28 January 2011

School is Never Ending.

Finally got myself enrolled in some distance learning courses, as a precursor to my return to the US of A some time this summer. I'm taking statistics and poetry, which is kind of ironic, I guess. Somehow.

Other than that, however, not much has been going on. My sister, who is far more ambitious than I, is interviewing for entry into some of the Ivies tomorrow. Wish her the best, everyone.

I should have more to say shortly, although I do have to announce that the good people of Bull Spec have informed me that almost a full page of their fine journal will be devoted to my poem "Spinning the Seabed Dry." It will appear in their 6th issue, due out sometime this summer, if I'm not mistaken. Beyond this, I am currently reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles (yes, still) and a collection of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories that I received for Christmas. I have preordered Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, which I eagerly anticipate receiving. I have been listening to the Twilight Sad a lot. They're excellent, if you're up for a bit of grimness.

At any rate, I'm hoping to have something worth reading up soon. Please, don't leave me.

21 January 2011

Linky Dinks, No. 1

The Fortnightly Review, a venerable and recently revived publication, has a wonderful piece up today on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their distinctly creepy relationship with one another.

The online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies is putting forward this excellent story about performance, death and sorrow (and gardens!) for consideration for a Hugo. (I think.) Do go read that, as well.

I am currently knitting something for the gentleman author of this unusual series of books. It was part of a Facebook thing.

I preordered my copy of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie! You should do this, too.

Otherwise, though, not much has been happening. I've been doing some editing on a novel I finished (gasp) two years ago last month. It's a good novel -- I still think it's a good novel. Expect more on this story as news becomes available.

18 January 2011


Oooooh, double entendre!

So, I just finished Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (the first book, not the full "quartet"). Excellent speculative fiction, displaying exactly the kind of massively post-apocalyptic setting I so enjoy. The characterization, too, was very well-handled, and the author did a good job of creating a believable world that combined both cool, high-tech things (like long-distance laser-powered weapons) and cool, steampunk things (like airships).

However, the book served to hammer home a point about steampunk which has always been an issue for me:  It's just cool stuff. I've found that there's not a lot that draws me to the genre, when actual history -- which gets lost so often in steampunk stories and projects -- is much more interesting from a character standpoint, and the plots of such novels and projects are often weak. In Mortal Engines, Reeves cherry-picks from the coolest stuff -- like airships, goggles, and shooting jets of steam -- and uses them in a more interesting setting, which is to say, the London of his novel, than the vague, poorly realized "London" of much of steampunk literature -- or worse, the made-up metropoli that have become even more characteristic of the genre.

I have nothing against creating fake cities based on real ones -- I do it a lot myself. What I do have a problem with is taking a genre that is based on things that laypeople can easily research, like a particular period in history, of which we have a vast record and a lot of archaeological remnants, and not doing the research and, worse still, not bothering to make stuff up. The beauty of China Miéville's New Crobuzon books is that they make stuff up. Sure, there are trains and cogs and goggles, but he also just did a good job with building his world and, more importantly, with building his characters. In contrast, Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters, is weak and unwieldy. The characters in that book were clichéd, and the setting was thinner than the mass-market-quality paper the book was printed on. Sure, some clockwork god has taken over London. Woo freakin' hoo. Peters didn't develop those gods as deities, providing little reason for people to worship them other than that... they were there, I suppose.

Admittedly, comparing anyone else to China Miéville is going to put the unfortunate not-Miéville in a bad light. Reeves, however, could stand up to the comparison, and, specifically, to the steampunk of the New Crobuzon books. Because what both authors are writing is not so much steampunk -- insofar as steampunk is characterized by its stuff -- but whatever the hell they want.

Maybe I'm just disenchanted with steampunk because it's become so ubiquitous (though it is a hell of a lot more visually pleasing than other trends). But that's not so much the problem, I think. The problem is, its ubiquity has made it thinner than a work'us inmate. The lushness of aesthetic that characterizes the earliest works in the genre, like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, has been reduced to, "smack some goggles and a top hat on it and make opium jokes." I mean, come on.

So, I suppose this post boils down to:  Mortal Engines = good; steampunk = over; me = longwinded.

Oh, and the double entendre? A good friend of mine is in traction. Please keep F.McD. in your prayers.

15 January 2011

The Wizard Knight.

Tho other day, I finished The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe. This book, although I read it in collected form, is in fact two:  The Knight and The Wizard (shocker, right?). Combined, the two clocked in at 920 pages of poorly-copyedited tree pulp brought to me at secondhand from Orion Books, a UK imprint. However, it preserved one of the most enjoyable of the salient features of the original publication:  Some absolutely charming illustrations by Gregory Manchess, which head the chapters in both books.
This is all mere corporeal claptrap, of course. The story itself is what is important, the story and its setting.

The central character of this duology is a young man identified throughout the book as Sir Able of the High Heart, the name he is given by a mysterious deity who lives in a cave by the sea. Very soon in the course of the book, he is given the body of a fully-grown man by a fairy queen named Disiri, with whom he falls in love. He gradually acquires an entourage of servants and fellow-knights, as well as some supernatural allies of varying morality. The character encounters others, as well, and these encounters -- be they with the ambiguously demonic Garsecg or the angelic and gloriously described Michael (yes, that one) -- shape the character as he grows and changes.

Much of the character's personal growth occurs more obviously in The Knight; by the time the character has returned to Mythgarthr, in The Wizard, he is entirely himself, and knows himself well enough to be both a fully-realized character, and to recognize his full formation. He is able to use himself, as the powerful entity he has become, to help to better his world.

One of the characteristics of Wolfe's writing is his ability to display insight into deeper questions of spirituality, belief and other areas typically left to ethics and theology. Characters abilities and characteristics are explored with a depth that is difficult to achieve without lengthy digression -- but Wolfe does this beautifully. Two of the best examples of this are characters who are close to Sir Able but are not the main characters -- his sometimes squire, Svon (later Sir Svon) and his mentor-adversary, Garsecg. Svon, who begins the books as a disinherited but overly proud young squire, is gradually revealed to be a very complex character, with his own insecurities and his own regrets, some of which include the lessons he failed to learn when others tried to facilitate them. Garsecg, on the other hand, is characterized as a kind of mentor to Sir Able -- who nonetheless encourages him to morally questionable behavior.

Able himself is not above moral ambiguity, however, and this is the major flaw in the books. Wolfe takes a rather cavalier attitudes towards various fantasy races, although the only race entirely deprived of well-differentiated characters are the Osterlings, cannibal "easterners" who, by the end of The Wizard, have invaded Sir Able's adopted homeland. However, the giants are repeatedly characterized as "horrible," although many of them are "good," insofar as they help to advance the central characters' desires being fulfilled. But to Wolfe's credit, it is quite clear that these attitudes belong to the character, not to him -- and one of the finest of the brief pieces of spiritual exploration is a brief statement from Sir Able to another character, regarding Able's man-eating ogre-servant. He is described as a creature that is, essentially, evil -- he cannot live on anything other than human flesh, apparently -- but who is aware of his evil nature, and rues it. (Obviously, this is more succinctly stated in the book, but I'm not the writer Wolfe is.)

Overall, The Wizard Knight is intellectually stimulating fantasy, one that merited the incredible hype it received upon its release, and one that is to be enjoyed by fans of both The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King. Thank you, Gene Wolfe, for writing fantasy for theology geeks.

12 January 2011

Reading and Writing and Cooking.

I am teaching English again. Yay for that!

Also, yesterday and the day before, I submitted a short story and two poems to the good people of, respectively, Strange Horizons and Goblin Fruit respectively. Also, at some point last week, I discovered Enchanted Conversations, which looks like a pretty swingin' place.

I am still in the midst of The Wizard Knight, which is good but is sometimes so good it makes me a bit nauseous. To it, however, I have added Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which is like "The Waste Land," if it decided to go in drag as a late Victorian novel.

The cooking part, of course, comes from last night, when I made a baked chicken that was acclaimed by its consumers. I used rosemary, black pepper and a mix of olive oil and white wine (with more wine than oil), and baked the chicken legs with chopped up apples and onions. I served it with cabbage, and said I was Polish.

It worked, except for the pretending to be Polish part.

06 January 2011

Good news and scones.

Sounds like Alexander McCall Smith has taken over my blog, doesn't it? Well, he hasn't -- sorry to say -- so you're stuck with me.

The good news:  The good people of Eternal Haunted Summer have accepted my poem, "Clotho's Favor." It will be in their Vernal Equinox '11 issue. Look for it!

The scones:  Yesterday, I made up a recipe for orange scones. (However, note should be made that "scones," when I make them, are rather more like small, flat cakes than anything else.) They are the finest scones I have ever made, and I will post a recipe eventually.

That's pretty much it. Listening to a lot of Native Nod lately, and finishing up Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight. More notes on that to follow.

03 January 2011

A Message from One of Florian's Children.

Dear readers, I don't especially like to pick fights. I'm a poor fencer and a worse debater. However, I flatter myself that I'm a ridiculously devoted reader -- and a reasonably competent writer -- and, when I saw this piece a few days ago, I knew I would need to say something.

The review in question, which appeared at the usually dignified MercatorNet, is of my favorite series of children's books -- and, indeed, favorite books in general -- The Westmark Trilogy, by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. The series, although a trilogy, is brief:  All three of the books put together would be only a little longer than any given volume of The Lord of the Rings. However, in spite of its brevity, the books undertake a very ambitious task. They are, in essence, a complex, delicately-handled look at the effect of political turmoil in the lives of human beings. This topic is examined with Alexander's characteristic turns-of-phrase, but also with sympathy and even-handedness:  Although the trilogy deals with a pseudo-historical event not unlike the French Revolution, it eschews the narrative typical of American views of that event (revolutionaries = good; royalty = bad) and is sympathetic towards both its revolutionaries and its royals. The plot itself follows the life of Theo, a young man who goes from printer's devil to revolutionary leader to prince consort to, eventually, exile over the course of the books. Along the way, he encounters a variety of characters, espousing equally various views (or, in the case of the mountebank "Count" Las Bombas, lack of views) on politics.

Unlike other fantasy trilogies -- and Westmark is, like almost all of Alexander's works, a fantasy, albeit one that lacks "magic" in the typical sense -- the books are not given to the endless world-building and encyclopedic exposition favored by Tolkien and poorly imitated since. The Westmark books are about characters, about humans, and that is their primary value. They do not ignore the plight of others for the sake of the central characters' political and personal fulfillment, and side characters are, despite the less-than-200-page count of each book, every bit as bright and clear as the protagonists. In a singular tour-de-force in the third book, for example, the moment of the cataclysmic event in the revolution the books charter, a number of unnamed third-person narratives are created and discarded, showing the reactions -- and actions -- of random civilians, hitherto unconcerned with the fight that has raged since the very first page of book one. Each of these characters is a perfectly-drawn vignette, each one a singular cameo as memorable as the similar passages in Malcolm Muggeridge's Winter in Moscow, and used to as great an effect. Alexander has long displayed the ability to create a character in a single sentence; he uses this throughout Westmark (which is also the name of the first book) and its sequels -- to heartbreaking and thoughtful effect.

Apparently, Ms. Jennifer Minicus, the author of MercatorNet's review, missed all of this.

In a little less than 325 words, Ms. Minicus manages to dismiss all three of the novels as "not recommended" for readers aged 13-16. In two overlong paragraphs, she accurately but insensitively summarizes the novels, missing key points of delicacy and declaring that the book "presents less than exemplary characters." (Incidentally, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom I quite happily read at 13, presents characters even less exemplary than Alexander's -- is Dostoevsky also "not recommended"?) For example, she characterizes the political partisans, with whom Theo is a fellow-traveler in the first book and, in The Kestrel (the second book) and The Beggar Queen (the third) as "a band of blood thirsty anarchists" (sic). In the first book, these characters are explicitly characterized as republicans. Which would mean that, quite contrary to desiring anarchy, these "blood thirsty anarchists" desire a specific variety of representative government -- as opposed to the hereditary monarchy currently in place in the nation of Westmark. While some of them are, indeed, "blood thirsty" -- the charismatic future sociopath Justin is a good example -- their leader, Florian, is not explicitly desirous of the blood of the nobility, and Theo is shown to be unsympathetic to their revolutionary ideals. (He joins them in an act of theft which becomes, unforeseeably, violent in an attempt to rescue some of his friends, who have been wrongly imprisoned.)

Ms. Minicus also says,

At the end of the first book of the trilogy(Westmark), Theo allows his nemesis, Cabarus, to escape because he does not want the blood of any man on his hands.
Political intrigue and rebellion lead Theo to abandon his good intentioned promise, however. In the second book (The Kestrel), he turns into a butcher who seeks revenge for the death of a friend.

This is not untrue. Not long after the beginning of The Kestrel, Theo, after uneasily remaining with Florian's revolutionary militia, finds the body of his close friend, the poet Stock. Stock has been horribly slain by the invading army of a neighboring kingdom; his body is already three days' worth of decomposed by the time Theo finds it. What follows is Theo's terribly realistic descent into madness and bloodlust in the wake of his friend's death. Later, he is shown to be genuinely horrified by the things he has done:  He spends the end of the book hiding from everyone who knew him while he was the titular Kestrel (the nom de guerre Theo had adopted during the fighting), trying to exorcise his demons through the power of art and attempting to find some peace with himself. He does not merely, as Ms. Minicus would have it, "[doubt] his ability to love"; he doubts his very nature as a human. He has seen some of the worst possible things humans can do to one another -- none of which acts, incidentally, are described in any kind of detail (and are related with much less detail than Raskolnikov's eponymous crime) and certainly no more detail than could be found in any history book intended for a thinking person -- and, having committed some of those acts himself, does not feel himself fit to dwell among other humans for quite some time. It is only when forced, by the desperate position of the woman he loves at the beginning of The Beggar Queen, that he comes close to rejoining the revolution -- but he does so with no love for the violence he knows will come of it. 

Ms. Minicus closes the review by stating:

Indeed, most of the main characters in the trilogy have questionable motives and commit grievous crimes, leaving the reader wondering who the good guys are. Mickle alone seems to live by a noble, truly human standard. Yet, even she does not have the moral conviction to confront Theo about his violent approach to political reform. Young readers would do well to avoid this series which contains heavy doses of graphic violence, including suicide.

There are a number of things wrong with this, including the fact that the series is about a revolution. Of course it contains heavy doses of graphic violence. So does history. History is virtually built on "heavy doses of graphic violence." But this is mere quibbling. Ms. Minicus is erroneous in identifying Mickle as the sole principled character:  Many of the others, including most of the misidentified "blood thirsty anarchists," do try to live by a "noble, truly human standard." As Theo himself states in the first book, he believes that humans are truly, fundamentally good -- and the leader of those "blood thirsty anarchists" agrees with him -- or at least acknowledges the value of human life, and the worth of individuals in society (hence his desire for a representative government). Theo's own actions appall him, when he realizes his madness, and he doubts his own position as a human because he does not believe himself to have behaved in a fundamentally good way. (Incidentally, when Mickle is first encountered in the series, she is stated to have been trained at some length as a thief and a housebreaker. An interesting form of nobility, indeed.)

The reason there may be doubt about "who the good guys are" is because Lloyd Alexander created complex characters. Even characters with whom he is sometimes less than sympathetic -- including a doctor-turned-cabinet-minister who feels himself forced to institute a censorship policy during a time of political turmoil -- are complex in their motives, and the "good guys" are good because their motives are, as far as the characters themselves know, good. The "blood thirsty anarchists" are republicans because they feel that the hereditary monarchy in place in Westmark is being abused by unscrupulous ministers. Alexander is unsympathetic to the violent methods used -- and abused -- by the revolutionary characters, and makes it clear precisely when and where "use" ends and "abuse" begins. (Which is to say, "abuse" begins when the shooting does.)

I realize that I am becoming tedious, so I will end shortly. I realize also that this response is already significantly longer than the review that made it necessary. I would, however, like to state two more points:  One -- the briefer -- I bear Ms. Minicus no ill will, and acknowledge that she is entitled to her own views of the series; two -- the more complex -- were it not for The Westmark Trilogy, I would have been far less able to comprehend the human realities of history (such as, for example, the fact that Constantine I was a great emperor -- who still had his wife and son assassinated for political gain) than I am now. The Westmark Trilogy occupies a special place in the development of my ability to think and, yes, to be someone who "...knows [she] is only human, but who tries not to be any less."*

Thank you for reading.

*Paraphrase from the dedication of The Kestrel.