Hyperobjects: The Slow Apocalypse, Spooky Science at MIT, and Ex Machina

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A few things of interest have occurred in the past week or two, and I wanted to draw your attention to them.

—Ex Machina is out in theaters, a film written and directed by Alex Garland. Since Garland’s on board to write and direction the movie of my novel Annihilation, I was curious to see what his debut as director would look like. Both Ann and I found the movie mesmerizing, intelligent, thought-provoking, but also visceral. It also carries through to the end in a way that’s rare in cinema these days. There are also so many little details that are so right, including something as simple as a Jackson Pollock painting that creates a chaotic counterpoint to the stasis of the principal setting. The acting is also first-rate. Ex Machina is also a film that assumes an intelligent audience, and so there’s really not a scene or moment wasted in unnecessary exposition. The cinematography we also found first-rate. Highly recommended, and it makes me even more excited for a possible movie version of Annihilation. (There’s a great interview with Garland here, in which he briefly mentions my novel.)

—Recently, I spoke at MIT, for an event entitled “The Spooky Science of the Southern Reach.” You can now listen to that conversation here. For over an hour, I talked about science and SF and collaboration with my long-time collaborator and friend G. Eric Schaller–he also happens to be a scientist and a fan of SF and fantasy. We talked about the slow apocalypse, when science seems right in novels, and a host of other subjects. The event was moderated by author Seth Mnookin, and I thought it turned out pretty great. We had a very responsive audience and thanks again to Harvard Square for providing books for the event.

–Finally, I wrote a long piece on “The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction” for Electric Lit, which documents my reaction to participating in the Sonic Acts Geologic Imagination Festival and which also includes a review of the book published in conjunction with the event. I also touch on how we perceive animals in fiction, talk about the relevance of hyperobjects to fiction, etc. As noted, novels by Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson have entered the public awareness in a way others have not. What does this mean? What doesn’t it mean? The essay is meant to serve as an initial personal inquiry, not to be taken as a definitive list of answers. These issues are so vast that it is generally a mistake to reach conclusions, but it is important to ask questions.

As I said in my presentation at Sonic Acts festival, there’s a caveat to some of this exploration. “Fiction is contamination–of the writer by something foreign to the self (if you’re lucky) and yet intimate to it, and contamination of readers, who themselves mutate, and mutate the text. Because people are not at heart rational. Because fiction is not a road to a theorem or a final accounting of sums–and not just the hackneyed idea of a ‘journey,’ but also a series of microcosms in the paragraphs along the way and sometimes a series of traps. In such a context, philosophy or ideas must warp and be rendered at times as disinformation or misinformation, overheard wrong even, and remade as something living, understood and misunderstood in the usual, everyday human world. In other words, to ‘cook’ philosophy into most fiction, you must beat the living crap out of it metaphorically speaking.”

Amsterdam: VanderMeer Events at the Sonic Acts Festival and American Book Center

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I’ll be in Amsterdam the end of this month, where my Dutch publisher is releasing their edition of Authority, the second novel in my Southern Reach Trilogy. My two events are listed below–hope to see some of you there! Should be fun!

Friday, Feb. 27, 6pmAmerican Book Center, ABC Treehouse (Voetboogstraat 11 1012 XK). I’ll give a brief reading from the Southern Reach (what I call my “vegetation medley” and then be joined by Hugo Award-winning editor Ann VanderMeer and Dutch sensation Thomas Olde Heuvelt for a wide-ranging discussion, followed by a book signing.

Saturday, Feb. 28, 2pm–Sonic Acts Geologic Imagination Festival (Paradiso main halllocation; see info here). I will read from the Southern Reach and take questions, but I will also present some thoughts  on relevant and outdated approaches in fiction related to ecology and the environment. “In this modern era, what constitutes escapism or commodification in near-future fiction, what are old ideas in new clothes, and what is truly revolutionary? How can the philosophy behind new ways of looking at the world inform fiction?”

Books will be available at both events. Click on links for any ticket information.

Wonderbook Workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference This Summer

This summer, Ann and I will teach a Wonderbook workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference (Faculty Session II). Ostensibly it’s for science fiction and fantasy, but really just literature of the imagination in general. In other words, even if you have a manuscript that’s not fantastical in some way, we wouldn’t mind seeing you there. The manuscript is only one component in our unique approach.

The workshop will use writing exercises, lecture, and discussion. Critique will largely occur before the sessions and any manuscript analysis be conducted in the one-on-one sessions after each morning session. During the workshop, you will use your manuscript as the catalyst or jumping off point for some of the exercises. The process will give you new insight into characterization, structure, and scenes–in the context of your own work. FOR OUR CRITIQUE, YOU MUST TURN IN YOUR MANUSCRIPT BY JUNE 1.

Participants will need to acquire Wonderbook and will need to be willing to write longhand in class. You’ll also have access to materials and images that weren’t included in Wonderbook. And we’ll field any and all writing questions the last day and in one-on-one sessions.

If you’re not familiar with Wonderbook, it’s the world’s first fully illustrated creative writing guide–you can find out more at the web site.

Together, Ann VanderMeer and I have over 60 years of teaching experience. We believe strongly in understanding what you’re trying to do with your writing and helping you achieve what you want to achieve. (Rather than pushing one particular approach.) You’ll also have my view as a writer and Ann’s as an award-winning editor. And, it’s fun!

Wonderbook

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

Vintage Science Fiction Readings #2: What Did 1980 Mean?

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.

In this case, all quotes are from Nebula Award Stories 16, edited by Jerry Pournelle, published in 1982.

Stories included, all from 1980:

“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak; “Ginungagap” by Michael Swanwick; “The Unicorn Tapestry” by Suzy McKee Charnas; “Rautavaara’s Case” by Philip K. Dick; “The Ugly Chickens” by Howard Waldrop; “Secrets of the Heart” by Charles L. Grant.

[Nebula Awards ballot for 1980 stories and novels.]


From Jerry Pournelle’s introduction:

2298957“Campbell groomed a lot of writers…It was a traditional route, and it worked, but it depended, more than we knew, on editors like Campbell and Gold. But now it’s 1981, and Mr. Campbell is dead and Horace Gold has retired; and no one has come forward to replace them. Maybe no one can…But for whatever reason, there are few magazine editors working closely with new writers. One exception to that rule is my editorial assistant, John Carr….He doesn’t get to work with very many new writers, because we don’t buy many original stories [for our other anthologies]; but more than once we’ve received stories that aren’t good enough to publish—one was plain awful—but which show unmistakable signs of talent. They must be rejected, of course, but I’ve watched John Carr write nine-page encouraging letters. One result of John’s editorial work was that a writer got a cover illustration for his first published story. I wish that could happen more often; but we can’t do it, and not many others seem to be interested in trying.”

“This is a strange field. I’m editing the Nebula Awards volume, and there’s almost no chance that I’ll ever win a Nebula. There’s a fair chance that when I’m old and gray they’ll vote me a Grand Master, but I doubt I’ll ever write a story that wins.”

“It’s traditional for the Nebula editor to write about science fiction as literature, but I can’t do that. I don’t know much about literature.”

“Alas, it didn’t take long for the [Nebula] awards to become ‘controversial.’ There were accusations of lobbying and vote-swapping. Writers were accused of voting without reading all the contenders; other writers were castigated because they never voted at all. Each year’s Nebula Awards Ceremony saw one or another writer walk out in disagreement with the rules. Each year’s annual meeting saw introduced a resolution abolishing the awards.” [in a context of believing the awards have gone to “very good” stories]

[Read more…]

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

[Read more…]

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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Books: Best of 2014 Lists Galore

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(Thanks to WORD bookstore for this wonderful photo–and support all year.)

It’s been a ridiculously amazing year for the Southern Reach Trilogy, which included making the New York Times bestseller list and nonstop touring. Now, at year’s end, the trilogy has made over 35 year’s best lists. In addition, Annihilation is a nominee for the Folio Prize, was a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards, and is on the long list for the Morning News’ tournament of books. I also made Waterstones Booksellers’ list of the authors of the year and the cover of the Area X omnibus from FSG was selected by the New York Times as one of the best book covers of 2014.

Perhaps the most exciting best-of list to make was Entertainment Weekly’s Top 10, along with Esquire’s holiday gift guide, Amazon’s top 100, Buzzfeed’s Top 24, NPR.org’s favorites, Gawker’s best reads, HuffPo’s best, Globe & Mail, and the Los Angeles Times’ 2014 recommended reading. But you’ll find a selection of those year’s best lists below—in case you’re looking to spend some post-holidays gift-card money on books. You’ll find some great stuff on these lists. (Perhaps the most perplexing to me: making Slate’s list of the most overlooked books. I’m grateful, but it seemed to me you could hardly walk a block through the book culture this year without tripping over the Southern Reach.)

My own year’s best lists can be found over at Electric Literature—fiction and nonfiction. I also contributed to Globe & Mail’s list and to FSG’s survey about unusual or daring books. In addition, I wrote about My Life in Indie Bookstores this year. (You can find the rest of my nonfiction for the year, give or take a couple, at this link and this Area X omnibus link. Also check out this flipbook of links and images and my essay on Weird fiction at the Atlantic and my opinion piece on lighthouses in the NYT.)

Amazon’s Top 100

Barnes & Noble’s Best-of 2014 Guest Lists

Book Riot’s Best of the Year 

Buzzfeed’s Top 24 Books 

Electric Literature’s Top 24 Books

Entertainment Weekly’s Top 10 Best Fiction

Entropy’s Best Fiction

Fiction Advocate’s Top 10 Books of the Year

Gawker Review of Books—Best of 2014

The Globe & Mail 100: The Best Books of 2014

Huffington Post

Kirkus Reviews Best of Year

Library Journal’s Best SF/Fantasy of 2014

LitReactor Best of Year

Los Angeles Times Holiday Fiction Guide

McNally Jackson Best of 2014 

NPR.org’s Best Books of 2014

Scholastic Library Journal’s Best 2014 Adult Books for Teens 

 

Happy Holidays!

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Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m going to hibernate for a little while, but I wanted to thank all of the readers, booksellers, reviewers, and publishers (here and abroad) who have helped make this year so special for me, and made the Southern Reach Trilogy one of the most talked-about series of 2014.

Highlights lately have included making Entertainment Weekly’s Top 10 and the LA Times Gift Guide, as well as Buzzfeed’s favorite books of the year.

Special thanks to my wife Ann, agent Sally Harding, and Sean McDonald and everyone at FSG.

Enjoy the season!