Culture

Goodreads and the Steampunk Deletions

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture

A very good blog entry here about the recent Steampunk book deletions on Goodreads, with all the context. From past behavior of the individual involved, I have a hard time believing this was accidental.

On the Road: Stonecoast, Maine, ReaderCon

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture, News, Uncategorized

BerlinNatHisMuseumVials (2)
(Core samples I have taken, which tend to manifest as organisms; thanks to Eric Schaller for his help with taxonomy, although all mistakes are my own.)

I am in New Hampshire at the moment, with a short break hanging out at Matt Cheney’s house before driving on to Newport and then to Richmond, Virginia, with the goal of winding up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by Friday—in preparation for teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp for two weeks.

Stonecoast: Memory and Fantasy

It’s been an eventful and fun time on the road thus far. I started out in Maine, giving a presentation at the Stonecoast MFA program and then doing a reading that night. I had a wonderful time. The Stonecoast house is near the water and the grounds are lovely. I stepped out of the car and all of the stress in my body just left me…and then came back as I came to realize we wouldn’t be able to print the notes to my presentation. But someone—someone miraculous whose name I’ve lost—managed to do a kind of split screen thing where the slides showed up for the audience and my notes, on the same computer, just showed up for me…

Stonecoast--screen1
(Art by Myrtle Von Damitz III)

The presentation was on Memory, History, and Fantasy: Urban Landscapes and Characterization, focusing on my novel Finch—basically swooping down from an eagle-eye view to a street-level view to talk about the ways in which characterization and settings interact. It’s not presented like Finch is the be-all and end-all, as that would be presumptuous, and indeed I told the audience that what I was about to show them was predicated on an ideal of the novel, including thoughts I’d had about it since publication. Since it was an MFA group, I thought I’d just bring it re the complexity and have the visual element and some bullet point lists strewn throughout help make it not too dense.

Butt Ugly

One of the central ideas of the presentation is that spaces and buildings are not neutral, inert things in novels—or shouldn’t always been seen as such. That in fact structures are important opportunities in fiction, related to characterization. I tie this into the following idea, a note from the presentation: “Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.” I like to pull back to the abstract level here because it helps the audience to envision these elements as not inert but as kinetic and alive at the level of idea and metaphor.

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On Reaching the Curmudgeonly Age of 44

Jeff VanderMeer • July 6th, 2012 • Culture

mordmord

I’m sure it’s July 7 somewhere, so I might as well admit it’s my birthday and I’m 44. Turning 44 doesn’t bother me one bit, to be honest. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, getting about 2 hours of exercise a day, and feel strong as an ox. I’ve also had a monstrous first half of the year creatively, returning at full strength to fiction and completing a novel, Annihilation, the novelette Komodo, and several short stories. As well as finishing off parts of other novels, a long essay on literary fakes, and part of Wonderbook, my forthcoming illustrated book on writing.

Strangely, getting bronchitis after several dental surgeries was a blessing. It made me slow down and focus. Ever since then, near the beginning of the year, I’ve felt refreshed and rejuvenated. A far cry from the last couple of years, during which, quite frankly, the looming shadow of The Weird really impacted our lives in negative ways, even if we’re quite proud of the achievement embodied by that anthology. It just devoured our schedule, our routine, etc.

Although the balance in my life still sometimes goes back and forth, the one thing I haven’t ever given up during this year is the work in the gym, and it’s been a huge part of why I’ve managed to be so productive. I’m also happy to be 6 years out from the last time I held a day job, and very grateful to be able to do what I love.

I’m looking forward to a great rest of the year, with Wonderbook being turned in soonish, and several amazing new projects to announce in the next couple of months. I’ll also be completing Authority, the sequel to Annihilation.

Finally, as ever, thanks to friends and family–and to my wife Ann, my love, who keeps me sane, makes me laugh, and who is always there for me.

Foyle’s War…Unaired Episode with Cockroaches

Jeff VanderMeer • July 4th, 2012 • Culture

foyles%20war 2

I think our current all-rain all-the-time situation, which is increasing the incidents of encountering my mortal foe, the cockroach, is getting into my head—along with Foyle’s War, the Masterpiece Theater mystery series, which we’ve been devouring….

I had this dream last night that we were watching Foyle’s War, and the episode was about the search for a giant human-sized murdering cockroach. Except there were a lot of law-abiding giant cockroaches in England, so the case was difficult. At one point early on, Foyle decided he needed someone to go undercover in an apartment complex full of giant human-sized cockroaches.

So Sam speaks up and says, “Oh, sir, I’d love to go undercover to help get this cockroach, if it’s all right with you, sir. I think I’d enjoy it, as a break from driving.” So Foyle reluctantly agrees to this, and Sam goes undercover.

From there, the episode gets really strange. First of all, they keep cutting to Foyle’s sergeant, who has called in sick. But you see recurring shots of him, and he’s dressed in a black tuxedo and attached to the ceiling of his house, and just kind of hissing and there’s white stuff coming out of his mouth, that he’s affixing to the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the scenes with Sam infiltrating the apartment complex are as if through the holes in her cockroach disguise that allow her to see out, so you just see a lot of confused, claustrophobic dark shots of exterior feelers and cockroach mandibles and terrible glossy bug eyes, along with this chittering that you gradually realize is Sam trying to speak cockroachese.

If that’s not bad enough, Foyle spends the entire episode from then on in a chair by the fireplace of his home, and every once in a while he’ll move his head really fast to face the camera, and he gives this really fiendish smile, and we see a ghostly overlay of a cockroach head over his own head.

So, finally, Sam gets in a lot of trouble, and they just manage to rescue her, but when she returns to Foyle’s place, he’s still in the corner just staring off into space, and we cut to the sergeant on the ceiling, who has kind of married the ceiling—like, he’s now kind of decomposing into it, or becoming something else entirely.

We then cut to Sam on the white cliffs of Dover—no idea how she got there—and she’s staring out like she’s expecting to see something on the horizon, and she says “They weren’t really cockroaches, were they? They weren’t. They weren’t.” Then the next-to-final shot is a close-up of Foyle’s son flying through the air, but when the camera pans back, we see he’s not in a fighter plane but instead on the back of a giant flying cockroach, high above the white cliffs of Dover. Except, as we pan back in, we see that it’s the son’s *head* growing out of the back of the “cockroach”.

The very *last* shot is of Foyle again, in his chair, except we realize it’s not really a chair. That it’s a kind of weird carapace. And he looks right into the camera and screams, “For England! For England! For England.”

The end.

Recently Experienced: Thumbnail Reviews of Books, Movies, Music, TV

Jeff VanderMeer • June 22nd, 2012 • Culture

I’ve been hoarding up little thumbnail reviews of books, movies, TV, and music experienced over the past few months—offered up to you here in a long post that hopefully has something for everyone. There’s not as much in the books section just because of all of the sampling I do for Omnivoracious features, the editing (so I’ve been reading manuscripts, really), and the writing. I’m too lazy to provide links—and too busy—but all of this stuff is easy to find.

If a movie or TV show is starred **, we saw it on Netflix On Demand.

Books

(Just a note that I’m currently reading and enjoying the hell out of the 1970s novel The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith—so far, I’d recommend it most highly. I’m also half-way through Chiina Mieville’s Railsea, and I think it’s his most relaxed novel yet—he’s clearly enjoying himself, and I think that helps the reader enjoy the book even more, too. Definitely recommended thus far.)

THE CRONING by Laird Barron. Alas, although I like Barron’s short fiction, this first novel wasn’t that good. From my review on the Amazon sales page: “Unfortunately, this novel is a mess. The main character is tediously boring, the main situation relies on the main character being something of an idiot, and there are chapters and chapters of family history that display very little talent for knowing what is useful and interesting. The rituals described are right out of old pulp fiction. Allusions to Machen et al only spotlight the problems. The last chapters, which are meant to be epic horror, are instead pretty unintentionally hilarious, with a portal described as being as big as a bowling ball and then a hula hoop not helping the atmosphere much. Opening scenes set in Mexico that feature a fairly cliched-sounding university rep and generic detail don’t help. The other problem is that the novel could’ve been written in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, and the author wouldn’t have had to change more than a few words, really. The writing on a sentence level is often good, but can’t save the novel. It’s a real disappointment, as I went in wanting to like this novel very much–I am a fan of much of Barron’s short fiction. I hope the next novel is better.”

VLAD by Carlos Fuentes. I enjoyed this one a lot, with a review forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here except that he manages to mix satire and dark humor with something also very serious and Grand Guignol, and refreshes the vampire trope rather nicely. Creepy and hilarious.

GONE by Mo Hayder. A surprisingly emotional and twisty detective story from a writer who is hit-or-miss for me. Hayder can be great, as in Birdman, or just plain effed up as in Pig Island, which plays out as a horrendous bait-and-switch (first half great, second half from some other novel). Here, she’s done a great job with the characters and writing, and it’s a riveting read but had depth as well.

THE VANISHING by Heidi Julavits. Ann read and really liked this weird fusion of the uncanny and other elements. Psychic attacks. Mysteries from the past. Lots of layering-in of elements from different genres.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I think it’s no surprise to anyone given prior blog posts that I loved this one to death (with a review forthcoming). As I said commenting as a reader on the Amazon sales page, “2312 is an amazing feat of the imagination: a plausible view of our solar system three centuries from now, one that combines genre and mainstream literary influences to create a rich tapestry of adventure, intrigue, and extrapolation, with strong, strong characters. What holds the whole thing together is the love story—yes, I said it. A love story. As brilliant an interesting a love story as you’re likely to find in all of science fiction. I thought this was the best SF novel I’ve read in the last few years.”

I HOTEL by Karen Tei Yamashita. This book is beyond brilliant. I can’t believe it didn’t win the National Book Award. I could rave about this novel all frickin’ day. It’s a nuanced fusion of both traditional and experimental approaches to fiction, detailing the experiences of Asian American characters and others during the time of social upheaval in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Composed of ten novellas, each one unique, each one amazing, I Hotel is notable in part for how adroit Yamashita is at negotiating such a complicated landscape with such ease. Despite the weight of the subject matter, there is a lightness to the book, and a clarity, that is remarable. What it illuminates about race, culture, class, and other important issues—and how it takes the didactic and renders it in artistically compelling ways—is stunning. And it beggars in its complexity and its sheer exuberance and compassion and…well, in every other way just about any SF/fantasy novel dealing with similar issues over the past decade. It really underlines for me why it is so toxic and so inbred to just, as a writer or reader, read only SF/fantasy, or only any one kind of approach to fiction. It’s like walking around with only part of your brain engaged. Or walking around with blinders on. Such balkanization leads to all kinds of missed opportunities for cross-pollination and for understanding.

Movies

Reminder: the ** means I saw it on demand; those stars aren’t a reviewing scale or anything.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. A cult British film about two women biking through France who make a series of increasingly stupid decisions with a serial killer on the loose. The annoying thing about this movie is that it holds your attention for the first third, with a kind of growing tension and great use of the landscape…and then it just becomes dumber and dumber until it becomes Super Dumb. Avoid.**

ANTIBODIES. A pretty absorbing German serial killer movie, with the right weight and emphasis given so you care about the people involved. It, however, decides on a kind of semi-mystical ending that involves CGI deer that don’t look real and don’t fit the rest of the flick. Just turn it off right when you see the first deer, and maybe that experience won’t scar you.**

BAJO DEL SAL. A great-looking Mexican serial killer murder mystery that I haven’t finished yet due to deadlines. Also because it looks like it’s setting up one particular individual to be the killer, and he’s not particularly interesting. But definitely worth a look-see, depending on what you want from this kind of movie.**

CABIN IN THE WOODS. Joss Whedon can renovate rather brilliantly at times, but he’s not good at subversion. So in tackling horror movie tropes and putting his subtext on the surface in a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary or satire…all he winds up doing is perpetrating the same clichés he’s trying to make a comment about. The fact is, any bad horror movie already parodies the horror genre, things have gotten so bad in that regard. Whedon would have been better off just trying to create a horror movie that renovated and riffed off the genre instead of this meta-mess.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. This documentary by Werner Herzog actually wound up not being our favorite, as it seemed to go on a little long and end with white crocodiles for no reason, but the core of it has some breathtaking visuals of the prehistoric cave painting, and Herzog’s ruminations are always great. Worth it for that alone. See it back-to-back with Prometheus. Heh.**

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Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria: Free Chapbook Preview!

Jeff VanderMeer • June 21st, 2012 • Culture

I received an advance copy of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria from Small Beer Press a few months ago and unfortunately—I feel pretty guilty—have been so busy that all I’ve been able to confirm is that it’s really well-written and looks like a great debut. BUT, now you can preview the novel, as Samatar is letting everyone know that Small Beer is offering a free sampler. So go forth and get an early look at a promising new writer.

Prometheus Art…and More

Jeff VanderMeer • June 19th, 2012 • Culture

I have a post up at Omni about the reaction to Prometheus, the art book you can buy, and more. In a nutshell, I liked the movie and my feelings about it are close to those of Caitlin Kiernan, who has posted twice about certain issues. Which isn’t to say I don’t think the movie has flaws, but that it’s far from the turd some people think it is.

That said, I do have some ideas about a version in an alt-universe or a reboot in 20 years, but I’ll save that for another post.

I also will have my ReaderCon schedule soon, and I will be at Stonecoast very soon. Before heading down to Shared Worlds, to teach.

Toward Prevention of Brain Scarring

Jeff VanderMeer • June 14th, 2012 • Culture

Having had some barricades against the internet for a few days now while I work on deadlines, I’m feeling recharged and refreshed. I think that in addition to the whole idea of having too many open channels in your mind at times because of the e-world, there’s something to be said for not being open to lots of ideas in the course of the day. That may sound ridiculous, for a writer, but the fact is that there is so much contradictory information and advice on the internet, so many emphatically stated viewpoints about issues related to writing, that you can freeze yourself in your writing just by being exposed to too much—by internalizing…everything. As advice also trends toward righteousness and offering up moral judgment, too, a kind of binary us/them rises up that isn’t useful even when you agree with a position. And not only do we have too much writing advice out there, and assign too much authority to the opinions of members of the blogosphere for no particular reason…we also have this seemingly self-destructive need to revisit information and opinions we don’t actually agree with, but that still infect us. And so you wind up wasting a lot of mental effort that could go to the writing circling back over issues that in the grand scheme of things aren’t useful to your writing. While nursing the low-grade fever of a mind-virus that can only fade if you don’t keep re-infecting yourself. You’re not required to do so, contrary to a kind of underlying belief that all of this ephemeral stuff, forgotten in a week, matters.

For those who say we should engage with the world, I would say: I indeed want to engage with the world, but I’m less and less sure I want to engage with the narrow sliver of it represented by the resounding confidence of the majority of opinion pieces out there in the e-sphere, on any side of an issue. Certainty is not useful to fiction, and I am always wary of those who are certain. Fiction writers who are infected by too many received ideas, fed by too many received ideas, tend to turn out clichéd work over time, too. I think all of us, myself included, need to seek out complexity, subtlety, nuance, and associated impulses. (Slow blogging as a concept is beginning to attract me more and more as a result.)

The meat world at least regulates the flow of Too Much to something manageable, while providing useful additional context. This also seems to me more conducive to building community and mutual respect, having a balance, because unfortunately, as we see in politics and basically all areas, the expression of beliefs on the internet seems to be dividing us and emphasizing our differences more and more, sharpening our ideological edges so that we often cut ourselves while trying to cut others…which makes it harder to actually get things done and to be proactive…often on the very issues everyone is so passionate about.

And with that, I’m gone again!

SF in the Mainstream at BEA: The Panel and the Coverage

Jeff VanderMeer • June 7th, 2012 • Culture

BEA Signing

Updates:

Ed Champion has responded in a very odd and offensive way below, along with a tweet that, well, I don’t know what it has to do with the inaccuracy…i.e., I guess I was supposed to just let it pass. He’s beginning to creep me out.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss also contacted me and apologized for the errors, and corrected them. Which I thought was classy.

So Ann and I just got back from BEA in New York City, where we were promoting the Tor edition of our massive new The Weird anthology. We had a wonderful time and met so many great people. I wish I had more time to blog about it, but you know who you are—thanks for making our trip so great. Thanks too to Tor—everything ran smoothly, and it was great to hang out with our editor there, Liz Gorinsky, and our publicist, Alexis Nixon.

In addition to the autograph session pictured above, we were part of a panel on SF & the Mainstream hosted by Ryan Britt that also featured Walter Mosley and John Scalzi. The panel was quite interesting, and the only regret I had is that it was over so quickly—it seemed like we were just getting into the meat of the issues brought up. Ideas about genre, about the meaning of perfection and technology, diversity in the field, etc. (I’m hopeful I can convince Mosley to spend the time answering some follow-up questions for an Amazon feature.) Back-stage had been a lot of fun, too, since both Mosley and Scalzi are incredibly entertaining people. (Indeed, Scalzi’s “need a hug” comment to me during the panel cracked me up.) I was also quite chuffed that Mosley, whose novels helped influence my own Finch a bit, told me he’d enjoyed City of Saints & Madmen.

But there’s the panel and then there’s the coverage of the panel….and the coverage has veered from accurate and objective to completely incorrect, and I’d like to talk about that just a little bit because it fascinates me how something that would seem so simple as coverage of a half-hour panel can vary so drastically.

Ann and I concur that the most accurate account comes from Ron Hogan at Tor.com. Ron’s got the quotes right, and who said what correct as well. There’s the least attempt to editorialize just a genuine effort at straight-on reporting. It doesn’t include everything we talked about, but you have to pick and choose.

[UPDATE 6pm: Rose Fox's account at Publishers Weekly was just posted. It is also very accurate, and taken with Hogan's gives a complete picture.]

The New Yorker blog’s coverage, on the other hand, is pretty shoddy, and I reproduce the full entry here since I’m about to give them corrections, and this version may change: [NOTE: They've now corrected the errors--and very graciously, I might add.]

Back at the Uptown stage, James VanderMeer, the editor of the “The New Weird,” an anthology of science fiction, was talking about the composition of the B.E.A. It’s “mostly white, mostly featuring writers from the U.S. and the U.K… In ‘The Weird’ we wanted to show, yeah, there’s this stuff, but there’s also so much other amazing stuff, from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place. In the period from 1910 to about 1930, people all over the world were thinking about the same things.” Walter Mosley, a sci-fi elder dressed like a beatnik in a black leather jacket and cap, reflecting on the capacious world of contemporary genre fiction, remembered his early rejections from publishers. “They told me, ‘White people don’t read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who is going to buy this book?’ ” Sorting books into rigid categories, VanderMeer said, is “neither how it’s always been, nor how it should be.” Mosley: “One Hundred Years of Solitude—it’s a great fantasy novel, but also a great work of literature.”

What’s wrong with this description? Just about everything. Let me break it down. (1) My name is Jeff VanderMeer not James VanderMeer. (2) I coedited The New Weird with Ann, not by myself. (3) The book we had at BEA was The Weird not The New Weird. (4) The book is not science fiction. (5) The mostly white comment about BEA was from Walter Mosley, not from me. (6) The mostly white comment is then shoehorned in with my “mostly featuring writers from the US and UK”, which was about some prior compilation anthologies, not about BEA. (7) Walter Mosley is definitely NOT a “sci-fi elder” but someone who is mostly known for his great mystery series, while also having written some SF. (8) Scalzi said the quote about “neither how it’s always been nor how it should be.” (9) Ann is not quoted at all and erased from the panel entirely, as is John Scalzi.

The third account, from Ed Champion, trades outright inaccuracy for suspect editorializing, and some rather bogus attempts to get inside of the panelists’ heads. It all starts to go wrong when Champion writes in a completely tone-deaf new journalism way about moderator Britt’s “gray vest insinuating some classy authority” and then states that the two big questions are (1) “How do the glories of ‘weird’ in any form get self-respect,” given that “plenty of us have experienced ‘weird’ moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre.” and (2) “…whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.” Neither of these questions were on my or Ann’s minds, and I dare say they weren’t in the minds of most of the gathered crowd—although I did in passing address the first question during the panel (not reported on by Champion). Immediately following these… questions… Champion writes that “But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer” spoke up. The clumsy transition makes this read to me as the false assertion that I interrupted Mosley at some point during the panel.

Later in the account, Champion includes Mosley’s comment (paraphrased, I think—this doesn’t strike me as his exact wording) that “One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.” In response to which he writes “I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well…. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks.”

This is a very odd and inaccurate interpretation of that sequence of events. First of all, it attributes a physical reaction to me that I don’t recall and as an implied reaction to Mosley’s comment, which is definitely false. What I was thinking as I possibly innocently shifted in my seat, unaware my every movement was going to be parsed from afar, was “fair point” and then was thinking of how this was a good entry into discussion of how when we’d looked out on the vast majority of previous compilation volumes like The Weird we saw mostly UK/US white male writers, and how we wanted to show what was missing from the equation by including work from other countries, etc. Ann, meanwhile, wasn’t trying to redirect anything—she was just answering the moderator’s original question. Finally, I have no recollection of Mosley figuratively or literally then “puffing up his cheeks” for most of the rest of the time. I certainly at no point thought he was trying to “rile up” the crowd, and I didn’t find his comments to be anything other than interesting and useful.

Champion also writes that “Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own.” This is another odd statement. Why would Mosley have to have some kind of bad intent even if he was repeating something already said? In any event, although I don’t recall that particular exchange, I can say that this attempt to parse intent seems totally off-base.

The inaccuracies in the New Yorker account and the kind of banal tyro-novelist attempts at sussing motivation on Champion’s part seem somewhat unfortunate, given that we had a lively and interesting discussion. The fact that all of the panelists were coming at the subject from different angles created some fascinating exchanges. I’d be on a panel with these same participants in a heartbeat, and I really enjoyed meeting Mosley for the first time.

Bad, Bad Cover for Carnacki, Ghost-Finder

Jeff VanderMeer • May 29th, 2012 • Culture

Carnacki the Ghost Finder

More than moderately bad….