Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Dying Earth Is Exciting -- and Never Safe

One advantage of being an award-winning author is that you can acquire a brand-new set of readers when they learn about you from your obituary. Of course, presumably you would care less about the breadth of your audience while transitioning from person to potting soil, although all that time-consuming fan mail would also become much less of a concern. But I digress. Up until a month or so ago, I had managed to make it to my mid-thirties without ever having heard of Jack Vance, a SFWA Grand Master who passed away back in May. Upon learning of his demise, I decided to fill the large, Vance-shaped hole in the my genre knowledge by reading The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, the first two novels in his The Dying Earth Series.

A million civilizations have risen to grandeur and fallen to dust on the ancient planet known as Earth, and the sun that warms it has swollen huge and red. Who knows when it will cease to shine and the cold, endless night will fall? The moment could come at any time, but until then Earth's few thousand remaining inhabitants scratch out an existence amongst the ruins of forgotten ages. Earth has become a strange place where magic and technology mingle, where magicians memorize arcane formulae to bend reality itself to their will and old loremasters sculpt new life in their vats. It is a place where demon hybrids roam the wilds and living cities slumber as beggars slink through their shadowed streets and unknown, malevolent creatures slip between dimensions. It's an exciting place -- but not a place you'd ever call safe.

Much like Ray Bradbury's contemporaneous The Martian Chronicles, Vance's The Dying Earth Series began as a collection of loosely linked short stories. In truth, the word "loosely" best describes the organization of The Dying Earth. It reads much like an extended worldbuilding experiment, piecing together a planet that barely resembles our own through the observations of sages and grifters, pilgrims and prisoners, inscrutable wizards and their cloned children. It opens with "Turjan of Miir," the story's titular character crossing empty gulfs of space through an ineffable incantation to gain insight into his failed vat experiments from a mysterious sorcerer. Turjan appears again in "Mazirian the Magician," this time as a captive who can only be freed by one of his successful experiments. Other tales deal with a youth too curious about the nature of things for his own good ("Guyal of Sfere") and a clever brigand who desperately tries to outwit an unavoidable adversary ("Liane the Wayfarer").

That theme of the brainy ne'er-do-well trying to pull one over on just about everyone takes center stage in The Eyes of the Overworld. The story is simple enough: A cheeky thief named Cugel tries to rob a wizard of his wizardly artifacts, gets magically cast into distant lands with an alien parasite buried in his gut, and is tasked with retrieving a rare artifact -- or else. With lots of little episodes strung along an overarching narrative, the plot recalls the structure of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The most interesting part, though, isn't the action; it's Cugel himself. He's droll, inventive, resourceful and an absolute scoundrel. He steals, lies, manipulates, murders, breaks oaths and sneers at others' sufferings. Let's not go into detail about how he treats women. (Even though it's only communicated in a single oblique sentence, a scene where Cugel forces himself onto a vulnerable girl who has just lost everyone she loves is particularly difficult to read.) He's not anyone you'd want for a roommate, and Vance knew it. He allows Cugel to scrape through every rough encounter largely unscathed and even achieve a mostly immoral victory by the end. Then Vance snatches it all away in the final two pages in such a satisfying way that it nearly made me leap out of my chair with glee.

If The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld bring any other work to mind, it's M. John Harrison's Viriconium, a compendium that also blended SF and fantasy. Like Harrison, Vance drops oblique allusions that he never fully explains and packs his books with obscure yet evocative details. But Vance never buried readers in bizarre vocabulary or upended plots, characters, and themes in an attempt to deconstruct his preferred genre. From what I can tell, he seemed happy writing books that likely delighted both average readers and the academic set. And I, for one, plan on reading more of them.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Richard Cohen)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Dunwich Horror"

Spooky Synopsis: Few outsiders come to Dunwich any more. It was never visited much in its heyday, being situated in rough Massachusetts hill country whose only match for cragginess is its own uncouth, inbred inhabitants. But something happened in 1928, something so bad that nearby municipalities removed all signs pointing to the small town. Not that you could get much from the Dunwich dwellers themselves. Though none would qualify as Rhodes Scholars, they know enough to keep their mouths shut. The most you might learn is that the trouble started with the birth of Wilbur Whateley on February 2, 1913. Though his mother was an albino, Wilbur had a swarthy complexion that must've come from his father. And his father must've also been developmentally advanced, because Wilbur's growth and intellect are years ahead of his actual age. But that's all guesswork, because no one knows precisely who sired the boy.

Lovecraftian Language: "When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country. The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road. The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles, and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. At the same time the planted fields appear singularly few and barren; while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation. Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strown meadows. Those figures are so silent and furtive that one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things, with which it would be better to have nothing to do."

Eerie Evaluation: S.T. Joshi, the editor of my edition, notes that "The Dunwich Horror" has been "very popular with readers." No wonder. Yes, Lovecraft penned large sections in dialect, a truly abominable habit. (Consider this oh-so-easy-to-read example: "An' then she let aout a terrible yell, an' says the shed daown the rud had jest caved in like the storm hed blowed it over, only the wind wa'n't strong enough to dew that.") But I found it hard to care since the rest of the story proved so uniformly good. Paced like a slow-burn thriller, it stacks layer after layer of carefully chosen detail, so that the initial insinuating threads of unease stretch garrote-taut by the final few pages. Also, Lovecraft did something in "The Dunwich Horror" I've yet to see him try in any other story: He gives us not one, but two good looks at the otherworldly terror. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King argued that old Howard Phillips staked his career on never letting readers glimpse the monster, and that's usually true. Here Lovecraft violates his own compositional code, and the story is all the more gripping for it.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Pleasant Tyranny of the Ledger

A couple weeks ago, ISLF friend Joseph D'Agnese (The Mesmerist) posted an image of his fiction-writing ledger at his blog Daggyland, saying:
Since March I've been on the road a lot with [my wife] Denise. I accompanied her on her book tour throughout the east and southeast, and while I've enjoyed every minute of it, I'm forced to admit that I wasn't very productive at all. I've never gotten good at writing for myself while on the road.

In contrast, I've always been able to force myself to crank out client work and meet their deadlines while on the road. When it comes to my own stuff, I just tell myself I can skip a day. So while my ghostwriting clients can happily say their projects have moved forward -- the scientists, the business dudes, the diet docs all got their proposals done this spring, yay for them -- but on the Joe-fiction-writing front, this is the result: a long line of zeroes.
I can empathize with him. As a fellow freelancer, I understand how the pet projects of others can push creative pursuits to the side. It's hard to argue with a guaranteed paycheck, and there's a sense of satisfaction that comes when someone actually applauds you for your work rather than issuing a form rejection. But I'd never actually kept a ledger of the hours I spent penning narratives.

Now I do. Man, it sure makes a difference.

Without a visual reminder, it's oh-so-easy to let urgent things place their collective foot on the neck of our creative-writing time. Few of us have to invent imaginary worlds, breathe life into interesting characters or weave intricate plots. But when you can see the goose eggs piling up day after day, you have to answer a question: "Am I really a writer or not?" The ledger makes me answer an affirmative every time I see it, forces me to park myself in a chair and start tapping at the keyboard. It's the best sort of tyranny, the kind that pushes me to do what I love.

(Picture: CC 2007 by sixintheworld)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"

Spooky Synopsis: By everyone's account, the case of one Charles Dexter Ward was exceedingly baffling and altogether strange. Few would deny that Ward had odd tastes as a child, being steeped in antiquarian interests and of a solitary nature from his earliest days. The trouble seemed to begin in the winter of 1919 when he developed an unhealthy fascination with morbid occultism. This preoccupation seemed sparked by his discovery that he was distantly related to Joseph Curwen, a horrible devotee of forbidden knowledge who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, in the early eighteenth century. As rumor would have it, Curwen displayed a certain unhealthy fascination with Borellus' claim that the essential "Saltes" of the dead could be used to call up the deceased -- "unhealthy" because that interest led to a raid on his property that caused his demise. Interesting enough trivia as it goes, but the studies of bookish Charles into his relation wrought a terrible change in him. All at once, his diction changed, becoming strangely archaic. His skin turned cold and loose. The birthmark on his hip even seemed to have inexplicably shifted to his chest. These changes so troubled his parents that they had him institutionalized. Then, quite mysteriously, he vanished without a trace from his cell one day ...

Lovecraftian Language: "Five minutes later a chill wind blew up, and the air became suffused with such an intolerable stench that only the strong freshness of the sea could have prevented its being noticed by the shore party or by any wakeful souls in Pawtuxet village. This stench was nothing which any of the Fenners had ever encountered before, and produced a kind of clutching, amorphous fear beyond that of the tomb or the charnel-house. Close upon it came the awful voice which no hapless hearer will ever be able to forget. It thundered out of the sky like a doom, and windows rattled as its echoes died away. It was deep and musical; powerful as a bass organ, but evil as the forbidden books of the Arabs. What it said no man can tell, for it spoke in an unknown tongue, but this is the writing Luke Fenner set down to portray the daemoniac intonations: 'DEESMEES -- JESHET -- BONE DOSEFE DUVEMA -- ENITEMOSS'. Not till the year 1919 did any soul link this crude transcript with anything else in mortal knowledge, but Charles Ward paled as he recognized what Mirandola had denounced in shudders as the ultimate horror among black magic's incarnations."

Eerie Evaluation: When I began reading "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," I assumed that its novel-long length would prove more than enough text with which Lovecraft to hang himself. After all, old Howard Phillips had strung himself up with purple prose aplenty in far shorter works. Imagine my surprise, then, upon finding the story moves along at fairly brisk clip. Oh, it's not a nail-biter by any means, unfolding primarily through historical summaries and glimpses of forbidden arcana and portentous conversations filled with muted implications. It's all exceedingly subtle, and at times it feels quite a lot like the best of M.R. James sprinkled with a touch of grave-robbing grue. Of course, James never wrote novels, and that's a good thing if "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is any indication. One of the problems with understated storytelling is that it provides precious little for readers to sink their proverbial teeth into. If readers happen to piece together early on just what kind trouble Charles Dexter Ward got himself into, then the remainder becomes so much narrative spadework. If they don't figure it out, they might find themselves wallowing in seemingly unconnected and inconsequential details for tens of thousands of words. But Lovecraft took steps to address both, inserting sections filled with gripping (albeit a bit offstage) action and spelling out the proceedings at two key junctions. All in all, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" proves surprisingly successful.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Music To Write By: Varien & Razihel's "Toothless Hawkins (And His Robot Jazz Band)"

Why Listen? For quirky goodness; to see how context can conjoin the most disparate genres.

To my way of thinking, dubstep is one of the sonic styles least likely to stimulate creativity. Largely atonal, almost always lacking lyrics, and unrelentingly aggressive, this sort of electronic music seems best suited for clubs or festivals or any similar such venue where frenetic motion and elective ingestion of exotic chemicals is de rigueur. Or so I believed until happening upon Varien & Razihel’s “Toothless Hawkins (And His Robot Jazz Band).” A collaboration between a pair of up-and-coming DJs, the track fuses dubstep with (of all things) jazz, smoothly swinging between laid-back drums and jaunty horns to glitchy modulated bass and chirpy chiptune effects. What keeps it from becoming merely a creative musical curio is the initial opening. The high-bred voice of one Lady Gillespie announces the date as July 5, 2050, before introducing the titular Toothless Hawkins with his mechanical accompanists and -- wham! Just like that it all comes together. Why shouldn’t robots buffer a homage to Louis Armstrong with music more akin to their own making? Context can conjoin the most disparate genres.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Elysium Wears Ideology on Its Sleeve

Note: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.

I absolutely loved Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a gritty piece of South African SF where whiz-bang action met fairly deep ethical philosophizing. So imagine my excitement when I stumbled across an extended trailer for Blomkamp's new film, Elysium. You can watch it yourself, but here's a synopsis: In 2154, the privileged few live in Elysium, a space station that looks like a genetic recombination of Martha's Vineyard and Palm Beach. They dwell in posh digs while eradicating every bit of sickness through high-tech, personalized medical devices. On Earth below, the unwashed masses struggle to survive amongst dust-choked streets and crumbling ruins, watched over by an abusive police force and robotic caretakers who medicate malefactors rather than try to heal them. And healing is just what Max, the thief-turned-blue-collar-worker protagonist, needs. Injuries from an accident will kill him in five days, and an old-flame's daughter lies deathly ill, too. So he undergoes a brutal procedure that can barely be called surgery to turn himself into a cyborg with the ability to break into Elysium, so that the rest of us can gain access to the benefits horded by those within and ...

Wait a second: Does this sound like Occupy Wall Street articulating an argument for single-payer health care to anyone else?

Of course, I don't know what the thematic heart of Elysium will be because I haven't seen it, but the trailer sure seems to be wearing ideology on its sleeve. That's a danger of which storytellers must beware. Aside from one telling line, District 9 only subtly addressed its main theme of apartheid, meaning that it attracted audiences of every stripe. But any story that stakes its ground on a controversial issue too boldly risks ending up preaching only to the proverbial choir. For my part, I rather liked how Gary Phillips and Tony Chavira handled their ideological themes in the noirish comic-book compendium Beat L.A. You didn't need a prognosticator to figure out their perspective, but they populated the work with flawed yet interesting characters who held all sorts of viewpoints -- people, in other words, instead of mere mouthpieces.

(Picture: CC 2009 by khrawlings)

Friday, July 5, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "Pickman's Model"

Spooky Synopsis: Thurber has finally had enough of Richard Upton Pickman. No, he hasn't changed his opinion about the man's artistic brilliance. Pickman possessed a brilliant technique, even though his diseased mind steered him to paint the most grotesque tableaus. Grue and gore, obscenity and abomination, his pencil traced them all, and his brush shaded their ghastly hues. Thurber never wondered that Reid and Minot and Bosworth dropped him. But they were lily-liver dabblers, dilettantes without the stomach to handle the hard facts of life, facts that art ought to commemorate. No, that wasn't why Thurber started avoiding the unsavory artist. It was for other reasons, and he's only willing to reveal them now that Pickman has mysteriously disappeared.

Lovecraftian Language: "No, I don't know what's become of Pickman, and I don't like to guess. You might have surmised I had some inside information when I dropped him -- and that's why I don't want to think where he's gone. Let the police find what they can -- it won't be much, judging from the fact that they don't know yet of the old North End place he hired under the name of Peters. I'm not sure that I could find it again myself -- not that I'd ever try, even in broad daylight! Yes, I do know, or am afraid I know, why he maintained it. I'm coming to that. And I think you'll understand before I'm through why I don't tell the police. They would ask me to guide them, but I couldn't go back there even if I knew the way. There was something there -- and now I can't use the subway or (and you may as well have your laugh about this, too) go down into cellars any more."

Eerie Evaluation: "Pickman's Model" distinguishes itself in three ways. First, the short radiates a sense of place. Lovecraft almost always includes some reference to New England in his stories, but here he includes more than the few scattered descriptions of the ancient forests and crumbling homesteads that he usually employs to add local color. No, "Pickman's Model" gets up to its elbows in vivid prose about grimy habitations with both public and private histories, secret tunnels older than America itself, and supernatural secrets glimpsed by Puritan figures such as Cotton Mather. It's grounded, specific, and striking. Second, the narrator sounds as though he has a life of his own. In other works, Lovecraft gave similar first-person-viewpoint characters their own backgrounds and professions, but too often they felt thinly spread, a poor coating over the crust of the author's own personality. Not so Thurber; he's his own man. You see it most clearly in his colloquial diction. Pleasantly chatty one moment, nervously garrulous the next, and always offering an excuse to have yet another drink, he speaks just like you'd expect a real person to and not like an authorial surrogate. Finally, "Pickman's Model" sets up a strong structure and sticks to it while liberally sprinkling clues about its surprise ending. If you're eagle-eyed enough, you can probably suss out the conclusion from the first or second paragraph -- or maybe even from the title itself. I did, yet the realization hardly dampened the horror for me, a fear founded upon the thought of dank catacombs and moldy tunnels and the things that might call them home.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.