See: Wandering Star, Born Under

As you read this I am barreling down I-90 with the Against the Day audiobook and a car full of art, hitting the road to promote In the Cities of Coin and Spice. I’ve spent most of the last two years doing the traveling writer rag, and it’s a peculiar half-Bedouin life, but it’s become a ritual thing: long, dark highway, music, planning the next novel in my head as I go to promote the current one. It doesn’t suck, really, except for the lack of sleep. The carnival comes to you, minus a deformed monkey or two.

So, as typing and driving at the same time are inadvisable, I’d like cheat just a smidge and take today to invite you and all your loved ones to the final Orphan’s Tales shows:

December 1st 7-10pm
Pandemonium Books
4 Pleasant St.
Cambridge, MA 02139

New York
December 4th 7-10pm
NYRSF Reading Will Be Taken Over by Gypsies.
South Street Seaport Museum’s Melville Gallery
213 Water Street in Manhattan

Art by 22 different craftsmen from Michael Kaluta to Jennifer Parrish, music by S.J. Tucker, and readings by me. It will be, dare I say, awesome.

Raise Your Gauntlet of Rock

Still Cat Valente here. You must endure a few more days of me and my rambling yet! *cue evil laughter and some sort of machine lighting up ominously*


It’s funny how music terms get appropriated and become general terms–like punk or punk rock. Or like “metal.”

Most of my friends use this word about as often as they use the word “awesome,” which is to say constantly and with overweening enthusiasm. “That’s pretty metal,” Jack will say when he wins a game decisively. And he means it’s good on the level of bone-crunching, passionate, bombastic, anger-filled music that might or might not be from the devil, that has shredding virtuoso guitars and thumping drums you can feel in your pancreas. I dig that as an adjective, especially since, like writing, playing metal is way harder than it seems, and writing fantasy is just as likely to be written off as not real music/literature.

I wonder about the motivations involved in the invocation of punk in our wide and diverse genre. I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday’s post, more or less nonstop. It speaks to me of a deep longing for all that punk represents, and a deep anxiety that as a group, we ain’t got it. Maybe we feel there is something inherently not-very-punk about sitting at a keyboard for twelve hours and writing about ray guns and fairy socio-political constructs. It doesn’t look cool, like playing a guitar, there are no video games to simulate it, and despite the shine the idea of writing has, the reality is so boring that three generations of filmmakers have bent over backward trying to come up with a way to show it on-screen that doesn’t make the viewing public nose-dive into their popcorn and came up with, collectively, a fake nose and a montage. So we invoke people who are somehow ineffably cooler than us, hopeless dorks that most of us were and are. That’s ok–music is usually trying to get itself taken seriously in a literary way, so it’s fair game. But we must want it, god, we must want it so bad if we keep using the word like it’s an amulet against the world. (Secretly, though? Writing IS punk rock. It’s hard fucking core and we are kung-fu lycanthropic nuns with mean hangovers. But don’t tell anyone. There’s only so much depilatory cream to go around.)

But we have to earn it if we’re going to wear it, you know? No $200 ripped skirt with patches pre-sewn on. Even though it’s a vague and subjective thing, what is punk, what is metal, what is not–well, what is not is usually pretty obvious, but what is is often less clear. Insert pornography test here. I’m not sure myself if I know what the hell I’m talking about–someone said to me yesterday that fantasy was by definition not metal, and I killed him with my pen sputtered indignantly for a long while, trying to explain the secret hardcore of fantasy. Though I think, given that musicians have been arguing their own terms since at least 1977, I can be forgiven for not having a Recipe for Metal.

But I have an idea of what the dish looks like when it’s done. It’s something bone-crunching, passionate, bombastic, something so honest it hurts, something hard, virtuoso, thumping, pounding. You feel it in your pancreas.

And somehow, it’s the key to something. Like a pile of mashed potatoes. Something awesome and terrible, something fantasy can be. Something we can be. And my challenge to myself as I work on my sixth novel is, at the end of every chapter, to ask myself:

“Is this metal?”

And move forward only if the big, antisocial, spike-booted, string-shredding, pen-stabbing imp with a steel bar through her face who lives somewhere to the left of my spleen says: Fuck yeah, it’s metal!

I challenge you to do the same.

And you don’t stop.

Blowing Off Steam

There comes a time in the life of every young novelist when she starts to think zeppelins are really cool, and corsets and goggles and vague gear-based science seem to lurk around every corner, opening their jackets to her nubile gaze and revealing a lining sewn with all the books she might write involving Victoriana and steam-powered rockets.

Parents, talk to your children about steampunk.

It’s everywhere these days, isn’t it? Anime, Doctor Who, novel after novel involving clockwork and airships. Young women going about in bustles, for heaven’s sake! But it’s just as easy for the kids these days to get impure steampunk, cut with lesser punk materials.

Let me say it now and for all time, for the protection of your little ones: you can’t have steampunk without steam.

Most of the product on the street these days would more adequately be termed clockpunk or gearpunk–though the golden age of clocks was about a century too early to bear the ubiquitous Victorian sticker with which we plaster everything from the Enlightenment era to Belle Epoque. If there’s a corset and a repressed manservant, by god, it’s Victorian. Steam power itself seems rather inconvenient, bludgeoned out of the way by corpulent balloons and quasi-Dickensian dialogue.

It is my understanding, poor, un-hip child that I am, that steampunk correlates precisely with cyberpunk, substance of choice of the last generation: literature which addresses and delineates anxiety (hence the punk, also ubiquitous, also nearly meaningless now) concerning new technology, computers in the first case, steam power in the second. Yet in almost everything I’ve ever seen called steampunk (besides the powerfully adequate Steamboy film) that eternal gateway drug, there is no actual steam power to speak of, and precious little anxiety. Because we, in our current, painfully neo-Victorian culture, think all that old-fashioned stuff is so damn cool, well, the actual Victorians must have loved it, too, right?

Dare to tell your wee wastrels that it’s not all quaint manners and cufflinks–steam technology caused horrific scalding and often death, thrilling explosions and the utter terror and unfathomable joy–and which one often depended entirely on whether you owned the factory or worked in it–of a world which was changing so very fast, devouring itself in an attempt to lay just one more mile of railroad track. Again, I return to seriousness as a necessary addition to fantasy: if you want Victoria in your coat pocket, if you want the world that comes with her, all that possibility, all that terrible, arrogant, gorgeous technology, take it all, make it true, be honest and ruthless with it, or you’re just gluing gears to your fingers and running around telling everyone you’re a choo-choo train. Get punk or go home–and think, for just a precious second, about what punk means, the rage and iconoclasm and desperation, the nihilism and unsentimental ecstasy of punk rock. I’ve heard the punk suffix mocked soundly by everyone I know–but we should be so lucky as to live up to it.

If you’re going to go prowling for tophatted villians at night, seek out the pure stuff, the real, filthy, ugly, euphoric sludge at the bottom of a spoon, because that’s the Victorian era, that’s steam power, that’s a world shredding itself to death on the spindle of industry, hoping to wake up to a prince in a hundred years. No one wants to get screwed with a bag full of Drano and flaccid research.

But gears are so pretty. So easy. Why, you hardly need to know any science at all! Just stick a gear on it and it’s golden! Come on, Mom, just one clockwork automaton, please? Don’t be such a hardass.

And you can have them. They can talk like C3PO and everyone can eat gearcakes with brass icing for tea, and it can be a beautiful thing, but you mustn’t call it steampunk.

We Built This City…

Hello all! *taps mic*

I’m Cat Valente, and I’ll be your server for the duration of the week. I will take this opportunity to present you all with the obligatory exhortation to read my books, particularly In the Cities of Coin and Spice, the second and final book in The Orphan’s Tales series, which came out early this month. No reason to be falsely shy about it–I like to eat, you like to read, it’s a match made in gastro-optical heaven.

Now that’s done, what I thought I might do this week is talk about literary dark matter that comes up in both Jeff and my novels. What I mean by dark matter is the stuff that holds it all together but that the reader doesn’t see. The computer screen and the written page are terrible windows which are perfectly transparent, but have a bitch of a time-lag. The author peers out, staring at an empty world for a long while. A couple of years later, the reader comes along and lives in the world, peering in at the author’s house, which the author has long since vacated, moving on to other books, other worlds, other empty vistas of readerless landscape. So we really only get to talk to each other, readers and authors, outside the structure of the house and the window and this incredibly over-thought metaphor. Interviews and blogs and such. But even between authors, a lot of the thought process–which is to say, the way we think about the content of our novels, as I have no interest in getting into what kind of laptop I use and whether or not I am currently in a cafe and what sort of font I prefer–is pretty opaque. Dark matter. It must be there, or the universe wouldn’t hold, but damned if you can find it.

So. Let’s talk about cities for a bit, shall we? Ambergris is one of the most successful single-city settings in fantasy, and I…well, there’s cities in my book, too. See how everything is connected? Or not. Anyway.

The city is the political unit of fantasy literature, probably because of the ostensibly medieval setting. Cities offered protection, shelter, commerce–and ideas about the countries which contained these cities were vague at best for the entry level peasant. When fantasy writers talk about worldbuilding, what they often mean is citybuilding–creating consecutive cities that might be plausibly part of the same region one after the other. But there isn’t a lot of Federalism among dwarves, if you catch my meaning. The city-state is the dominant mode, even in kingmaking dramas, where the capital is the source of power and object of urban longing towards which the kinglet travels with unrelenting focus. The epic fantasy usually bounces between several (cf. George Martin, Tolkien, et al.) with one designated as the capital and a whole lot of flyover country making up the rest of the world.

It seems to me that most of the general fantasy cities are either Not!1983NewYork or Not!1910Topeka. Let me explain. New York City is no longer the terrifying, jewel-jawed behemoth set to devour your children and get your poodle addicted to crack. It’s far more likely to force your poodle into indentured servitude in a film-turned-Broadway-musical or sell your children exclusive Metropolis-only Disney products. But New York as a model for urban fantasy is forever stuck in that darkest and dingiest Alphabet City era Big Apple, full of magical heroin, prostitutes of whatever race skeeres ya most, and enough trash to bury Minas Tirith in an avalanche of Pepsi cans and lettuce.

The other fantasy city is Topeka circa 1910–bucolic, fertile, full of basically good natured country folk with carrots to sell and ancient artifacts to undervalue. Quasi-communist, ridiculously nuclear families, and all the women baking things for adventurers instead of smashing the patriarchy.

So what makes, not a Topeka, not a New York, but a great fantasy city? What are the great fantasy cities? (That’s one for the comments–I’ll throw out Minas Tirith–though Bree feels more lived in at times, New Crobuzon, Ambergris, and Ankh-Morpork just to do the light lifting for you and get the obvious out of the way.)

The cities I created as part of The Orphan’s Tales–there are, I believe, six major ones–were not intended to be high-resolution realistic–they are fairy tale cities, and so I could indulge my passion for thematic living, hopefully without falling into that distasteful genre pitfall of the single-culture city/continent/planet. The basic ideas were various: an architectural innovation, dominant crop, mineral desposit, or local fauna, geographical situation, economic situation, etc. I usually then blew one of those attributes up into a huge issue–how does a culture form around the dominant foodstuff, in the way of, say, Midwestern beauty queens sculpted in butter? What bizarre cultures can I pull out of a city of doctors, or a city where spice is the cash crop? How can I make these cultures feel real? (The answer to that is, surprisingly often, to make them as small as possible, habits of families and quarters of a city, neighborhoods and unions. So many fantasy cities seem to stop when the page turns. They hide the rings or the crown and milk some cows or kill some tourists and that’s about it.) How does an economic boom or crisis skew the development of a city, and in a fairy tale world where consequences are so incredibly dire, is recovery ever possible? How do you translate real world issues such as immigration, urban blight, or soil depletion into a fantasy setting? By the time I’ve answered all of this, I usually have the basic idea of a city in my head, like a blueprint. One of my favorite things to do in the context of my books is to force heroines to deal with fairy tale crises in realistic ways, and force fantasy worlds to undergo post-industrial crisis in utterly non-realistic ways. We all have our kinks.

Of course, what makes Ambergris so compelling is the authoritative history set forth in City of Saints and Madmen–we are hard-wired to take a pedantic tone seriously and nod along with the professor. So it is not only a genuine and serious rethinking of urban development, but the tone with which the city is presented that makes it the kind of place that reviewers will say is another character in the book. How one chooses to present the necessary urban exposition–which is a bit like urban exploration, dragging your readers through blasted-out buildings and promising them that if they just come a little farther they’ll see something really cool.

I suppose fairy tales and traditional fantasy are necessarily, if not urban fantasy, rural fantasy. And yet…I’d love to see fantasy that treats the issues of rural life with the same seriousness that Perdido Street Station gives the city. I wonder if some of the criticism leveled at fantasy doesn’t come from a perception that we do not treat with even our most beloved tropes seriously–it is easy to make an elf with pointy ears and preternatural beauty, but so much harder to make hardcore elfhood, something real and bloody and chewy and challenging. Even the fetishized long fields of fantasy, the bakers and farmers and horse-herders, they always feel like set-dressing. But then, I live in the Midwest, where rural issues are lack of work, government subsidies or lack thereof, vanished industry, dead soil, crops you can grow but can’t eat yourself, pesticides, pollution…not exactly the Shire, is it, Sam?

But wouldn’t it make a hell of a story? At the end of all this rambling I think I’ve figured out what I’m trying for, and looking for: Kantian fantasy. All people, all cities, are ends in themselves, not means to an end.

Catherynne M. Valente: Guest Blogging Thru Sunday

The most excellent Cat Valente is promoting her latest novel, the second volume of the Orphan’s Tales. The first book won the Tiptree Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Anyway, as part of celebrating the release of her new book, she’ll be guest blogging here from now until Sunday. Please make her feel at home while I work on a ton of December 1 deadlines! (And I’m sure she’ll tell you more about what she’s been up to…)


From The Lookout to 1408: Thanksgiving Capsule Reviews

Over the holidays, we wound up seeing a ton of films, both on DVD and in theaters. Here’s a quick run-down of all of them, from the best to the worst.

(1) The Lookout (DVD) – A stunning directorial debut by the screenwriter of one of our all-time favorite movies, Out of Sight. A slightly brain damaged ex-highschool hockey star tries to pick up the pieces of his life and gets involved in a bank robbery while trying to figure it out. Beautifully shot, perfectly edited, and with stand-out performances from everyone from Jeff Daniels in a supporting role to Joseph Gordon-Levitt amazing job in the starring role. Packs a real emotional effect by the end, without seeming contrived.

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Weird Tales Has New Web Site

Weird Tales has a cool new Word Press web site. Go check it out–they’re asking for opinions on the 85 weirdest writers of the past 85 years, in honor of the upcoming 85th anniversary of Weird Tales.

As you all probably know, my wife Ann is the fiction editor for Weird Tales. Her first issue comes out later this year. One thing I know about Ann: she’ll read a story from Stephen King the same way she reads a story from a new writer. Which is to say, she’s interested in quality, not names, so expect some surprises, and expect to get hooked on some great new writers.


Vance Discussion Continues…

I just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that the Jack Vance discussion in an early post is still ongoing. I’ve posted my own comment about the effective distancing technique in Vance’s Dying Earth stories.

Blogging will continue to be sporadic through December 1st.


The Darjeeling Limited…Sucketh

We rarely walk out of movies, but half-way through The Darjeeling Limited, we did exactly that. While we’ve enjoyed other movies by the director Wes Anderson–Bottle Rocket and Rushmore in particular–The Darjeeling Limited is bankrupt in terms of character and plot. If nothing happened but the characters were interesting, we would have kept watching. If something had happened even if the characters weren’t interesting, we would have kept watching.

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