Vintage Science Fiction Readings #1: Quoted Without Comment

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Ann and I are now in the process of reading for The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, which will appear in 2016. This huge anthology of well over 500,000 words will collect the best and most unusual SF stories from approximately 1900 to 2000. This requires a lot of reading and research. Every so often I will report back about current reading, although not in any systematic way. In fact, almost deliberately not in a systematic way.

“Along with everything else he has to do to make his story believable and intelligible, the science fictioneer has to name his not-yet-invented things and methods, so the reader will recognize them. How shall he go about it? Well, he can use logic. It works sometimes…For example, you probably didn’t know that television and TV were first used in a magazine called The World Today back in 1907! Yet engineers and researchers persisted in calling it distant electric vision until halted by popular usage. Cellophane could also have been coined by the same classically educated writer; it comes from cella, small room, plus phanein, to appear, to seem. Instead, however, authors all settled on glassite as the term for transparent plastics, which did not survive. So much for logic; it’s not how things get named these days.” – from H. L. Gold’s introduction to The Weird Ones anthology, 1962

“…it is now clear that there is still plenty to argue about. The reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, said we could certainly agree that science fiction stands or falls by ‘style.’ Oh no we wouldn’t…Hostile critics will generally except Jules Verne from their strictures; indeed, it is a favourite sneer of theirs to lament the failures of his successors. [But beyond disagreements about characterization and style in SF] A final homely analogy. A mint julep is not a more subtle and complex glass of bourbon, nor is a bourbon a classically simple and authoritative version of the vulgarly prettified mint julep. Such associations perhaps befit what we intend, for our critics, as a plea for tolerance, real tolerance, nothing less than thinking again.” – from the introduction to Spectrum 5 edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, 1966

“Some time ago most people gave up trying to say what SF was, for all attempts (such as [Kingsley] Amis’s New Maps of Hell) failed miserably to place it, show its common concerns, or explain what it was supposed to ‘do’.” – from Michael Moorcock’s preface to the Langdon Jones’-edited The New SF: An Original Anthology of Modern Speculative Fiction, 1969

“Significantly, what utterly refused to fit in these U.S.-derived categories turned out to be the ethical and philosophical, i.e., the utopian, aspects of Soviet SF.” – from the introduction to Other Worlds, Other Seas: An Anthology of Eastern European Science Fiction, 1970

“The fashionable answer to that question [of the successors of Verne and Wells] is, of course, that there hasn’t been a writer with one hundredth of one percent of Wells’ ability since nineteen twenty. But even the briefest study of the output of more modern SF novelists shows this attitude to be nonsensical, if not merely snobbish. No, the real problem is one of sources, and its solution lies in the fact that the type of fiction generally produced by SF writers doesn’t originate with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne at all. It was developed from the work of Beatrix Potter…Influenced heavily by The Wind in the Willows and tempered by the outlook of the Wizard of Oz, this new fiction…has to do with comfort: the repetition of form and content [with] careful rationalization of any change in the status quo.” – from M. John Harrison’s essay “The Literature of Comfort,” New Worlds Quarterly #1, 1971

“Science fiction has been standing neck-deep in bullshit for so long that some of its practitioners have come to accept that condition as more than just a fact of life—in some mysterious way the bullshit has been transmuted into a necessity, the argument being that we need all that bullshit around us in order to recognize quality when it floats to the top. That argument itself is part of the bullshit we have to cope with.” – from David Gerrold’s introduction to his anthology Alternities, dubbed “All New Electrifying Stories of Original Science Fiction!”, 1974

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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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The Southern Reach Trilogy: My Year in Indie Book Stores

Jeff VanderMeer reading at Elliott Bay--Annihilation tour

(The start of it all: At Elliot Bay in Seattle, this February; photo by Todd Vandemark.)

Over on Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Housekeeping site, they’ve posted my year in indie bookstores. I was fortunate enough to spend much of 2015 on the road in support of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and a big part of that was reading at or signing in independent bookstores.

Head on over and check out my notes on Bookmark It, Book Passage, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Booksmith, Book Soup, Chop Suey, City Lights, Elliott Bay, Fountain, Kramers, Green Apple, Housing Works, Hub City, Inkwood, Malaprops, McNally Jackson, Mysterious Galaxy, Politics & Prose, Powell’s, Quail Ridge, WORD, and more.

A special shout-out here to Kathmandu Books for handling the limited edition S.R. chapbook, Subterranean for various kindnesses, and for Borderlands for providing books for the Writers With Drinks event I did in San Fran–one of the best events ever.

How to Gift-Wrap a Book So It Doesn’t Look Like a Book

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 (Thanks, Matthew Revert, for the great info-graphic.)

It’s a perennial problem, isn’t it? How to make that dang-blasted book look like something else when you wrap it, because otherwise what’s the point? It can be slathered in wrapping paper that’s covered in three-dimensional rainbow-colored topographical anomalies interspersed amongst Satanic dog-headed kittens and the person receiving the gift will still figure it out.

But don’t despair! As a public service, you can find my preferred method above. I finally admitted to this approach when NYT bestselling author Lois H. Gresh asked the question on her facebook page. Matthew Revert was then kind enough to provide an illustrated version as a holiday season mitzvah.

Of course, Gresh then had to raise some issues that point to a possible need for refinements in this approach. Specifically:

So let me get this straight. I use the Fishomatic to pulverize 12 dead fish. I dump the fish pulp into a 12″-diameter sphere-shaped ice tray (and good luck finding one of those). Then I push the book into the fish pulp. Clearly, a pulp title is best. I freeze. Carefully, I pop the frozen sphere from the “tray” and arrange it in a nest of fish scales. Then I put it under the recipient’s pillow in his/her bed. Oh, wait. That’s The Godfather Method of Wrapping a Gift Book.

This interpretation is a little time-intensive and perhaps limiting in terms of the type of book. And, granted, sometimes I will just strap the dead fish to the book and cover both with wrapping paper and hand that to the lucky recipient–especially if there’s no convenient sea nearby. Her next suggestion, however, may further streamline the whole process…

If I hide the book or toss it into the sea, and hence, the supposed recipient doesn’t know that he has this wonderful gift… then I can save my book money and give him something much smaller and cheaper, such as a pea. Yes, I can hide a pea and feel good, knowing that I intended to give him a book. After all, it’s the thought that counts!

I have no suggestions on how to hide a pea. Nor for wrapping an e-book. But for less avant garde suggestions on book-wrapping, here are a few links.

5 Creative Techniques to Wrap a Book

Google Image Search (less terrifying than you might expect)

Pinterest, suggesting disguises that will fool no one (like if you put a fake moustache on)

Of course, you could always just wrap the damn book using time-proven and careful techniques.

Or share your own secret ways in the comments below…

My Favorite New Publisher, Burrow Press: Community-Driven, Forward-Thinking, Terry Gilliam-Connected

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(A favorite Burrow Press cover.)

One highlight of my year-long book tour in support of the Southern Reach trilogy was doing a Functionally Literate event in Orlando, Florida. The organizers did perfect pre-event publicity, had their own built-in PR through their own radio show/podcast. They also knew exactly what details to take care of to make my life easier after having been on the road a lot, and the gig itself was impressive as hell. From the venue to the format to the dedicated, extremely large (and enthuastic) audience of regulars–with great back-up from the awesome independent bookstore Bookmark It–Functionally Literate had pretty amazing organization, logistics, and support. (I highly recommend this reading series to all writers and their publicists–I put in a good word for them with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

They also had books they’d published–beautifully designed books, smartly edited, imaginatively conceived, featuring really interesting writers. I got a sampling of them at the hotel they’d put me up at. They all bore the Burrow Press logo. Burrow, you see, is the driving force behind Functionally Literate. And Burrow quickly has become my favorite new independent press.

After only three years and 10 books published, with four more scheduled for 2015, Burrow Press  has become a prominent part of the Orlando literary landscape. One recent title, the story collection Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee, blurbed by Laura van den Berg, won an IPPY in addition to being long-listed for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award and named a Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award Finalist.

Burrow Press seems poised for continued and sustained national attention–especially with its release of the novella on which Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is based. Indeed, you could say that Burrow Press is both reflecting a revitalized Orlando culture scene and helping drive that revitalization. It was energizing to see, and reminded me of ancient days back in Gainesville, Florida, where my cohorts and I founded one of the first significant indies in that city. (Today morphed into Cheeky Frawg.)

With the year coming to the end, and in celebration of the indie press/bookstore renaissance that seems to be sweeping the U.S., I thought I’d interview Ryan Rivas, the publisher and co-founder of Burrow Press. His writing has appeared in decomP, Annalemma, Prick of the Spindle, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and elsewhere.

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