Science Friday and The Lost City of Z: Further Thoughts

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I was thrilled to be on Science Friday today along with host Ira Flatow, producer Annie Minoff, and space archaeologist Sarah Parcak. We were talking about the current SciFri Book Club selection The Lost City of Z by David Grann and you can listen to the show here.

I’m glad they’ve devoted several segments to The Lost City of Z over the past weeks as the book is too complex and too wide and deep for a single discussion. It details the Amazon expeditions of Percy Fawcett, one of the last Victorian explorers. The book also describes the author’s own attempt to retrace the footsteps of Fawcett, who disappeared during his last expedition in 1925. Grann also fills in the time between, during which many people went into the jungle trying to find Fawcett. Some of them could be termed professionals — professional explorers or scientists — but many were amateurs. And many of them died or disappeared in the attempt.

The ending of The City of Z turns much of the testament to human eccentricity present in the book’s first half into something profound and haunting. It is not so much a twist as a different way of seeing the landscape, and a commentary on something you see so often with early European explorers and even later anthropologists or archaeologists: the evidence is right there but they can’t see it. Either from lack of tech or lack of imagination or pre-set cultural expectations. Or through bad luck. So the book builds and builds until what’s absurd takes on a kind of quietly luminescent quality. It really is a classic.

[Read more…]

No Super Bowl? 9 Books to Read

Now that I’ve got your attention…here’s the link to that feature, which includes Annihilation but also a bunch of really fascinating titles, some of which I haven’t read. Also some nice design featured.

Even if you are watching the Super Bowl, you could do worse than spend half-time listening to NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge, which today featured stellar interviews with Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, and Claudia Rankine, and more. In their last hour, they re-ran this feature on weird fiction, which includes an interview about the Southern Reach novels.

Nnedi talked more about her novel Lagoon in this LA Times piece I wrote last year, about autobiography in SF/Fantasy. Also featuring Lauren Beukes.

If none of that floats your boat, I strongly suggest you check out Broad City, which is available on Cable on-demand. An amazing, hilarious show that’s kind of what Girls could’ve been, with more zany.

Southern Reach Trilogy

Boxing Up The Southern Reach

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I can’t even tell you what it feels like to box up the entire Southern Reach trilogy–every last major draft, print-out and handwritten scrawl, every notebook and scrap of scribbled inspiration. But it’s done because it needs to get out of the house and into storage just as a de-cluttering issue. And after I took this photo I found another box full of Annihilation drafts I’d forgotten about. A total of three years of work including touring behind the novels–the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.

A fair number of notes and scene fragments are written on torn-out pages from an advance copy of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Loved the novel, but found myself in a situation where I had no paper and needed to write some stuff down. And, yes, there are also some notes written on leaves, while I was out hiking and ran out of anything to write on. (I’ve written a behind-the-scenes tell-all that will appear some place very cool in the next couple of weeks.)

I’m happy to have tamed this monstrosity–if I’d left it longer, I think Area X would’ve formed in my office. Here’s what it looked like yesterday:

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Books Shelved: Archipelago, Centipede, Dedalus, Europa, New Directions, NYRB Classics, Penguin, Semiotext(e), Subterranean, Tartarus, & More

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One nice thing about being home for a while–I finally got around to shelving some of my favorite books, into one bookcase of awesome. Certain publishers and imprints I collect because I know that most everything they produce I’ll gobble up. Ranks and ranks of Dedalus anthologies of international fiction, along with decadent novels. Great European lit from the 20th and 21st century from Europa. That often eccentric mix from NYRB Classics that I enjoy so much–a willingness to publish a lot of things that are more surreal, existing somewhere between Dedalus and Europa. Along with the rather stunning Penguin reissues of classic supernatural fiction.

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The Tartarus shelf, with miscellaneous sundries hanging off the edges, is a deceptively simple-looking arrangement, given that those dust jackets hide some rather amazing designs on the boards. If you’re not familiar with Tartarus editions, you have to check them out. The best of uncanny fiction, selected by experts.

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Subterranean editions of Thomas Ligotti’s fiction, a smattering of Dalkey, foregrounded by as much Aira as I could load up on from New Directions, giving way to Archipelago and then Semiotext(e).

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A more random shelf, anchored by the massive Centipede Press megaliths on the far right. If I were to try to make any of these collections complete, I’d bankrupt myself, but I’m happy to have them all in one bookcase at least. Now, I just have to find time to alphabetize it all. And figure out where to put these latest editions, which just this second arrived, courtesy of a favorite indie bookseller, Ziesing Books.

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Rodrigo Corral’s Cover for the Area X Hardcover

Eye on Design has run a very nice piece on Rodrigo Corral’s cover for Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, including comments from Corral. I think the cover’s probably the best I’ve ever had for a book–simple yet complex, and daring from a commercial standpoint. There’s great attention to detail, starting with the deliberate juxtaposition of a natural element and an element in orange that suggestions caution/danger and something human-made. The play of shadows from the leaves against the orange stripe adds a three-dimensional aspect. The treatment on the spine continues a theme both of taking risks and a certain playfulness. It’s no wonder the New York Times chose Area X as one of its covers of the year.

As someone who has been the art director for an indie press and who also usually has a say-so in the creation of covers of my books it’s been a great joy to, quite frankly, be relegated to giving comments like “looks wonderful!” That’s a sentiment that extends to the marvelous trade paperbacks designed by Charlotte Strick with art by Eric Nyquist, and all of the rather ridiculously excellent foreign editions. Sometime soon it might be time to create a slideshow with all of them.

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Current Reading: Group 1

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Having finished co-writing an introduction to our anthology Sisters of the Revolution (May 2015) with Ann and writing an intro to an upcoming Thomas Ligotti reprint (Songs… and Grimscribe) from Penguin Classics, I’m engaged in a lot of reading. A fair amount of this reading is in some way applicable to Borne, the new novel I’m working on, but it’s never really possible to know what a new book will spark.

Currently, I’ve got three groupings of books on the table. Group 2 is current fiction, mostly short story collections, and Group 3 is comprised of reading for The Big Book of SF we’re putting together for Vintage. (One hundred years of science fiction, from roughly 1900 to 2000.)

Group 1, pictured above, could be loosely framed as an exploration of human irrationality and a study of violence. (A kind of Group 1-a subset consists of William Vollman’s seven-volume treatise on violence and a Group 1-b subset consists of his book Imperial.)

The Kills by Richard House is a re-read of selected passages that speaks to my current main focus, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The two books share points of commonality, not least of which is how each, one in fiction and one in horrifying nonfiction, speaks to dys/functional fictional narratives let loose in what we think of as reality. If you’ve read both books, the semi-parallel between the sociopaths SWIGERT & DUNBAR in the committee report and the myth of Mr. Rabbit & Mr. Wolf in “The Kill” section of The Kills is interesting to ponder.

From there it’s a short distance to travel, from The Kills’ depictions of Italy at the end of WWII and the ideas set out in John Gray’s Straw Dogs and especially another book by Gray I’m reading, The Silence of Animals. Gray’s ideas are eye-opening to say the least. I’m still processing them, and vaguely thinking of experimenting with a character whose underlying belief system is informed by those ideas. This is not just good for the fiction in question but for a kind of field-testing of them on a personal level.

Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, with its idea of sentient oil and U.S. “asymmetrical engagement with occultures,” seems even more relevant in the context of the report on torture, or, at least, timeless at this point, and useful. A re-read of Cyclonopedia with selections from John Gray and The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim (another re-read) seems to reveal the outlines of a fictional conspiracy. It is the kind of comprehension that rewires the parts of the brain that seek to tell more unique, or at least different, fictions.

Another current read, Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton, is at the heart of things and at the fringe right now, in terms of how it is messing with my mind. It encompasses everything in the other books, in some sense, and yet is also very specific and tactical in how it seems to apply to thinking about my new novel, Borne. I’m still struck by how elements of the Southern Reach novels mirror the requirements of Morton’s definition of a hyperobject, even though I had not encountered Morton’s work until this year. This is a challenging read for me, and one I’m absorbing slowly.

Meanwhile, the first sixty pages of The Infernal by Mark Doten have been both fascinating and to some extent frustrating. The novel invokes sophisticated uncanny iconography that flows seamlessly from advanced tech and reminds me of an unholy compromise between Michael Cisco’s novel The Narrator and H.R. Geiger (stripped of his fetishism). On the other hand, the design of the book evokes a hokey semi-semblance to the idea of secret files and espionage conspiracy that it would be better off without. In the use of versions of real people like L. Paul Bremer for viewpoint characters the novel’s brazen and bold, but also then makes itself vulnerable to scenes of questionable interior psychodrama that work so hard at the semblance of/adherence to some idea of accuracy of personality that it’s distracting. Even though I admire Doten’s bravery, I don’t know yet if the virtues of this novel will outweigh its liabilities.

One of those liabilities is beyond the author’s control, and it’s rapidly rendering a lot of fiction obsolete. Reality is in some ways usurping fiction’s role, even if the audience and the format seem to us as different from where we expect fiction to reside or project from–would a darkly absurdist view of a day in the life of the real L. Paul Bremer be that far removed from a kind of fiction? As an idea of an objective reality continues to fragment and as hyperobjects like global warming get closer to us–closer in the mental sense–the effect is to eclipse certain narratives or to contaminate them so they become a different story than the one the author meant to tell. It is impossible at the present moment to know what level of distance in what context will preserve “universal resonance” in a given fictional text, but a fair amount of fiction is headed for extinction, in this context.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture is, in one sense, “merely” confirmation of what we already knew. Torture is immoral. Torture doesn’t work. Torture deforms not just the victim but the torturer. But on another level, this report is a remarkable account of the creation of a vast fictional narrative (in the grotesque sense). It contains no heroes unless there is something heroic in a clear reportage of atrocity that also reads almost like a novel. But it does include two villains, who keep popping up almost like psychotic agents of chaos–disguised in their true nature because they are clothed with logic in the form of bureaucracy and chain-of-command. SWIGERT & DUNBAR, who were contracted to develop the enhanced interrogation techniques. In the course of reading the report on torture, it becomes necessary to ask if they are indeed villains in the personal, acting-alone sense or on some psychological level emissaries of a dark American desire that can’t even really be defined by the word “revenge.”

I read an Ian Rankin Rebus novel about addicts in between some of these readings and it seemed pretty upbeat. I pet our cats and took long walks and went to the gym. I looked at pictures of cute baby animals.

Alfred Kubin at NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge and Weirdfictionreview.com

(Note: Today only the U.S. e-books of my novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance are deeply discounted everywhere. Also, a reminder that I’ll be participating in this NPR Science Friday book club discussion of The Lost City of Z on February 6.)

Today I was on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge talking about Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, which was reprinted by Dedalus late last year.

The Other Side (1908) tells the tale of a Dream Kingdom, somewhere in Central Asia. The mysterious and wealthy Patera has had a European city uprooted and brought to its new location, along with sixty-five thousand inhabitants, and named this city Pearl. The narrator, after some hesitation, agrees to visit and travels with there with his wife. Things soon get very strange indeed. The book is a masterpiece of a very precise kind of metaphysical phantasmagoria.

Kubin is a fascinating individual in part due to his amazing art and fiction but also his connections to other well-known creators. He illustrated Edgar Allen Poe’s fiction in its first German edition. He knew Gustav Meyrink and when Meyrink hit a snag in finishing The Golem, Kubin took his preliminary sketches and found ways to use some of them in The Other Side. Kubin also created illustrations for the influential early German SF novel Lesabendio by Paul Scheerbart, among others.

Check back tomorrow at Weirdfictionreview.com for more on Kubin. We’ll be featuring several pieces from the archives.

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Science Friday Book Club–Lost City of Z, Feb. 6

I’ll be on NPR’s Science Friday on February 6 talking about their latest book club selection, The Lost City of Z, along with an Egyptologist! I hope you’ll listen in, but in the meantime, check out the SciFri Book Club page for more information.  That includes a free book giveaway from Powell’s.

When I told my wife Ann I’d be on Science Friday, a squee went up that could be heard around the world. She’s a big fan, apparently, which I did not know.

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The New Yorker on the Southern Reach Trilogy

The New Yorker has weighed in on The Southern Reach Trilogy, and I’m delighted they’ve focused on weird ecologies. I also think this may be the first time they’ve had to explain something like “mushroom dweller” to a general audience. Anyway, it’s heartening to see them differentiate Area X from the post-apocalypse subgenre and to bring up Timothy Morton, whose latest book I’m currently devouring. The first Morton I’ve read, and it’s truly strange the parallels and similarities with some of the subtext of the Southern Reach novels. And this all tends to feed into the next novel I’m working on as well.

Matthew Revert PR for the Southern Reach social media

The Kills: An Interview with Richard House at The Millions

Over at The Millions, I’ve interviewed the author Richard House–some fascinating answers. Anyone who read my year’s best list over at Electric Literature or my pick of the year for The Globe & Mail knows I loved Richard House’s The Kills–my favorite fiction read of 2014. I also included it in my list of daring books over at FSG’s site, where I wrote:

Richard House’s The Kills approximates the general idea of a thriller but the structure of four interlocking short novels makes the reader work to put the story together. (in a good way) The fact that one of the four novels is primarily thematically linked to the other three creates a unique kind of connectivity, and a situation where the entire shape of the story only locks into place on the very last page of the book. It’s not that The Kills just subverts genre tropes-—it’s not actually operating via those tropes, even in how characters enter and leave the narrative, and yet the ghostly outline of thriller expectations still do intercede on the reader’s behalf.  The exquisite tension caused by this ghostly outline, brought to the text by the reader, held me transfixed and admiring as The Kills keeps becoming something different, and something different again.

There are few novels these days that read to me as if the writer understands some of the unique aspects of our modern condition. The Kills is one, Ledgard’s Submergence was another, and The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright) a third. I believe we’re in an era where a lot of what we’ve held to be universal or relevant in literature will begin to seem dated and nostalgic. But not these books.

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