Monday, August 11, 2008

Incredible Gene Wolfe interview


Tonight I was trolling around the web, trying to find authors similar to Gene Wolf (huh... RIGHT! As IF!!!) when I suddenly and quite surreptitiously ran across this lengthy and absolutely astonishing interview with the man himself. (The link is also posted at the end of this - um - post!) Let me put this into perspective (if that's possible)....

It's been probably a little over a year since I discovered Wolfe and read the massive Book of the New Sun. I count it as THE highlight of my reading career, and I'm still stunned and amazed by the sheer inventiveness and audacity of that series. The intelligence, the subtle and perceptive grasp of human nature and of the nature of reality and the universe.... in other words, things you seldom find in genre writing (which Wolfe's work most definitively ISN'T, though with their penchant for labeling, bookstores are forced to put him in with the sci-fi and fantasy authors - he fits in with them about as well as Shakespeare fits in with soap opera writers).

And now I feel like I've already found the very best.... there's basically no chance of ever topping his work. Since then I've been WANTING to find authors that exist at that dizzying pinnacle... TRYING to, and despairing of it ever actually happening. I've made a few really excellent finds in the attempt, such as Paulo Bacigalupi, Ted Chaing (who's book Stories About Your Life and Others I just picked up and am enjoying immensely), and David R Palmer, who's story Tracking was serialized in three recent issues of Analog magazine and soon to be printed as a novel, along with the long out-of-print Emergence, to which it's a sequel. But really they don't stand up to the comparison. The only authors I've read extensively who do would be J G Ballard and Angela Carter for their immense ability to create self-contained worlds of pure bravura imaginativeness (if that's even a word).

Incidentally, it occurred to me after making that recent post about what I'm reading that this imaginativeness, this ability to CREATE a thematically-unified world that isn't just a copy of drab reality is the unifying thread that binds together all my favorite authors, including even my earliest such as Andre Norton and Keith Laumer, who I mentioned in that post as writers of (somewhat) standard narrative fictions (as compared to the more poetic writers that post was mainly concerned with).

Wow, sorry, I don't mean to run to such loquaciousness.... let me try to cut to the chase.

In this long interview, Wolfe explains that his fiction is essentially the OPPOSITE of genre science fiction.... that rather than create little worlds where characters can act out simplistic ideas, he weaves a dense tapestry filled with intertwining concepts that cover pretty much the gamut of human thought... with an especial consideration for the more profound, such as language and how it shapes thinking and character, memory (and in particular memories of memories... ) why monsters are really US, and the unreliability (relativity) of narrators for various reasons. He says there's no separating form from subject... they interpenetrate and create each other in a symbiotic relationship.

... And as I was reading, it suddenly occurred to me that his ideas are very similar to those of the Absurdists, who's theories I recently wrote about. But I Must say, I vastly prefer reading his books to watching the plays of Samuel Beckett or the rest of the gang.

Following are a couple of excerpts from the interview to whet the appetite:

Larry McCaffery: Could you discuss what sorts of things have drawn you towards writing SF? Do you find there are certain formal advantages in writing outside the realm of "mainstream" fiction, maybe a freedom that allows you more room for exploring the issues you wish to develop?

Gene Wolfe: It's not so much a matter of "advantages" as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or "science fantasy," which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I'd argue that SF represents literature's real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature's mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.

LM: That's why I began by asking if you weren't attracted to the freedom offered by SF—it's only been since the rise of the novel in the 18th century that writers have more or less tried to limit themselves to describing the ordinary world around them....

Wolfe: It's a matter of whether you're content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you'll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn't have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it's the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

Wolfe: It's the hackneyed notion: "The medium is the message." As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren't reducible to a simple "this or that." "That" and "this" are interacting throughout the story. That's what I meant when I said I'm trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That's realism, that's the way things really are. It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal... Fiction that doesn't acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn't "realistic" in any sense I'd use that term.

... and a link to the entire thing. For anyone who's interested in writing IN ANY FORM I cannot recommend this highly enough!!!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Breathing room.....


At long last, I've finally wrestled my blog out into the wider format I've always wanted for it. 

It always bugged me, that narrow column with all the blank space on both sides... especially when you tend to write in depth like I do (not your typical newsflash/soundbyte blogger). It took some doin, let me tell you! I grappled with it half the night.... mostly just trying to get the post titles and those little time/date stamps centered... it looked really wrong with those pushed all the way over on the left. 

So now my pics are a bit lost in all the space... they're mostly 400 pixels wide in what's now a 640 pixel space. 

And if you look at any of the older pages, they're not centered either.... I have to take care of that on a post-by-post basis. So I just did the front page. But from here on out they'll all be centered, and I'll be able to start posting them BIGGER!!!

Anyway, this is just a heads up... oh, and I'll be making a new blog banner soon to fit as well. I've been wanting to do THAT for some time now too, since not only do the colors no longer match my new black format, but I know a lot more about using the Lumix now too... that one was from when it was brand new. 


I've had some requests to explain how I accomplished this. Well, like I said, there was a lot of wrestling.... I had to keep trying, met with failures, partial successes, and things in between until finally it all added up. As a result I couldn't give a clear, straightforward tutorial of how to do this, but here are the major steps. 

My inspiration came from seeing Rich Johnson's blog.

He has the wider format like I want. So I took a gander at his source. To do that, control click anywhere on the background of a page (not on a link or picture) and select "view source". This shows you the HTML document that creates his blog. I looked at it and compared it to mine. What I noticed is that in the Header section his width was set to 660 pixels, while mine was set to 400. I made that change in my Template (first viewing my own page source and saving a copy of it, in case I screwed up so bad I needed to go back). It did increase the width of the main column, but the sidebar got pushed down under everything. To fix that I had to increase the overall width to 900 pixels... don't remember where I did that, and scanning through my template now I don't see it, but it's there somewhere. 

That was basically it, but then I had to figure out how to center the titles and date/time stamps. That was the tricky part. I finally figured out I needed to add a couple of "text-align:center;" tags into the header and body sections. If you look through my source you should be able to find them. If this is all gibberish to you, then I wouldn't recommend trying it! Definitely learn the basics of HTML code before attempting anything like this... a little googling will turn up endless sites where you can learn it. And when you're making changes in your blog template, make them one at a time so you always have the option to click the "clear edits" button... sometimes you can't remember what you've changed to change it back!!! 

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: 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.