Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What I'm reading


I don't often blog about my reading habits aside from my research into animation and filmmaking technique, and I thought it was about time I did just that. Especially since I just got a serious jump-start from a story called Pump 6 by Paulo Bacigalupi (still trying to learn how to spell/pronounce that nomen!)

My favorite has always been the sci-fi/fantasy stuff, starting with the action/adventure type when I was a kid (Kieth Laumer, Andre Norton and Fritz Leiber being my then-favorites) and progressing on to more surreal/literary/poetic stuff like J G Ballard, Angela Carter, and Will Self. One scribe I DID blog about a while back was Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was so exciting to me that it influenced the name of this blog (it was about a mysterious substance known as Dust, AKA Dark Matter). 

In one sense, Pullman fits neatly into the first group of authors I mentioned above, because his writing is fairly straightforward narrative style... no playing with timeline or identity, or messing with the reader's head. Just good, exciting, well-written storytelling stuff. But after my recent delving into poetic film and Theater of the Absurd, I now realize that most of the authors I have taken to in recent years fit into the second category.... a sort of dreamlike approach that dispenses with the conventional Aristotlean approach and instead opts for a much more Modernist approach that fits better into a post- Freud/Einstein/Van Gough world. 


One of my most amazing recent discoveries in this poetic fiction field was John Gardner's Grendel, recommended to me by my old Germanic freund Thomas Heiss. Definitely one of the most amazing reads I've ever experienced.... it's the tale of Beowulf told through the eyes of the monster Grendel. For me --- though it's completely different in form, this stands on a level alongside the Middle Earth books by Tolkein. And not much else does that! 

So, finished with that intense but all-too-short novel, I hungered for more that would satisfy my newly-acquired taste for this kind of work. Something that would stimulate the deeper centers of the brain, not just appeal to the whiz-bang kid in me. Something that, while still definitely fantasy/sci-fi (and hence not DEADLY DULL AND BORING, as social fiction tends to be) still managed to make you think and seemed to touch on deeper levels of reality than a Stallone movie. In fact, movies make a good analogy.... you could say I had developed a taste for books akin to Mulholland Drive or Pulp Fiction rather than -- well --- a Stallone flick. So I decided to turn my formidable websearching skillz to this end, and what I emerged with was a series penned by Gene Wolfe called The Book of the New Sun (click it... it's his Wikipedia page, and it will lead you on a wonderful journey of discovery. Reading about Wolfe online is exceptionally revealing, and contributes a great deal to understanding his work).

Intelligent writing, cheesy covers

It's about a guy named Severin, an executioner in a world that could possibly be Earth in the far distant future... or is it the unimaginable past? Or maybe an alternate universe entirely? There are remnants of past epochs of history transposed alongside elements of the far-flung future. The planet is called Urth, and society exists at a sort of Renaissance level... outposts of barbarism interspersed between vast wealthy city-states overflowing with sumptuousness and decadence. Mountain ranges carved by some unimaginable technology into the likenesses of monarchs... a fleet of grounded spaceships who's very purpose has been long forgotten, now serving as citadels for the Torturer's Guild. And what's really excellent about it is the supreme skill and subtlety with which Wolfe reveals these wonders.... he doesn't explain something when you first encounter it, but just presents it the way the characters see it... as something maybe mysterious to them, but familiar.

So it takes a few chapters before you suddenly realize that the metal citadels Severin stalks through as an apprentice torturer are (possibly) spacecraft, and nobody knows it! This was one of many slow-burn adrenaline rushes I got while immersed in this incredible world. And there are the caste of aristocrats that he occasionally mentions are tall, but it's not until well into the series that he reveals the (apparently well-known, so therefore unimportant) detail that they're all genetically modified, and are in fact all at least 7 feet in height! I love this method of gradual revelation, where in more pedestrian fiction all of this would be explained early in the book, or as soon as it appears in the story --- taking all the mystery and magic out of it.

It's so much more spine-tingling (and FUN) to discover these wonderful things rather than to be told about them by a pedantic narrator. (Hey, look it up if you don't know it.... and a hint... do the same as you read Wolfe's work.... he often uses little-known words from ancient history and learning what they mean brings a much deeper understanding and appreciation to his world).

Um..... where was I.... Wow, sorry, I didn't mean to spend so much time on the Book of the New Sun. But I suppose it's right, because really Wolfe represents a whole new strain of powerful, surreal, and very intelligent (but still exciting) sci-fi fantasy writers.

And the most recent one I've discovered who seems to have absorbed Wolfe's lessons and developed them in his own way is Paulo Bacigalupi (yes, I'm typing it out every time, hoping I remember it right). Ok, I'm running out of steam here.... there's more I'd like to say, but instead Ill just post this link: Windupstories.com/pumpsix/the-people-of-sand-and-slag/. Paulo has his own site, and on it. along with links to where you can buy his just-released book Pump Six and other stories (only available in hardback at about $15 now, the paperback should be following soon) AND.... for your convenience and edification --- yes, actual STORIES!!! Three of the stories from the book are available for free online reading or download/printing. I normally don't like to read stories online unless they're short (they are) and they really ROCK (they do). So go. Read. Be amazed. Consume product. Live long and perspire.

I also wanted to say that the story Pump Six is printed in this month's issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine... that's where I found it. Available at newsstands and bookstores now. 


Shelley Noble said...

u rite rael gud!

I admire the way you so intelligently explain yourself, Mike. And that you read. I do nothing for entertainment, every activity now must serve Vaal, if you know what I mean.

(Vaal, protector of Gamma Trianguli VI)

Darkstrider said...

Hey, my every activity serves Vaal as well!!!

Seriously, as this post indicates, my reading interests tend to parallel my current artistic interests. It used to be straightforward heroic fiction stuff, now it's poetic and symbolic. It's two different aspects of the same thing.... the story and the visuals. And now I also see how music fits into the same picture... I might be blogging that soon as well. Anyway, all of it feeds the gestalt. I must absorb story in order to excrete it, right? I read, therefore I can write. I must see before I can render the visual. It's entertaining, but it serves a much deeper purpose at the same time. It's seeing what other artists have seen, how they see it. And it allows me to rise ever higher onto the shoulders of these giants.

Sven Bonnichsen said...

OK, you're freakin' me out, man. I just read "Pump Six" this morning... AND also pulled out "Grendel" for a re-read. Frightening coincidence.

But I've arrived at this same spot via different routes.

Re Grendel, I just finished reading "The Art of Fiction" by John Gardner a few weeks ago, and wanted to re-read his Beowulf-inspired tale because I'm interested in how to genre-cross Monster Tales with Art House Films. (I'm planning to re-read "Mrs. Caliban" by Rachel Ingalls for the same purpose.)

Re Pump Six, I just read it in the periodical "Fantasy & Science Fiction" (Sept '08 issue). Sunday I finished reading "Creating Short Fiction" by Damon Knight, which convinced me that I should be studying short fiction rather than novels or feature films right now... And F&SF seemed like a good place to start ingesting content, to absorb form.

Oh man, I keep wanting to recommend "The Art of Fiction" to you! It goes off on long stretches that are only relevant to novelists -- but like with "Writing with Pictures," there's a lot of relevance to stopmo, even so. Gardner is just frickin' brilliant. (Praise reserved for few, I hope you know.)

I'm, also wanting to recommend "Creating Short Fiction," which is wonderfully readable, and touches on a number of issues that none of the other books on writing fiction (that I've read) seem to.

I know that you went through your phase of studying straight narrative a year or two ago, so we're out of sync slightly in that regard... But in "The Art of Fiction," Gardner has some really excellent commentary about the differences between Expressionism, Surrealism, Absurdism, and Irrealism (e.g. Borges). It might help provide a nice bridge between your interest in straight story telling and the magical mystery tours-de-force of Becket, Ionesco, etc.

Shelley Noble said...

You guys keave me in the dust.

Mike, you know I wasn't saying you shouldn't be reading. right? I admire it.

I will add though that brother, you oooze excretions from every pore already! If you know what I mean, in the most flattering sense. Typing doesn't do this justice, I'm playing! You have lived more life and contain more artistry right now than someone who hasn't and doesn't. Hee. :)

Darkstrider said...

Sven... wow!!! That IS a nice bit of synchronicity!!! It's exciting just to know that you've read it! More than anything I've read or seen in recent years, that story spoke to me in terms that are completely relevant in the contemporary world I live in. Sort of like a Gatsby for today. Of course he exaggerates.... that's how he works his magic - by taking problems that are slightly evident now and projecting them forward in time along a path where they've become magnified a hundredfold. You might enjoy this interview with Paulo where he recounts his very sudden and completely unexpected conversation with Harlan Ellison: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/blogs/2008/03/science-fiction-friday-harlan.html

I'll definitely get The Art of Fiction... almost bought it already several times, as it's one of the most highly regarded writing books out there. Heh... and I haven't completely overthrown conventional narrative... I'll doubtless do some films that way, it's just that right now I"m 'onto' this thing and want to pursue it as far as I can before running out of steam on it. I think most of my films will be somewhere in between actually... like Pulp Fiction, there's a narrative, but it's been twisted to strengthen the drama.

@Shelley... i knew what you meant, just couldn't help responding to the 'entertainment' comment. Yeah, I do get a lot of entertainment out of it, but it also provides more. Though often that consists of thinking "Wow, note to self... don't ever write such formulaic garbage" as I read..... ;)

Darkstrider said...


I'll also get Creating Short Fiction. I still believe in the importance of understanding conventional narrative technique... heck, the more modernist stuff is essentially a reaction AGAINST it, and how can you react against something without understanding it?

And Shellsies, I thank you for the comment about oozing excretions from every pore!!! I know just what you mean by that, though I think I'd react very differently if anyone else ever said that to me.... ;)

Melvyn Erville said...

Bah chee gah loo pee
Great recommendations, and thanks to Sven for "The Art of Fiction" by John Gardner recommendation. I like to get a little more out of entertainment, especially reading, than just comfort food, and I love a book that requires me to have reference.com open on my laptop. I like stuff that holds up to repeat reading or viewing (Gravity’s Rainbow anyone?) but I also like seedy pulp (anything by Cornell Woolrich). BTW The Wizard Knight books have really great cover art by one of my favorite illustrators Gregory Manchess.

Melvyn Erville said...

Also I'm interested to see what your current artistic interests will lead you to Musically!

Darkstrider said...

Well hello Mr. Erville... we meet again!

You know... the music thing isn't all that good really... not worthy of its own blog post, so I'll just do it here.

Thought of this while I was mowing the lawn, right after finishing the above blog post.

My musical interests used to be centered mainly on progressive rock... Yes, Kansas, ELP, that sort of stuff. Very classical-based. In other words, traditional.... straightforward. OH, there was also the hard rock... Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin (which now that I think about it, fit better into the Poetic category... they were an early precursor I guess.

Thinking about changes in the pop music landscape makes me think about similar changes in Hollywood that have taken place at about the same time (since the 70's.... through the 80's mostly) --- a move away from good artistry and toward demographic safety... "It's what the kids are listening to now baby!". Simple, plodding, formulaic.... both music and movies in the 80's for the most part. Mind-numbing, though often quite fun in a simplistic way. With of course (as always) the occasional standout.

Then came the 90's. Still a lot of the same approach as the 80's, but with a different focus. Grim rather than fun. It's what the kids were listening to. Grunge. Speed metal, death metal, thrash/// lots of sub-groupings of essentially mindless extremism.... the watchword of the day since the 90's. But along the way, a few great artists have emerged either by fitting into these trends or in spite of them.

I'll just mention 2 of the top standouts for me... Tori Amos and Mastodon. You couldn't name two more different bands. Or 2 more talented artists.

They're both poetic in their own way... not adhering to any formulaic ideas (such as rhythmic beat, AABA construction, or what-have-you). Amos is like a mad, genius baroque composer, somehow transitioning perfectly from intense power to the most delicate beauty, all in a stream-of-consciousness rapture. Mastodon technically subscribe to a sub-genre of metal called Sludge metal or sometimes they're called a Math-metal band (because their music is so insanely precise). What other band, at ANY time, would have done a concept album based on Mellville's Moby Dick? Listening to it (the Leviathan album in particular, and the instrumentals especially - the singing is a bit harsh for me) I feel I'm being sucked into some incredible undersea world where gravity has been supplanted by the constantly surging lateral forces of oceanic tide. The spiraling, hypnotic rhythms draw me into a dreaming state.

At the same time, I've also delved backwards in musical history and started listening to some jazz... with a preference for Coltrane and Charlie Parker. They do something similar to Amos' and mastodon's formless pulsing extemporaniety... a sheer, bold, and purely musical invention that takes place moment to moment, an ongoing creation building note by note according to internal rhythms and structures only the artist himself is aware of, and probably can't define or describe, can only respond to through his instrument.

When IO really want sheer inspiration I put on Coltrane's Complete 1961 Village Vanguard sessions and let it take my mind to unexplored regions of inner space.

Darkstrider said...


Yes and Kansas were always extremely poetic and inventive musically, and Yes was lyrically as well. Kansas was pretty traditional lyrically for the most part.

So even early on my musical tastes were pretty poetic. Somehow music seems to be much more free in form than movies or stories - much easier for a poetic band to get airtime than a poetic filmmaker or author, except at certain times when artistry is appreciated by the selling machines.

And this makes me realize that poetic form has always been with us, though largely marginalized by the dominant Classical form. You can go back as far as the baroque... Bach was as poetic in his approach as Mastodon (not many other similarities, though I must say his music has a similar effect. Read above re being sucked into a hypnotic undersea world).

Melvyn Erville said...

Well put! This brings many things to mind like: why can’t any other art be like music? It’s like if art were the animal kingdom, music would be the birds. Cinema at best has been maybe an ostrich by comparison. But as with any art form I love the musician that has the music flowing out of them, like they can’t help it. Take Steve Howe for instance, he’s the guitar player for Yes, I have that live album from like 72 or something and as a guitar player myself he really blows my mind, I mean he’s just playing the same blues scales everyone learned, but it’s not just showing off digital dexterity, it’s speaking to the ineffable! I mean you have to listen several times because there’s a lot going on there, and compared to the studio recordings of those songs (which I didn’t hear till years later) it almost sounds like he’s messing up, but it’s that “just on the edge of falling off balance” thing that sounds genuine to me. I also have a live recording of Coltrain doing “Favorite Things” that has that same genuine mind blowing something, far from the saccharine sound of music version (don’t get me wrong, I love that movie, but I also love syrup on my waffles). It didn’t matter if it was “Happy Birthday” or “Chopsticks” if Coltrain or Thelonious Monk took it over it was like “the universe is talking to me”. It’s doubtlessly much harder for a director to take the traditional narrative and give it that extemporaneous free flowingness, given the necessities of time and collaboration, but some of the great Masters accomplished amazing poetry with huge orchestras. Incidentally there’s a new anthology just out from Image Comics that is tales inspired by the songs of Tori Amos! It’s called: “Comic Book Tattoo” and I hear it’s really good though I haven’t seen it yet myself, but I’m interested in seeing music translated graphically like this. I have often been disappointed by music videos, I feel they’re missing a great opportunity, though I realize these are usually out of the musician’s hands and made by the corps to pimp album sales or whatever. One group that takes matters in their own hands and has some good videos is Radiohead. Anyway if your still listening after all this ranting let me recommend the Mars Volta, Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong, Laura Marling (she blows my mind for one so young!), and of course early Genesis when they still had Peter Gabriel!!!

Darkstrider said...

You bring up a very good question.... why can't other art forms be like music? The Quays try to make their films like music.... using improvisation and repetition rather than narrative, and they also try to "use space like a dancer".

Music has something cinema can't have... it's purely aural. Cinema has an aural element, but it's married to the visual. Because music comes in through your ears, it's "always there"... you can't miss it by blinking or looking at something else. Even if you go in the kitchen to make a snack, you can still hear the music.

It's two very different senses, with very different functions. I think vision is more focused (no pun intended, but I'll take the points anyway) and requires more attention, where as music is more of a passive experience. And generally speaking, in films the sound is there mostly to back up the visuals... foley track, sound effects and dialogue slavishly following what we see. Only the music itself is free of the visuals, and even that is often closely matched through some kind of knee-jerk conventionality.

Many people who were around at the transition from silent film to talkies feel that the movies took a wrong turn at that point.... that sound could have (should have) been used more artistically.... a counterpoint to the visuals. There have been some directors in the art-film camp who use sound this way.... Lynch, Von Sternberg did it right at the dawn of the talkies, Chaplin I believe did it in his early talkies. But the conventional Hollywood way was to make films and their sound track utterly "realistic". This killed the sheer artistry that the silents often achieved mainly BECAUSE they were free of sound.

... And I LOVE early Genesis AND Coltrane's Favorite Things! I used to whistle it at work, and this girl got all upset because she loves the Sound of Music version and she just thought I was messing it up!

Melvyn Erville said...

That's a good point about the un-blinking ear, it's like sound goes in a side door that can't be shut, and this is definitely underutilized. So it's settled, we storm the castle at sunrise, oh wait wrong blog…Buy the way, true story, whistling at work got me fired from my last three jobs so watch yer back broham…