I’ll go out on a limb and propose that Tim Nickels wrote “England and Nowehere”. If he did, I’ll put The English Soil Society very high on my ‘to read’ list. It just seems the kind of story that has taken a very long time to write. The attention to detail is immaculate, and thinking of it, there are a few descriptions coast shrubbery that give the impression of being written by someone who know exactly what he’s talking about.
So here’s the complete list:
Torsion — Daniel Ausema
MMM — Delicious — Reggie Oliver
Undergrowth — Mark Valentine
Fugly — E. Sedia
The Nightmare Reader — Brian Rappatta
The Secret Life of the Panda — Nick Jackson
Upset Stomach — M.P. Johnson
The Awful Truth About the Circus — Patricia Russo
Red Velvet Dust — Ursula Pflug
The Coughing Coffin — Steven Pirie
Terminus — Charles Black
Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser — Anonymous
Blue Raspberries — kek-W
Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller — Dominy Clements
The Plunge — S.D. Tullis
England and Nowhere — Tim Nickels
Word Doctor — Scott Edelman
Of course, then who is the ‘anonymous’ who wrote “Mary’s Gift, the Stars, and Frank’s Pisser”? I don’t have a clue.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
As most of you probably are aware: Interzone will be doing a ‘mundane SF’ issue, which is planned for May/June 2008. To be clear on this: it's a *special* issue, *guest-edited* by Geoff Ryman, Julian Todd and Trent Walters. Interzone has had guest-edited issues before, like the Infinity Plus special issue guest edited by Nick Gevers and Keith Brooke, and Australian special issue edited by Paul Brazier, and I might be overlooking some.
SF is broad, and Interzone is open to SF in the broadest sense. I enjoy SF in (almost) all its forms, but, like Bruce Sterling, I am a closet sympathiser for mundane SF. Not because I think everybody should exclusively write and/or read mundane SF — there is a huge palette of SF tastes, and you should feel free to sample from all of it — but because I think it’s been both underrepresented and underestimated.
Across teh intarwebs and the blogosphere, there have been a lot of cryouts against the mundane SF manifesto. These laments can be roughly divided in four (sometimes overlapping) categories:
- Readers (and writers) who greatly prefer their SF to be escapist and fun, and don’t want the intrusion of the real world into their dream worlds;
- Readers and writers who take offence to mundane SF’s claim that it will produce better SF;
- Writers (mostly) who argue against mundane SF’s exclusion of certain SF tropes;
- Writers (mostly) who think that the mundane SF manifesto limits their artistic freedom.
Point one: a great part of SF, both in the media and the written word, is purely escapist and fun (or at least intends to be). A huge amount of SF fans do not want to read SF that confronts today’s problems, often saying that they have enough problems in their daily lives as it is, and that they wish to be entertained in their spare time. Or, as someone had it:
Fair enough: if that’s what you’re looking for in SF, then enjoy it.
Personally, I like to think that one’s reading, like one’s food, should not be a monocultural exercise. Diversity is one of the keys to a healthy diet. So I would hope that one’s spare time reading (or TV watching, or gaming, or whatever) is not mindless entertainment alone, as that will most probably deaden the mind.
Make no mistake, I respect those who read SF for entertainment value, and get their serious brain candy from other sources like scientific magazines, newspapers, netfeeds, documentaries and what-have-you. It’s just that I can’t help but think that there are a lot of people out there, that work their day job (or jobs), raise their family, and fill their free time almost exclusively with mindless entertainment(1).
Now I suppose it would be a good thing if such consumers of innocent SF escapism would, once in a while, chance upon a work of SF that *does* tackle today’s problems in a highly intelligent and thought-provoking way, and be absorbing, unputdownable, even entertaining in its own way.
Let’s face it: it is quite hard to chance upon an SF book that takes a hard look on current problems plaguing the world, and multitudes easier to walk into an escapist dream world. So more mundane SF — along the rest of it — is a good thing, in my book.
Also, I can’t help but think that quite a lot of SF is like a frightened animal: it sees a lot of dangers, but instead of confronting them it either takes the flight forward, or worse, prefers to stick its head in the sand. I’ll get back to this.
Point two: quite a few people took offence at mundane SF’s claim that their declaration of principles will produce better works. Agree or disagree with them, but proudly proclaiming a manifesto that will lead to inferior works is rather pointless.
Also, their staunch belief in their own principles — check out their blog — infuriates some people. Well, while forwarding a manifesto with great reluctance, timidity and humility might be a more respectable way of doing it, it certainly won’t get it the attention it has been getting so far. Roughly speaking, notoriety is to be preferred over obscurity. And any manifesto worth its salt is controversial: otherwise, it’s doing something wrong.
So yeah, of course they think their way is superior: otherwise they wouldn’t waste our time by proposing it.
Agreeing to it is a different matter, but first you need to get the word out, and draw as much attention as possible. In this, the mundane manifesto works quite well, I would argue.
Point three: quite a lot of people, both SF writers and readers, rail against mundane SF’s exclusion of certain SF tropes.
Let’s quote from the mundane SF issue guidelines:
Today there is no --
· Faster than light travel
· Psi power
· Nanobot technology
· Extraterrestrial life
· Computer consciousness
· Materially profitable space travel
· Human immortality
· Brain downloading
· Time travel
-- And maybe there never will be!
The adverse reaction to this comes down to: ‘you can’t predict what *can’t* be invented in the future’. That is basically true: it’s impossible to predict what will be invented 10, 50, 100 or 1000 years from now.
However, the flipside to this is that a huge part of SF assumes but all too easily that certain things — see the above list — *will* be invented, and as soon as possible. The point is that a lot of authors use these future inventions because they’re convenient: with these inventions the world, c.q. the galaxy at large can remain mostly as it is; that is the future will not be inherently different from the world as it is today.
That is what I think the mundanistas really meant by issuing that list: most of those ‘not-yet-but-sometime-soon-to-be-invented’ tropes facilitate the ‘easy way out’ approach, semi-magical remedies that — quite often — merely address the effects, and not the root causes of a problem.
Still, a lot of authors and readers hate it when you tell them that some things may not be invented, diving back in history to make their point, as Rudy Rucker did by stating that:
Writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring. The thing is, science really does change a lot over time. Compare what we’re doing now to what we were doing in the year 1000. A Mundane SF writer of year 1000 might want us to write only about alchemy, the black plague, and the papacy.
(I fervently disagree that writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring, but I’ll get back to that later on in this post.)
This comparison is off for several reasons. For one, I’m not even sure if anybody was writing something that could be called ‘science fiction’ in those days, and if a few did — which I doubt — then it certainly wasn’t as visible and popular as it is today. For another, the problems of those days were significantly different from those of today, due to the simple fact that the entire world population in the year 1000 was approximately 310,000 — compared to the six billion+ it is today. In those days, humanity wasn’t a threat to biodiversity and life in general of the planet, like it now is.
And that is — if I understand the mundanistas correctly — one of the main points of their manifesto: for the first time in history, humanity is at a crossroads: shall we learn to live sustainably on this planet, or shall we carry on depleting its natural resources at an increasing speed?
Roughly speaking, if an SF writer of the year 1000 in Europe was speculating about a vessel sailing to India by going West — surmising that the Earth was round rather than flat — then this proposed trip would not seriously impact on the environment of his home place (that it would seriously impact the Native Americans is a different story. But life on the planet at large would be OK(2)). Now, in the 21st Century, one might seriously wonder if the inventiveness and creativity wasted on creating wish fulfillment worlds might be put to much better use in trying to find innovative solutions for today’s problems — problems that *do* have a huge impact on life on the planet at large.
Which brings us to:
Point 4: a lot of writers think that the mundane manifesto limits their artisitc freedom too much.
Or, as Paul J. McAuley said on the old TTAboards a few years ago: “Don’t fence me in!”
Of course, the artistic process works differently for everyone. Some produce good works under pressure, others don’t. Fair enough.
Nevertheless, I thought that writers liked a challenge. Increasingly, I’m not so sure.
Example 1: F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder mentioned — not sure where, possibly during a workshop, or otherwise on the Nightshade Books boards — that he (tried to) refrain from mentioning that he hated stories with elves. The reason being that writers liked a challenge, so would be trying to prove him wrong by writing a story with elves that would win him over (and indeed he has published a rare story with elves in F&SF: exceptions often confirm the rule).
Example 2: in the Focus — BSFA’s magazine for writers — of six months ago I challenged writers to send me stories that show how things in the near future change for the better. Results so far: none (feel free to prove me wrong in the upcoming November email reading period, people!). Of course, I’m not in GVG’s league, and only a limited number of people read the BSFA’s Focus.
Nevertheless, now there’s a big amount of writers who protest that the mundane manifesto — or the guidelines to the special mundane SF issue — are straightjacketing their imagination.
Well, I see it as a challenge: can writers — if just for one time only — try to write a story to mundane SF’s requirements? No need to become a convert, or pledge allegiance to their cause: but try it, purely as a challenge, just *once*.
The problem is, I suspect, that the challenge is too great.
Yes: you read that right. I think a lot of writers are chickening out. Trying to write about today’s problems and — even more challenging — trying to come up with a solution is immensely hard. So daunting, that quite a lot of writers don’t even care to try.
This is why — I surmise — the mundanistas don’t want to see stories with FTL, nanotech, ESP, ET, AI, human immortality, brain downloading, and time travel(3):not because these things might not be invented at any time, but because they’ve been part and parcel of almost every’s SF writer’s toolbox for decades or longer. In a genre that likes to proud itself on being able to think outside the box, they’ve become clichés, the unquestioned, lazy assumptions of bog-standard SF.
What mundane SF proposes — or, at least, what I think they’re trying to propose — is to abandon those modern limitations (or clichés mistaken for inventive thinking), and attack today’s intricate problems not with placebos or panaceas, but with truly new multilevel ideas. Not simple, single-minded approaches, but — to paraphrase Voivod — ‘macrosolutions to megaproblems’.
Which is about as daunting as it gets, and why I think quite a few writers don’t wish to burn their fingers on this extremely hot topic. It’s why a lot of SF writers like interstellar travel and civilisations on other planets: it gives them the opportunity to take *one* of the many problems that plague us today, set it on an isolated place (a different planet), and look at it via those semi-laboratory circumstances. Metaphorical freedom. Well, that doesn’t work: no big problem is an island, but an emergent phenomenon from a highly complex society that interacts on every level. Hence it’s pointless to metaphorically isolate it: intricate environmental influences form part and parcel of its structure, and need to be considered.
It’s probably too hard for most of us, but what I sincerely hope is that there are plenty of you out there that prefer to fail spectacularly rather than not trying at all. The ones who really like a challenge, an incredibly tough challenge that is.
It’s also why the lament that the mundane SF manifesto is too limiting for an author’s artistic freedom falls a bit flat with me. Because there are thousands upon thousands of people that work under neigh-unbendable constraints, day in day out, and quite a lot of them get highly creative results nonetheless. These people are called ‘scientists’, BTW.
So why should SF writers (remember where the ‘S’ stands for?) always be exempt from restraints? Shouldn’t they — if only *once* — show that they can be creative despite strong limitations? Or do they want to have a free pass all the time?
I’ll formulate it more bluntly: imagining galaxy-wide space operas with unlimited resources is (relatively) easy. Imagining plausible solutions for today's highly complex problems is much, much harder. Or, which writer should I admire more: the one who soars to the stratosphere (and beyond) through the neigh-unlimited use of limited resources and hyper-fanciful tropes, or the one who, like a modern day Houdini, escapes from a neigh-inescapable deathtrap with very limited resources and sheer genius?
There’s the gauntlet: anyone care to pick it up? Only the truly brave need apply.
OK: after this buildup, where this closet sympathiser comes out of the closet, I’m going to wind down. I do enjoy SF in the broadest sense of the word, and hope we at Interzone will continue to see SF stories in the broadest sense of the word (including mundane SF).
It’s just that for this one issue I hope that writers will try their damnedest to write a superb mundane SF story, as there aren’t quite enough of them. I hope Trent, Julian, and Geoff will receive a plethora of great stories, and will have a real hard time making a selection. Finally, I hope our readers will get an issue that is both highly thought-provoking and entertaining(4).
Mainspring is a fast-paced, gosh-wow, adventure and exploration fantasy novel one might call preordained clockpunk.
In a literal clockwork Universe God’s work is so eminently visible that atheism is not an option. Earth and the planets are cogs adorned with equatorial gearwheels that run in a gargantuan mechanism of orbital brass tracks. Clockmaker apprentice Hethor Jacques is visited by the archangel Gabriel, and instructed to find the Key Perilious and rewind Earth’s Mainspring. The quest is on, and events follow each other in a frenzied, often phantasmagorical sequence.
The quest, complete with romantic interest and mysterious message to be deciphered, and its various plot coupons (village boy exposed to big town politics: check; innocent boy becomes hardened navy veteran on ultracool zeppelin frigate Bassett: check; air battles with batmen: check; escape meshing of godlike gears with milliseconds to spare: check; and so forth) doubles as a literal coming-of-age parable where the clocknerd Hethor (initially pronounced ‘heffor’ in my mind) gradually becomes He-Thor: the son of Odin, that is, God.
The Jesus angle becomes inescapable as all the narrow escapes and coincidences are happening because he is predestined to succeed. Lake not only breaks the old no ‘God-in-the-Box’ rule, but trashes it to a papery pulp and then wipes his arse with it. But does he get away with it?
Well, with tongue firmly in cheek, he tries, bombarding the reader with dazzling action sequences, engaging character developments, various culture shocks, and grand hypnotising vistas. One could either see Mainspring as a rootin’-tootin’ adventure, and suspend disbelief through the pure thrill and fun; or as an attempt to be the definite clockpunk novel, where all the sleight-of-hands and deus ex machinae are part and parcel of the setup.
Such a conjurer’s trick works only once: in the sequel Lake should either come up with a much better excuse for his ‘I-don’t-need-no-damn-plotting’ writing, or — gasp — plot decently. Furthermore, it takes away all the tension as you know that Hethor will succeed, and this made the final parts — Hethor’s descent into the depths of Earth’s inner clockwork — rather undramatic and anti-climactic.
I can't help but think that if he would just plot carefully, so that it approached his intense imagination and sharp stylistic adroitness; then he might write a novel that would set the fantasy world on fire. But Mainspring is not that novel, unfortunately.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
A few disclaimers:
- Normally — as a fiction editor — I don't review short fiction, especially not of other magazines. Simply because it can (and subsequently will) always be interpreted wrong: if I review a magazine negatively, then I'm trashing the competition; if I review a magazine positively I'm part of the clique that always support each other. I'm making an exception for Zencore! because Des specifically asked me, and also asked me to be absolutely frank.
- I have been published in Nemonymous 4. Actually, I sent Des four stories during the Nemo 4 reading period (not simultaneously, but a new one after the previous one was rejected as Des responded fast), of which he finally took one. I sent him four more during the Nemo 5 period, which all bounced. I sent him nothing for Zencore!
- I have seen none of the stories in Zencore! in the Interzone email slushpile. If I had, that would make connecting a story to an author too easy (although I've read other stories in the IZ slush of a few of them).
- I came up with the byline Scriptus Innominatus (I believe
Gary McMahon— correction: it was Scott Kelly. Scott Kelly, if you read this, please contact Des [ email@example.com ], because he wants to give you a free Zencore! issue — came up with Zencore, which also refers to — I found out when I was googling for Zencore reviews — a male enhancement product. Coincidence? ;-).
So, to Zencore! Scriptus Innominatus: the book itself has changed to a ‘normal’ book size, away from the landscape format of the first 5 (which, I think, added to its distinctness). Although I haven’t asked Andy (Cox), I think he wasn’t involved with the design and typesetting of this seventh issue of Nemonymous. Undoubtedly this has to do with finances: a print run of — I think — 500 on silk paper is quite a bit more expensive than — I suspect — a POD book on normal paper with a lower print run (of which more can be printed easily).
While I understand that, I still think the ‘landscape’ Nemos look much better. There’s also something slightly off with the typesetting or printing: sometimes (for example look at the first paragraph on page 9) two paragraphs are printed so close they almost clash into each other. I suppose almost nobody notices such things, but after working on Interzone with Andy Cox for over four years now such details just stand out to me.That is not to say Zencore! is ugly (or even Fugly): it’s still a very nice book to behold, and looks fine. It’s just not the special artefact it was.
As to the most important thing, that is, the stories themselves:
Torsion: this, I think, is the obligatory Nemonymous transformation c.q. mixed identity story (think “The Rest of Larry” by Monica O’Rourke in Nemonymous 3, “Nocturne for Doghands” by Joe Murphy [and another one that shall not be named…;-)] in Nemonymous 4, “The Robot and the Octopus” in Nemonymous 5). It’s an OK story, nicely executed, and at only 3 (full) pages — say, 1100 words — it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Horror with a nemo sensibility, but ultimately forgettable, as the story doesn’t reveal any deeper layers on a second reading (at least, not to me).
MMM – Delicious: the nemonymous element in this one is the blank personality, actor Tony White whose presence in TV commercials makes the sales of the advertised product go through the roof. Cue to other ‘blank/white’ themes in previous nemos like “White Dream” (Neil Bristow, Nemonymous 2) and “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds” (Anonymous, ibid), “The Painter” (Dominy Clements, Nemonymous 4).
Unfortunately, while competently written, this story was full of clichés, such as the advertsiment agency (and the TV/film world) being both utterly superficial, and ruthless; and the way that Tony White not quite being what he is (with a ‘shocking’ revealing at the end of the story). It’s also rather too long: at 26 pages it’s the longest piece in Zencore!, and I felt it could have been cut considerably.
Undergrowth: this is an intriguing piece where an obsessed book collector searches second hand bookshops in the quest for his holy grail (in this case Francis Brett Young’s novel Undergrowth, which is indeed not on ABE Books). It puts the idea of a ‘literal’ undergrowth of books forward quite nicely, with a touch of Machen. Very enjoyable.
Fugly: a strong, slightly shocking/provocative and thought-provoking story that one expects to show up in Nemonymous, like its predecessors: “Insanity of Creamer’s Field” (Joe Murphy, Nemonymous 3), “Sexy Beast” (Tony Milman, Nemonymous 4), “Huntin’ Season” (Monica O’Rourke, Nemonymous 5). Pete and Lenore, a couple in a dead end relationship experience a break-in in their appartment in the middle of the night. The creature Lenore finds in the bathroom is not exactly a sight for sore eyes, but seems to need help, and she tries to take care of it, through the night. Her partner Pete isn't amused at all, but kicks the creature out of Lenore's embrace and shatters it to pieces — which attack him before they reconfigure.
There's more, but you'll have to find out by getting a copy of the antho. Suffice it to say that this is a very effective use of a metaphor-come-to-flesh in a speculative manner. The first gem of Nemo 7.
The Nightmare Reader: some people are obsessed by insects. Here the obsession is not with spiders, ants, or locusts but with boll weevils. A slow descent into madness — slow, but not compelling — strange things happen, and, totally unexpected, they are true!
This one didn't work for me. There might be smart things in it — I remember a writer at FantasyCon complaining that nobody saw the smart things he did with his prose — but my take is that if the story doesn't work for the reader, she/he is not going to look for them.
The Secret Life of the Panda: melancholic hypochondria and the futility of life. Pandas need to be nudged into procreation, and so does modern man. Because even when one thinks impregnation is achieved, it might be a false alarm. It can only happen when the species is mentally ready for it. Oh well.
I'm not really one for stories full of angst: I already read the existentialists back in high school, and don't need a rehash. Still, such stories are a nemonymous mainstay (from Nike O'Driscoll's "Double Zero for Emptiness" in Nemonymous 1 through to Gary McMahon's "New Science" in Nemonymous 5, with plenty in between), so one has to suffer through them, or wallow in them. Take your pick.
Upset Stomach: hypochondria becomes flesh and the futility of life. A guy works in a dreadful office and during a toilet break his hate for his job literally comes alive through his bowels. Of course, it's not done so he has to discard of it.
At least, that's what I made of it, and I didn't feel in the least compelled to try harder. See above.
The Awful Truth About the Circus: superficially this reminded me somewhat of Paul Meloy’s “Running Away to Join the Town” (Nemonymous 5), although this one focussed more on American small-town emptiness. Carly wants to escape the dull, smothering life in her home town, but no matter how hard she laments living there she just isn’t capable of leaving. Until she sees a flyer of ‘Professor Musto’s Amazing Three/Ring Circus’, and decides to check it out.
Initially, the circus itself seems a disappointment: a small van packed with small, freakish paraphernalia, and professor Musto a small, middle-aged man trying to live a dream, without much success. But gradually Carly sees that there can be magic in small things, and that great dreams may need small miracles to power them. Although suffused with a Bradburian flavour, I thought it missed the master’s concisseness. I suspect that at half its length it would be more than twice as powerful. Now it’s just OK.
Red Velvet Dust: after twenty years Chelsea still hasn't come to grips with the death of her mother, and as she stages another play she uses her mother's ghost as one of the actors. This is the start of Chelsea reviving her childhood with her mum, a gradual healing towards a final acceptance. There's plenty of symbolism throughout the story (purple asters, red velvet dust), and while the story tries hard, I felt it didn't fully succeed, although this is mostly a matter of taste.
The Coughing Coffin: this is a joke within a joke, and certainly Nemonymous is not without humour, think, for example "Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds" in Nemonymous 2, "Digging for Adults (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), "Determining the Extent" (Adrian Fry, Nemonymous 4) and "The Robot and the Octopus" (Tony Ballantyne, Nemonymous 5). Humour is a highly subjective matter, and I found the 'curious business' told by a Major Guthrie in a gentleman's club more one of the shaggy dog kind.
Terminus: the setting here is certainly intriguing: a city that constantly changes, so one gets from A to B more by chance and feel than by using something so mundane (and in this case quite useless) as a map. Then the nameless protagonist gets a letter from somebody who may know more about it, someone who might even have a map that works.
Typically, the cause of all this strangeness is from almost the same source as that of the 'curious business' of the previous story: namely some black magic from the dark continent. As far as I understand, at the end of the story the curse is still there, and understanding is available for someone willing to pay the price, which is a pact with a demon. It reads like a story right out of the old Weird Tales, with its mix of myth, philosophy and the supernatural. While not really to my taste, I was still fascinated.
Mary's Gift, the Stars, and Frank's Pisser: Mary, Frank, Ruth and Alf are homeless street people, literally living in the gutter. The harshness of their life and ailments is described like the way they live: in your face. But between the filth, madness and despair Mary has a gift, one she is both reluctant to use, and when she uses it, people mostly do not believe her.
As such, it is more a curse, and one she passes on to her — let's put this euphemistically — less-than-considerate partner. There were quotes in Nemonymous 1 (no less than eleven), and Nemonymous 2 (six), none in Nemonymous 3, two in Nemonymous 4 (one at the beginning, and one incorporated in the story by some pretentious writer...;-), and two in Nemonymous 5. Zencore! has no quotes, but I suspect that "We are all of us lying in the gutter, but some of us are staring at the stars" from Oscar Wilde would have been perfect for this story. And well deserved.
Blue Raspberries: this is a subtle one. What I suspect most reviewers didn’t get was that this is an alternate history: the story is set in a different world (Stockholm is called both a ‘non-existent’ and a ‘mythical’ city) where the nazis won (subtle hints like his wife switching TV channels to one about yodelling, the protagonist calling his internet the ‘infobahn’). It tells about supposedly untrue stories from Fascisti paperbacks (note the ironic reversal: if the nazis won, the others are fascists), one of such called ‘Blue Raspberries’. Echoes of ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ from PKD’s “The Man in the High Castle”: another imagined book that tells about a supposed imaginary world where the nazis didn’t win.
In an almost Chris Priestian ‘trap-within-a-trap-within-a-trap’ the narrator tells that the story of ‘Blue Raspeberries’ is about nudists being infiltrated by a red-haired, German-named man who infiltrates them, becomes their leader, and then turns them into uniform-toting authoritarians who, in the book’s final scene, parade in the garden at night. Slight echoes of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, strong echoes of the Kristallnacht. The conceit within a conceit here is that the (unreliable?) narrator thinks it’s a fantasy, while the story itself — especially near the end — hints that this is a metaphor for what actually happened.
Hence, unlike ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ in “The Man in the High Castle” — which tells of a world different (although not necessarily ours) from that of the alternate world of the novel — ‘Blue Raspberries’ (the imaginary paperback) in “Blue Raspberries” (the Zencore short story) tells of a world that is basically the same (as the similar titles already suggest).
Furthermore, I strongly suspect that Stockholm wasn’t chosen as the ‘non-existent’, ‘mythical’ city from which the viral stories from ‘Blue Raspberries’ were published for nothing: like the Stockholm syndrome where the hostage is brainwashed into following the hostage-taker’s logic, ‘Blue Raspberries’ tells of how “unwilling participants are locked in a water tank until their will is broken”. “Blue Raspberries” suggests that this has taken place on a country-wide scale since the nazis have won, as the (reliable?) narrator doesn’t seem to see that he has been brainwashed. More subtle hints of his brainwashing appear near the end: he gets a hard-on just thinking about a hard-boiled egg, while the original nudists of ‘Blue Raspberries’ were forced to eat raw eggs; the advert in ‘True Nude’ magazine is from a red-headed man: the red-haired infiltrator in ‘Blue Raspberries’, who likes singing – the nudists were forced to sing humiliating songs in falsetto voices – and linguistics – nudists who refused to speak the ‘forgotten’ language were beaten.
So the circle is round, and the protagonist, who almost begins to realise he was one of the free nudists himself, replies to the advert. It’s unclear whether this will get him back to his fellow nudists (who are now possibly the underground), or straight into a trap set up by the nazi spies.
There is more very clever stuff in there that I didn’t get, like the spiel with his father’s pipes (did Philip K. Dick smoke pipes?), the lop-sided infinity sign of the nudist cult, and more. Multi-layered, extremely clever (some would call it too clever by half), it also reminds me very strongly of Lavie Tidhar’s “304, Adolph Hitler Strasse” (from the first Clarkesworld Magazine issue). While the Tidhar is more direct and heartfelt, both are highly recommended.
Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller: the story of a storytelling program — disguised as a Santa Claus — that interacts with its audience, and so learns to both improve its storytelling, and adapt the story to its audience's needs. It becomes so good at it — too good — and totally entrances groups of children with its stories, and worried parents form a mob against it. They're literally chasing a ghost — one that disappears without even a whiff when no-one looks — but the ghost in this machine has come alive, that is, self-conscious.
An interesting take on how a self-improving storytelling program might become self-aware, although I suspect cause and effect might be jumbled up here. Nevertheless, quite interesting.
The Plunge: a bizarro piece of horror reminiscent of “Digging for Adults” (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), or “Creek Man” (Jamie Rosen, Nemonymous 4). In a non-descript factory Frank snaps children’s necks before he pushes them into a pit, where they burn. His routine is disturbed by a kid who talks, and tries to escape before he kills her. Near the end, the children in line take their fate (or at least the very last part of it) in their own hands and jump into the execution pit without having their necks ('humanely') snapped.
As such, the story evokes bio-industry slaughterhouses, concentration camps, and a sly hint of anti-abortion (especially through the parting note of Frank's partner Esperanza). It reminded me most of the routine on a slaughterhouse’s kill floor, where employees think about mundane things while they bring cows (or pigs, or chicken) to their deaths.
England and Nowhere: this is a truly superb story, with some very fine writing. Superficially it seems a slice-of-life piece about a middle-aged alcoholic watching the people — especially the young couple in the appartment below — around him on a beach resort somewhere along the English coast. But every appearance in this fantastic story is deceiving, and things are not quite what they seem. There is a very subtle, yet palpable sense of menace growing throughout, and there is a reason for every thing (both little and big) that happens.
Now, unlike my analysis of "Blue Raspberries", I'm not going to tell you: you'll have to find out by yourselves, and buy Zencore! "England and Nowhere" is easily worth the price of the book alone: read it, reread it to see what you all missed the first time around (and wonder at the intricacy and masterful attention to detail), and then reread it again. I've only read it twice, and still haven't picked up all the subtle hints and layers of meaning, although a greater picture is starting to form. Classy, evocative, powerful: I think this is in the same class as “The Assistant to Dr. Jacob” (Eric Schaller, Nemonymous 2).
Word Doctor: this might be the obligatory Nemonymous metafictional story (think "The Place Where Lost Things Go" by Jorge Candeias in Nemonymous 3 or “The Scariest Story I Know” — which mixes and/or reverses dream and reality — by Scott Edelman in Nemonymous 5). Arkimp is the word doctor of the title, and he fixes broken words. It's a reminiscence of how we change words, and how words change us, and as such it's a nice coda to Nemonymous 7. Of course, "England and Nowhere" is an extremely tough act to follow, and while "Word Doctor" is not in the same class, it feels right as the ending to Zencore!
Finally, how would I rate Zencore! in the Nemonymous pantheon? Honestly, I don't really have a favourite, just a weakness for Nemonymous 4 because I was published in it, and a fondness for Nemonymous 5. To me, they're quite consistent in their quality and sensibility. Because my personal preferences only partly overlap with Nemo's sensibility, there are always stories I dislike, but those are more than made up for the ones that I do like.
Zencore! is not different from that (a couple of stories that just didn't work for me, more than compensated by the superb ones), and in that respect is a worthy addition to the nemonymic oeuvre.
The only difference is that Des opened Nemo 7 up to longer stories: until Nemo 5 the maximum length was 5000 words, now 8000 words. Assuming approx. 350 words per page, then a 5K+ story would take up some 15 pages or more. Thus the longer stories in Zencore! are "MMM — delicious" (25 pages), "The Awful Truth About the Circus" (19 pages), "Red Velvet Dust" (17 pages), "Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller" (18 pages), and "England and Nowhere" (18 pages). While I did think the first three were too long for what they were trying to say, I enjoyed the fourth, but most importantly: if allowing stories of up to 8K brings in a diamond like "England and Nowhere", then it was well worth it.