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Friday, 9 May 2008

Before the Dust Settles

Well, it’s finally a reality!

During the second half of 2007, I took a creative writing unit as part of my degree at Murdoch University. The unit was designed to allow students to work on and develop one 6000-word piece over the course of the semester. However, unlike previous creative writing units, this one didn’t allow for a reading of each student’s completed work. We were only privy to extracts as they were workshopped over the course of the semester. As such, it was suggested that we somehow publish our work—for ourselves—so that everyone had an opportunity to read everyone else’s finished pieces. I volunteered to compile this humble anthology, which at the beginning was merely going to be spiral-bound photocopies done on the cheap. Concurrently, I’d been reading Jeff VanderMeer’s very interesting essay on the publishing history of City of Saints and Madman, which was where I first came across the term POD, or Print-On-Demand publishing—a digital printing process which allows for cheap reproduction, making it financially feasible for small runs like ours (30-odd copies). So I put it to the group that we pursue this avenue, making our anthology as professional-looking as possible, which increased my workload since I was now compiling and designing and editing—all for the first time in my life. In keeping with the nature of the anthology, it was title Before the Dust Settles, representing our first foray into published writing, and was ostensibly published by Liminal Press... hopefully my fellow classmates will get the (admittedly not very funny) gag.

Today, I received the proof copy (many thanks to Cory @ Digital Print Australia for putting up with such a newbie), and it looks fantastic. Our cover art is a fantastic line drawing by Petri Ivalo Sinda, a fellow classmate who also has his story included. The full contents is:

Introduction – Peta Mulcahy
Peta was our tutor and an experienced writer and editor in her own right. She expected the best from each of us, and wouldn’t let anyone settle for second rate writing.

Of Life and Death – Lesley Ward
A story with a social conscience and distinct local flavour. Lesley doesn’t mind telling it like it is, but does it artistically and with an economy of language that I envy. A young man’s experience of life and death in the vibrant world of Fremantle.

Saving Eyes – Michelle Tan
Michelle writes with a kind of simplicity that draws the reader in its warmth and heart. Saving Eyes is not a sentimental story by any means; rather, it makes its point gently and carefully. It is about a young woman’s last day in an anonymous city, and what it means to find yourself.

I Slipped Away – Seth Merlo
My own story is the only real fantastic piece in this anthology. It was also an opportunity to work through my own feelings regarding my father’s unexpected death. A dying man has an opportunity to see his father one last time.

Circles – Rachel French
Rachel’s contribution is a collection of poetry about the cycles of life and death as she sees them played out in her local context, allowing her to tackle a range of issues including the murder of Sofia Rodriguez-Urrutia-Shu in 2006.

Satisfaction – Penny Morgan
Penny’s story focuses on a cast of middle-aged couples and the interplay and sexual politics between them. She writes with a wonderfully controlled prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf (who I understand Penny is heavily influenced by).

Chessday – Bernard Booth
This pseudo-science fictional piece zips along at an incredible pace thanks to Bernard’s rapid-fire and witty dialogue. A physics professor decides to get rid of the verb to be from his internal lexicon, with disastrous consequences. It also raises the question of how physics as a discipline might be advanced when it takes a lifetime to learn all the basics.

Love and Other Agnosias – Petri Ivalo Sinda
Petri has already had stories and artwork published in the likes of Eidolon and
Daikaiju and is pursuing a creative writing Honours degree. His story here displays his penchant for experimenting with technique and language without sacrificing a good story. A man with a strange medical condition manages to find love and fulfillment.

Flowers for the Queen – Pearl Sumner
An autobiographical piece that chronicles an incident in Pearl’s childhood. Pearl is blind, and this gives her writing an incredible aural sense that the rest of us simply couldn’t achieve—while we tend to focus on the visual and struggle with the aural (if we attempt to deal with it at all), Pearl pins sounds down to the page as if she plucked them out of the air. Her story is poignant and representative of the kind of society we had at the time.

It’s a diverse collection, which is as it should be, given the unit ostensibly caters to all types, though I struggled against the program’s general dislike for speculative fiction and was told on one occasion that my talent was wasted on Fantasy. If I have any talent at all, I think the greater crime would be in not using it, in not writing at all, and I find it rather disparaging to claim that the fantastic offers ‘real’ writers no genuine opportunities to flex their creative and intellectual muscles. At any rate, this anthology represents an opportunity for me personally to have a go at editing and publishing, an activity that has fascinated me for a while and which I wouldn't mind moving into as a potential career. Already, there's things I'd do differently next time around, but everyone has to start somewhere I suppose.

City of Saints and Madmen

I’m utterly in love with this book. I’d read plenty of reviews and interviews with Jeff VanderMeer before finally picking up a copy of the Bantam trade edition, so I was reading with considerably high expectations. Fortunately, VanderMeer didn’t disappoint.

I think the key to understanding and enjoying City of Saints is to not ever, at any stage, to think of the book as an anthology linked by the city of Ambergris. This is not simply a collection of linked stories, but rather a novel of versions. You are reading a novel, but one whose component parts have been separated for closer inspection. Reading ‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris’ is like getting all the background filler material in a standard novel, only that here it’s delivered as a pseudo-history, complete with footnotes. The other three novellas that comprise the book’s first half are magnificently strange, each with a unique flavour, with ‘The Strange Case of X’ being so overwhelmingly self-conscious (where does the writer end and the character begin?) that it ends before you feel it’s begun, so caught up are you in trying to unravel what’s fiction and what reality.

Don’t mistake it for yet another dull attempt at surrealism though. Surrealism works because it subverts or abstracts a shared notion of our ‘normal’ reality – a kind of acute slippage between the audience and the artist. Yet reading City of Saints is, in many ways, like reading Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books – there’s nothing supernatural or terribly fantastic about the city of Ambergris, only that it’s very strange and it’s reality, as C.N. Manlove said about Peake’s work, has no connection with our sphere of possibility.[1]

The Appendix picks up where ‘The Strange Case of X’ leaves off. It is purported to be a collection of personal effects found in X’s cell at the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute. Again, since they are all so intertwined and referential to each other, these need to be read in their entirety to enjoy the full effect. Personal highlights from the Appendix include ‘The Cage,’ with its very scary ending that would make an excellent M. Night Shayamalan-style suspense thriller, ‘In the Hours After Death,’ with its strangely bittersweet account of what happens after death, ‘The Exchange,’ which is just strange (I love how this is actually set during the usual riots associated with the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, but this old couple is calmly enjoying dinner and), and ‘Learning to Leave the Flesh,’ the struggle of finding the right words to express a death, to capture something about the essence of a person’s life, moved me very deeply, having attempted a similar exercise recently in regards to a passing in my own family. Expressing such loss creatively, especially if it is a close to home, is extremely difficult, and VanderMeer approaches the task in such a way that the self-consciousness of the piece becomes an expression of his own struggle to find the right words – we can sense the author at work.

I haven’t seen the hardcover edition, but as I understand it the Bantam edition (pictured above) contains the same material. I’m not super-amazed at the interior layout though – sometimes the text looks too squished on the page, as if it needed more space. I don’t know how it appears in the hardcover, but I know its has larger dimensions so I imagine it is much better laid out. The hardcover art is much more striking as well, and I’ll be tracking down a copy as soon as some spare $$ miraculously find their way into my wallet.

A highly recommended book, and one that should also prove that fantasy literature needn’t be all about hobbits and elves, nor about too-strange an events or characters that the reader can’t engage with.

[1] C.N. Manlove. ‘On the Nature of Fantasy’ in Schlobin, Roger C. (ed) The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press), 1982. p. 18

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Many a spoiler lies herein: I've just returned from a Hoyts La Premiere session of I Am Legend, an average adaptation of Richard Matheson's justifiably classic novel of the same name. To start with, it would be unfair to berate director Francis Lawrence for updating the time period of the novel to our (very) near future since it would make little sense retaining the novel's then-futuristic 1970's setting (Matheson's novel was published in 1954). That's not to say that such an update doesn't bring its own fair share of problems and changes to the source material; that's an inevitable factor in these kinds of novel-to-film adaptations. The major difficulty that I imagine the writers faced was in translating a novel that primarily takes place inside its protagonist's head into a visuals. As a result we have Will Smith talking to mannequins he's posed throughout an abandoned New York city, and the family dog offers a companionship not found in the novel, but which is perhaps justifiable on film where it would be problematic having a character who practically never speaks. The dog still dies in much the same way it does in the novel: tragically and representative of Neville's complete isolation.

There are two changes in the film that frustrate me, and very much alter two important aspects of Matheson's novel. The first is Neville himself. I quite enjoy Will Smith's movies and I don't think many people can complain that they don't get what they expect from his films. But in this instance, he's as miscast as he was in I, Robot. Both films were great popcorn flicks, but as adaptations of classic science fiction stories, they fail (I, Robot more so than I Am Legend, in my opinion). Matheson's Neville is a relatively uncomplicated man: he misses his wife and daughter and struggles with the fact that he is the last human being alive, but what he is not is the uber-slick military scientist that Will Smith portrays. One has enough trouble buying Will Smith as any kind of military officer (see Independence Day), but compounding that by asking the audience to believe he is also a top-notch scientist is pushing the boundaries of credibility. Plus, how on earth did he manage to get all that lab equipment into the basement of his New York apartment? What is frustrating about this is not so much the stretching of belief, but that Smith's Robert Neville doesn't learn anything about the virus over the course of the film, since he's responsible for it. In the novel, Neville is one of the few immune to the virus, but has to find out for himself the nature of the enemy he is fighting. It's an important distinction to make in terms of character development, because Smith is essentially the same man at the end as he was at the beginning - sorry for what he's done and trying to right it. While Matheson's Neville goes through several phases of depression and rejuvination before the novel's end.

Which brings me to the second aspect of the film that frustrated me, namely the ending. For those who have read the book, you'll remember that Neville takes a woman in who he is lead to believe is another human survivor, but is in fact a vampire sent to spy on him. This was possible because Matheson included two types of vampires - the undead zombies who do all the drinking of blood, and humans who are simply infected by the virus, of which the woman Neville discovers is of the later. In them, the virus has mutated enough to allow them to go out into sunlight and on discovering this, they determine to form a new society of their own kind. This was the crux of Matheson's novel, of the ending of one social order and the rise of another. The classic status of the novel is derived from this depiction of how humanity as we know it might deal with its own (self-inflicted) demise, when we believe we are the dominant species on the planet and aren't going anywhere. It challenged the assumption that we've always been the way we are, and always will be, evoking both a consideration of Darwinian evolution and a reconsideration of the foundation, function and place of societies throughout history. Lawrence's film discards any semblance of this powerful theme in favour of a standard humanity-will-find-a-way-to-survive ending that sees Will Smith sacrifice himself so that his (very human) female companion can escape to the survivor's colony in the mountains. Robert Neville became the titular legend for all the wrong reasons - as saviour of the human race as we know it, able to cure the vampires of their 'otherness' because they threatened the assumptions that his society was founded on. Mathesons' Neville goes to his death understanding and accepting that his world is at an end. He's tried to find a cure, he's tried to survive, but ultimately he must give in to the hubris of his kind. To a degree, then, the novel was a cautionary tale. In Lawrence's film, humanity suffers no such hubris and is able to overcome anything if it a) has enough guns, and b) puts its mind to it (whatever that means).

On film, I Am Legend is more suspense than action. The sequence of Neville going into the dark warehouse to find his wayward dog is a standout, lit entirely with only the light available from the flashlight on his rifle. Flashback sequences provide all the drama such a film requires, establishing Neville's back story as the virus spreads chaotically and New York becomes ground zero. The blowing up of the bridges wasn't nearly as epic a moment as the trailer made it out to be, but the subsequent scenes of a deserted New York are really the trump card of the film. The all-CG vampires got boring quickly and I was left wondering why at least a portion weren't extras in prosthetics. According to, Richard Matheson has already signed over rights to an as-yet unwritten sequel, based on this film's current box office receipts. Personally, I can't see why a sequel is needed and it will no doubt only further dilute the mythos of the source material. But that's Hollywood.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Reading 2007 Pt. 2

White Noise
Don DeLillo

This, along with The Crying of Lot 49, was required reading for my Literary Theory unit this year. Both books were used as examples of postmodern writing, and I enjoyed both immensely. DeLillo makes use of the collapse of artistic hierarchies that postmodernism affords and, not without a hint of irony, celebrates the absurdities inherent in human life. One has to admire a writer who makes an 'Airborne Toxic Event' as ordinary as ordering Chinese take away and watching movies with the family. The ending concludes the book almost as a black comedy, with Jack, having lived through the Toxic Event, having visited The Most Photographed Barn in America, and having dealt with his wife's infidelity, still yearns for something to make him feel alive, an adventure, if you will, that he can call his own.

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

I like these Modern Library editions. They have much snazzier covers than the Penguin or Oxford range of classics and look a lot nicer on the bookshelf. However, their introductions are a little slim and tend towards the effusive, and can hardly be compared to the scholarly detail of their Penguin or Oxford counterparts, which is a shame, because Modern Library get some substantial names to pen these introductions (Arthur C. Clarke, in this case). This particular story is, of course, a genuine classic, since it depicts one of the earliest and best examples of an alien invasion of Earth. Its other notable strength is its broad scope: not only is it science fiction, but it also falls within the realm of invasion literature; novels written prior to the First World War that depict an invasion of England by a foreign power. It was a branch of fiction that tapped into the prevailing pessimism and fears of the time, in much the same way that a sizeable portion of SF written in the 1950s tended to play on fears about the Red Menace. The 1953 film version updated the novel to this post-war setting and remains highly watchable, while Spielberg's 2005 film is about as exciting as repeats of Friends. Neither film, though, seems to capture the desperation or visual imagery which makes Well's novel so particularly striking.

A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick

This is rightly considered one of Dick's best, if only because it is so obviously born out of personal experiences. The notion of Fred/Bob keeping tabs on himself is classic Dick, and works wonderfully when further compounded with Bob's (or is that Fred's?) growing addiction to Substance D. I don't think much of drug use, but when I read the dedication that closes this book, I was moved. It elevates A Scanner Darkly into the realm of tragedy, which is perhaps what makes the novel distinguishable amongst the vast variety of Dick's output. Richard Linklater's 2006 film, which was not actually released until 2007 in Australia, is one of my films of the year. Many reviews have already talked about how it is arguably the first film adaptation of a Dick novel to actually stick to the text, and it's all the better for it. Plus, the rotoscoping just looks so cool!

Doctor No
Ian Fleming

What an utterly terrible book! This is one of those few instances were I could unequivocally say that the film was superior to the source material. Even when ignoring the sexism and racism inherent in Fleming's work, Doctor No is just poorly written. I find it laughable that Fleming genuinely believed he was writing for an "'A' readership" (Bennett, 'The Bond Phenomenon', 1983), and even more so that "evidence from reviews in the literary weeklies of the period suggest that this is precisely how they were regarded and read initially." How can an author write about giant man-eating squids wrapping their toothy tentacles around the leg of our hapless hero and go on to write "one might have thought that the sophistication of the background and detail would be outside their ['B' and 'C' class readers] experience and in part incomprehensible"? So, Jamaica is too sophisticated for working and middle class readers? Or a spy who does more running around than actual spying is incomprehensible? Fleming clarifies that in hard cover, his books are designed to appeal to an 'A' readership, but are "equally readable" to all classes in paperback, a strange distinction that I put down to a combination of economics (hard covers are too expensive for working class readers) and class snobbery (he still feels his books might be too sophisticated for them). At least Sean Connery had a go at some detective work before running off to woo Honey Rider, and her ludicrous back story of living in an abandoned house full of animals and creepy crawlies is thankfully dropped.

Battle Order 204
Christobel Mattingley

An unoffensive, easy to read biography of David Mattingley, an Australian who piloted Lancasters during the Second World War. It's written with a view to appealing to younger readers, and offers some interesting insights into the life of a pilot and his crew during the war. The titular battle order was for a bombing run over the Ruhr, dubbed 'Happy Valley' by the airmen, and during which Mattingley was seriously injured. As a result, he saw the remainder of the war out while convalescing. His story will never be mythologised like that of the Memphis Belle or Dambusters, but its good to be reminded of these little stories that make up the bigger picture.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Reading 2007 Pt. 1

The Darkness That Comes Before
R. Scott Bakker

A fellow bookstore employee once told me that he couldn't get into this book because it's all politics and was about some 'Crusader crap'. He preferred his fantasy more clear-cut and, you know, heroic, and I was subjected to yet another diatribe on the pros and... well, pros of David Gemmell. I quickly picked myself up a copy of Darkness, and Bakker didn't disappoint. An intricately plotted story that examines a Crusades-style clash of cultures, Darkness does an exemplary job at making sure it doesn't devolve into just another brainless heroic epic fantasy. This is due in no small part to the wonderfully refreshing integration of politics and philosophy into what are, admittedly, some familiar scenarios. It is relatively straightforward to trace the links between the various cultures of Eärwa and their real-world influences, but this is probably just as well as it allows the reader to devote his or her full attention to the wicked interplay on display. I have the book two sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, and I'm not expecting it to disappoint.

Deadhouse Gates
Steven Erikson

I bought the next three novels in this series based solely on the strength of the first volume Gardens of the Moon, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed for its dangerously bizarre and gritty nature. Erikson maintains those same qualities here, but ups the tension with the Chain of Dogs exodus and its bitter ending. I've done the wrong thing by this series by reading them haphazardly - they really deserve to be read one after the other to truly get a grip on the everything that's going on.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick

I don't know which is more well known these day - Blade Runner, or the book that film is based on. It's not so clear cut as other book-to-film adaptations as to which is the 'better'. Usually the book wins out, but in this case, Ridley Scott's film is something truly wonderful to behold. Dick's religious themes add a dimension missing from the film, but then his book lacks the prescient, multicultural nightmare of Scott's film. Blade Runner also pre-figures the likes of Neuromancer in this sense as well. If there's one thing that makes Dick's novel worth reading, though, it's the image of all those artificial animals inhabiting the rooftops of rundown apartment blocks.

The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon

My first encounter with Pynchon, this was a fantastic book. It was witty, biting, and displayed a delightfully anarchic approach to language that still feels fresh reading it today. Pynchon has fun playing with Baudrillard's notion of the simulacra, where we treat the copy as the original, in this case, the way we consider History to be truthful and accurate despite only having the word of a copy of a copy of a copy to go on.

The Forever War
Joe Haldeman

I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy this one, but gave it a go anyway. I think I was expecting a strong 'war is bad' message, because I knew it was based in part on Haldeman's Vietnam experiences, but this wasn't necessarily the case. In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that the actual battle scenes are the most lifeless part of the whole book. Instead, it is the loneliness and isolation of Mandella and the other veterans, born obviously out of Haldeman's own experiences of returning home from the war, that really rang true. Mandella returns to a home and a mother that should be familiar but instead feels more like intruding on a stranger's life, and his subsequent attempts to fit back in lead to a dislocation with society that forces him to return to the only thing he knows - fighting.