Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Iraqi Chupacabra?

Today's NY Times picks up the swirling street memes out of Basra regarding killer swamp rats, surveillance squirrels, and other trained mammalian minions of the British military. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for Mulder and Scully to come out of retirement.

From Iraq’s Rumor Mill, a Conspiracy of Badgers

Published: July 31, 2007

BASRA, Iraq — Nazariet al-Muwamara, they call it in Arabic: the conspiracy theory. As they go, this one is a gem.

Take a Western army wearing out its welcome in the ancient land of Mesopotamia. Add a sharp-toothed creature with the claws of a bear and a reputation here to rival the Hound of the Baskervilles. Simmer in the 120-degree temperatures of summer and sprinkle with provincial Iraqi newspapers eager to fill newsprint gaps left by vacationing officials.

The result? Many residents of the city of Basra in southern Iraq have convinced themselves that the British Army has loosed savage cattle-eating badgers onto its unsuspecting populace as a final gesture of ill intent before it departs this summer.

Throw in, for good measure, the fervent belief that British soldiers have planted snake eggs in waterways and unleashed bomb-sniffing dogs purposely infected with rabies.

All three stories have been manufactured by Iraq’s tireless rumor mill, the only machine in the country seemingly capable of functioning day and night without need of electricity or generators.

The Iranian news media have gotten in on the act too, claiming that foreign forces have been fitting squirrels with miniaturized surveillance devices and sending them scurrying across the border to spy. Iranian news reports, monitored by the BBC, recently referred to 14 spy squirrels being captured by alert Iranian intelligence officials before the animals could take action against the nation.


The British were soon blamed, perhaps aided by the unfortunate coincidence that one of the British Army units is named Badger Squadron.

Maj. Mike Shearer, a British military spokesman in Basra, rebutted all animal-related allegations with a straight face: “Of course we categorically deny that we have released badgers into Basra."

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Foreign Office was more succinct in denying the rumor. “Don’t be silly,” she said.

At the British headquarters, commanders have weightier matters to consider. On senior officers’ desks sit copies of Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 treatise, “On War,” and David Galula’s colonial-era French manual, “Counterinsurgency Warfare.”

Asked whether coalition forces were ever likely to have been as welcome in Iraq as prewar optimists hoped, one senior British officer shook his head wearily. “It would have been difficult, given the conspiracy mindset,” he said. “Just look at the badgers.”

Lots more here from the British press.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Defense of Bulwer-Lytton

Well, it’s mid-summer, and that means that English department at San Jose State University is announcing the winners to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. And so, once again, poor Bulwer-Lytton is coming in for mockery that is mostly undeserved. The following, which is an adaptation of the appendix to my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, is meant as a corrective, or at least dissent, from this:

In his lifetime Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, prolific, and influential writer. But thanks to the vagaries of time and changing literary tastes Bulwer-Lytton’s name has become synonymous with bad writing, to the point that the English department of San Jose State University has, since 1982, held the "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" for the "opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels." The decline in Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation is at least somewhat understandable, as many aspects of his style have not aged well. Bulwer-Lytton’s work can be stiff, wooden, and melodramatic. He often unsuccessfully strains for affect. He had a fatal weakness for prolixity, fustian, and bombast. He is little-read today.

But Bulwer-Lytton deserves better. Never mind that he wrote in the style of his era, and that to single him out for writing like his contemporaries is unjust. Never mind that other writers who are his stylistic inferiors are not targeted so; no sober critic would read Walter Scott or Fenimore Cooper, and then read Bulwer-Lytton, and declare that Bulwer-Lytton is more deserving of derision. Never mind that, as Jaime Weinman says, "It was a dark and stormy night" isn’t really that bad. (I can find several opening lines in Dickens that are worse).

Bulwer-Lytton deserves praise and admiration. Few writers, of any time or of any country, were as influential during their lifetimes. Few writer possessed his commerical instincts or had as great an insight into the tastes of the reading audience. And few writers were as consistently experimental over as long a period of time. The following is a summary of his accomplishments:

Pelham (1828) was the most popular and influential of the Silver Fork genre of novels. The Silver Fork (or "fashionable novel") genre described the improper behavior of the aristocratic set, as told to the public by (supposedly) one of the aristocrats themselves. The Silver Fork novel was popular from the 1820s until the 1840s and was the transitional genre between the novel of the upper classes and the domestic realism of the Victorian novel proper. Pelham made the fortune of the publishing firm of Colburn and Co. and may have been the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Pelham also set the style, still the standard today, for men wearing black evening dress rather than blue.
Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832) were the first two major Newgate novels and essentially established the genre. Neither novel was quite as popular as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood, but both novels were successful (and scandalous), and Rookwood and the succeeding Newgate novels would not have been written without Bulwer-Lytton’s precedent.
The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) was not Bulwer-Lytton’s first historical novel (the undistinguished Devereux (1829) was), but it was his first success in the genre. It is the best historical novel of the 1830s and was seen by critics as having topped the work of Sir Walter Scott. Bulwer-Lytton followed Pompeii with Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835), The Last of the Barons (1843), and Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848). Scott deserves credit for the creation of the modern historical novel, but Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels were among the most popular in the genre in the 1830s and 1840s, and The Last Days of Pompeii created the subgenre of historical novels set in Rome, a group which would later include Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurian (1885) and Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880). Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels set the standard for applying scholarship and research to the writing of historical romances, and The Last of the Barons and Harold were among the first historical novels to apply contemporary social political issues to the past: in Barons, the negative effect of the Industrial Revolution on England; in Harold, the question of what it is to be "English" and a celebration of the romantic Toryism of the Young England movement of the early 1840s.
England and the English (1834) was an important criticism of English culture which was politically radical in its call for education and child labor reform.
Athens: Its Rise and Fall (1837) is one of the best and most readable Victorian histories of ancient Greece.
Ernest Maltravers (1837) is the novel in which the influence of the Germans on Bulwer-Lytton is the most pronounced. Bulwer-Lytton was greatly influenced by the German thinkers and writers, Goethe and Schiller especially, and he translated Schiller’s lyrical poetry and wrote essays on Wieland, Lessing, Herder, and Klopstock. Bulwer-Lytton admired and liked the Germans and helped spread an appreciation for German thought among the English, and in Ernest Maltravers Bulwer-Lytton did a passable attempt at emulating Goethe.
Night and Morning (1841), another of Bulwer-Lytton’s Proto-Mysteries, was reviewed by Edgar Allan Poe in the same issue of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in which appeared Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe’s first C. Auguste Dupin story. Though not wholly complimentary of Bulwer-Lytton, Poe nonetheless praises Night and Morning’s plot construction. Poe probably did not read Night and Morning before he composed "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but it is likely that the complicated plot of Night and Morning had some effect on Poe’s composition of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." Moreover, Night and Morning’s detective Monsieur Favart, though an imitation of Eugène François Vidocq, is an early example in crime fiction of the police detective character. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins knew of Night and Morning, and it is arguable that Favart was an influence on Dickens’ creation of Inspector Bucket (in Bleak House) and on Collins’ creation of Sergeant Cuff (in The Moonstone). The mystery genre would be different without the example of the Newgate novels to draw upon. The mystery genre would not exist without the work of Poe, Dickens, and Collins, all three of whom were influenced by Bulwer-Lytton.
Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1861-1862) created the occult fantasy genre. Bulwer-Lytton had predecessors, including William Beckford (in Vathek), but it was Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni and A Strange Story which were influential on and imitated by later writers of occult fantasy.
The Caxtons (1849) was not the first major domestic novel–Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) has that honor–but Bulwer-Lytton’s prestige (by the mid-point of the century Bulwer-Lytton was seen as England’s leading novelist) gave significant impetus to domestic fiction and helped make it fashionable.
The Haunted and the Haunters (1859) was the first modern haunted house story. It is set in the London of the day and uses psychic phenomena rather than the rationalized supernatural of the Gothics. The Haunted and the Haunters has been imitated dozens of times and is one of the two or three most influential haunted house stories ever written.
The Coming Race (1871) was multiply influential. It is a significant early work of science fiction and uses concepts which would become standards in science fiction, including a version of atomic energy in the vril force. The Coming Race is the best-written of the 19th century Hollow Earth novels and was influential on later utopian novels, including Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). And the mystical vocabulary and ideology of The Coming Race were adopted by Helena Blavatsky and incorporated into the philosophy of Theosophy.

The preceding list does not include Bulwer-Lytton’s work (1831-1833) as an editor on the New Monthly Review, one of the most popular of the monthly fictional magazines; his political career as a Member of Parliament (1831-1841, 1852-1866) and as Secretary of State for the Colonies (1858-1859); his satires, including The New Timon (1846), with its then-shocking attack on Tennyson, and Money (1840), which like England and the English retains its bite today; his great influence on modern occultism, including the Order of the Golden Dawn; his influence on other writers, particularly Dickens; his efforts on behalf of other writers, both toward creating effective copyright laws and, through the Guild of Literature and Art, to support struggling writers and artists; his extensive critical work on the theory of fiction; and his attempts to experiment with narrative structure and to expand the possibilities of contemporary fiction, especially in My Life (1853), in which the narrative is interrupted by criticisms from the characters.

The callow call Bulwer-Lytton "Barely Literate," and the annual "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" invites similarly shallow jibes, but Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton is as deserving of respect and appreciation as any other writer of his age.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


Today's New York Times report on the imminent release of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from the federal prison in Miami where has has been stewing since 1990, in addition to making me nostalgic for the kinder gentler elder Bush and his less apocalyptic era* (and the killer PSYOP that punctuated his 1989 invasion), causes me to wonder what mischief El Piña might get up to if he really is freed. Maybe a campaign of payback against the son, a perfect karmic bookend to Bushito's own inter-familial revenge mission against Saddam? A back-to-the-future sideshow involving official voodoo, cocaine, Central American politics, and maybe even some Styx. Maybe throw in a Libyan hit squad for good measure. That would freaking rock, better than a Miami Vice marathon directed by Jean-Luc Godard from a script by John Milius.

* (See, e.g., the quote on background from "an official in the current Bush administration who was involved in American policy in Panama before the invasion ordered by the first President Bush in December 1989": "As military regimes go, Noriega's was a relatively benign one. They didn't kill that many people. They didn't torture that many people.")

**Hey, kids! Bookmark your own Noriega release watch here, courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' searchable database.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

That'll teach me

Yesterday, I was feeling pretty chipper about Pope Benedict making nice with evolution. I should've expected some sort of cosmic balancing of the accounts, so Texas Governor Rick Perry's appointment of avowed creationist Don McLeroy to the chairmanship of the State Board of Education pretty much fits the bill.

Rick Perry is the awfullest governor Texas has ever had, and if you know Texas politics, that's saying something.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Religion vs. science, round 397

Pope Benedict has waded into the evolution vs. creationism debate:
Pope Benedict XVI said the debate raging in some countries — particularly the United States and his native Germany — between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith.

I always get pretty nervous when he does this. Unlike Pope John Paul II, Benedict has not shown that much respect for science, particularly when it runs up against his personal dogma. Within the first year of his becoming pope, his top lieutenant Cardinal Schönborn denigrated evolution then turned around and backtracked somewhat. Benedict does a much better job of keeping to John Paul II's clear-eyed position on the matter, but even so, he still tries to shoehorn theology into the science itself, saying, "while there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory could not exclude a role by God." Well, of course not. Science cannot legitimately include or exclude "God" because "God" cannot be measured or quantified. Science can only measure and quantify that which can be measured and quantified. I believe it's perfectly acceptable to view science through a religious worldview. If the observer is being honest, the facts won't change, even if the observer's belief influences their understanding. There are Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Hindu, atheist and agnostic scientists doing great work today in everything from evolutionary biology to cosmology, and while their spiritual view of the universe may differ significantly, the underlying science is a shared understanding. But saying that science itself is somehow deficient because it doesn't include metaphysics is like saying a cheeseburger is lessened by the fact that it doesn't solve Fermat's last theorem.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday Matinee with Marxists in Space

Thanks to the Austin Film Society's outstanding summer series, "Other Worlds, Other Minds: Global Sci-Fi Cinema," I had the good fortune this week to catch a screening of The Heavens Call (Nebo Zovyot), a gorgeous Russian mission to Mars film from 1959.

A Soviet state art project directed by Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr, the film is a kind of Cold War bookend to Destination Moon (with a healthy dose of 2001). Instead of Heinlein's libertarian dream of a private entrepreneurs building the rocket for parallel goals of profit and progress, Heavens Call tells the story of dedicated technocrats working to propel their socialist utopia into the solar system, with their giant ship "Motherland" bound for the Red Planet. The leader is Kornev, a benevolent, patriarchal elder who never loses his cool and can be consistently relied upon to have just the right selfless philosophical utterance for every situation.

Unfortunately, their ideologically pure mission is screwed up by a competing American mission that could be operated by the same guys behind Destination Moon -- "The Mars Syndicate," selling canalside lots for $10 an acre, with their fast rocket "Typhoon" piloted by astronaut "Mr. Clark" (a Chuck Yeager analog famous for his masterful emergency landing of a wild rocket in El Paso, played by a silver-haired brick of a Russian with actual divots in his face and the tangible gravitas of a hero of Stalingrad) and accompanied by a glib dilettante celebrity broadcaster. When the Americans, in their greedy rush, end up falling toward the sun, the selfless Russians abandon their mission to save the misguided capitalists, then find themselves stranded without fuel on the asteroid Icarus. As they stand in a cubist variation on a Chesley Bonestell spacescape, watching the ripe red planet rise before them, co-pilot Andrei voices the tantalizing frustration of their near miss, to which Kornev replies that the next mission will be more successful because of this "useful lesson in the consequences of useless competition."

Visually, the film is stunning, from the majestic slow dance of the rocket launch that plays like a Tchaikovsky ballet version of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, to the pre-Kubrick rotating space station/platform (open to all members of the human race without discrimination or fee -- sorry, no Hilton and no Pan Am here), to the crazy futurist landscape of the asteroid. The ordered beauty of the Soviet utopia, with its beautiful thick happy people moving through time and space and labor and love with mellow grace and lots of Theremin music, is best illuminated when interrupted at the end of Act II with the appearance of the Yankees: Times Square! Neon! Boogie woogie! Cars! Celebrities! Private property!

The narrative contrast is ultimately the more powerful one: Thoughtful socialists like Kornev don't need happy endings. Or, the success of *cooperation* between the Russians and the Americans is more important than achievement of the scientific mission objective -- which makes the celebratory return of the astronauts, righteously riding the waves in an open motorboat to meet the roaring crowd of family, workers, and uniformed Young Bolsheviks, all the more emotionally vivid and real. It's fun to imagine other Hollywood genre archetypes repurposed in a similar fashion. Of course, as previously noted in this space, you are hearing this from a guy who is nostalgic for the lost dream of utopia in our excessively pragmatic, ideologically bereft age.

The film is touring with several other Soviet SF pictures as part of Seagull Films' "From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema," so keep an eye out for it (or get some folks together to bring it to your local repertory house).

(Or, if you're desperate, you can pick up the bastardized American version, Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), in which Roger Corman hired a young Francis Ford Coppola to recut the film as a Northern Hemisphere v. Southern Hemisphere thing, complete with attacks by vagina dentata space monsters.)

And if you're in Austin, you can check out anime apocalypse Akira next week or the awesomely titled To the Stars by Hard Ways the week after, which is surely worth it just for this mysterious lost android alone.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Potter mania

I have to admit I'm amazed by the frenzy whipped up over the impending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but I suppose I shouldn't be. Ever since The Prisoner of Azkaban's release prompted waiting lines and book release parties at bookstores across the country, Harry Potter has been growing into a colossal multimedia juggernaut, complete with its own filkish subgenre.

I don't begrudge Rowling her success--if anyone deserves to become the first billionaire author, it's the divorced mother who wrote the first book while struggling to make ends meet on welfare. But I have to shake my head at her anger directed toward the New York Times for a positive, if somewhat uninspired, advanced review of the book that gave away precious few "spoilers" that could impact one's reading of the book in any manner.
"I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children," she said.

Which spoilers are she talking about?
J.K. Rowling's monumental, spell-binding epic, 10 years in the making, is deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas - from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to Star Wars - and true to its roots, it ends not with modernist, Soprano-esque equivocation, but with good old-fashioned closure: a big screen, heart-racing, bone-chilling confrontation and an epilogue that clearly lays out people's fates.

Is that it? That the end of the book clearly lays out people's fates? Or that it doesn't end with an ambiguous fade-out to an old Journey song? Gimme a break. The only real spoilerish material here is the reviewer's passing mention that "at least half a dozen" characters die in the book, which might be something revelatory if this were a new A.A. Milne Winnie-The-Pooh book, but is relegated pretty much to the "So what" category since it jibes with the "people die, but it's not a bloodbath" quote Rowling has been dishing out in every interview she's done over the past six months. The long and short of it is, if you want to find juicy spoilers, the New York Times' early review is probably the last place you're going to want to look. It's simply a case of manufactured hoopla, and when the review hit, Rowling and her handlers saw a golden opportunity to garner even more headlines than they already had by stirring up a banal tit-for-tat war of words with the New York Times. As far as problems go, it's a nice one to have.

For all my aura of bemused indifference, I, too, will be reading Deathly Hollows shortly. I won't be in line tonight at the local Hastings for the obligatory midnight release party (more likely I'll be washing dishes, or surfing the internets in the name of "research," which is a convenient way of avoiding actual writing), which will spare me the now-obligatory "Snape kills Dumbledore" drive-by shoutings.

My wife pre-ordered the book a month ago from Amazon. It should arrive sometime on Saturday, and I won't see much of her--or the book--for the next few days as she plows through it. Not that I'm losing any sleep over it. I'm in the middle of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun at the moment, and it's a crackin' good book. I'm disinclined to put it down, multimedia juggernaut or no.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The plot against FDR

I understand why writing alternate history is so attractive: The plots can't help but suggest themselves. History is literally full of roads not taken, and the siren song of researching these various quirky incidents of "what if?" are hard for any honest scribe of speculative fiction to resist. Case in point, the abortive 1933 coup against FDR:
In Congressional testimony, Butler said MacGuire and Clark eventually promised him an army of 500,000 men, $30 million in financial backing and generous media support to lead the nation's first coup. Under the plan, Butler would have become the "secretary of general affairs" -- a new Cabinet ubersecretary, as it were -- while FDR would have been forced into becoming a powerless figurehead.

"(McGuire) said, 'You know, the American people will swallow that,'" Butler testified. " 'We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the President's health is failing. Everybody can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second.'"

At that point, Butler said, he could sit back no longer. He revealed the plot to New York Evening Post reporter Paul Comly French, who then interviewed MacGuire himself in September 1934. According to French, MacGuire said the United States needed a strong, fascist government and that he would have no problem raising money for a coup on Wall Street, which feared Roosevelt's leftist leanings.

That's some crazy shit there. I mean, really, who would ever imagine corporate America scheming to undermine Democrats? But what's really amazing about this whole affair (other than the fact that it's not well-known--it seems people are better-informed about the various Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories than this) is that the House of Representatives investigated the allegations via the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which concluded that the coup plot was indeed legitimate. And then did absolutely nothing to the conspirators. Kind of boggles the mind, doesn't it?
"Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren't even called to testify. Why wasn't Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy, New York broker ... called? Why wasn't Louis Howe, Secretary to the President of the United States, called? . . . Why wasn't Al Smith called? And why wasn't Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, called? And why wasn't Hanford MacNider, former American Legion commander, called? They were all mentioned in the testimony. And why was all mention of these names suppressed from the committee report?"

Since admiration for Mussolini (and later Hitler) was fairly high in the U.S. during the early 30s, it doesn't take a great leap of faith to see how such a plot (provided it had more competent leadership) could've succeeded in turning the U.S. to fascism. Certainly, control of media factored heavily into the plans, and as events post-1933 have borne out, controlling the media controls the message, and that is more than half the battle. Kinda makes you look at all those massive media mergers approved by the FCC in a whole new light, doesn't it?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Author! Author!

I have a book out, and a fair number of acquaintances and colleagues at the library where I work have congratulated me on being a writer now. This is most welcome. It also evokes a touch of cognitive dissonance. I've been a freelance writer with short story, novelette and nonfiction article sales since 1990, and now I get congratulations for being a writer.

On the other hand, I know where these folks are coming from. There's a distinction imperfectly suggested by the word writer vs. the word author. I'm the author of a book. A book is an artifact that in various forms (codex, illuminated manuscript, papyrus scroll) goes way, way back into history; a discrete commodity in a way that bits of magazines aren't; and a raison d'etre of librarianship. Hard-bound books are famous objects of the collecting urge. Paperbacks, including dime-a-dozen dog-eared ones, can be treasured just as much. Books are how readers wind down from a brain-taxing day, endure long airline flights, or go to sleep at night. Book is a four-square, Anglo-Saxon, four-letter word. A book is a picture window showing the world; a microscope peering into a mind; a stained-glass window, changing the ineffable light of the divine into colorful, comprehensible ideas; a telescope seeing the universe or invented worlds half a galaxy away.

For many people who work in and patronize libraries, libraries are about BOOKS. That's a traditionalist, even reactionary, stance in the Digital Age, but it's many people's truth. Including mine. The best commentary I've seen lately on the relationship between libraries, books, and the Internet is in the library comic strip Unshelved. The strips for July 9 and July 13 are priceless. Take a look!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A non-canon for a non-genre

Over at the Inferior 4+1, Paul Di Filippo reports from Readercon with this encyclopedic post, of which the below is only a small excerpt:

"One of the more elaborate and well-buttressed panels I participated in at Readercon this past weekend involved an attempt to create a 'canon' of Slipstream literature. The panelists involved, besides myself, Paul DiFi, were John Kessel, Cat Valente, Dora Goss, Brett Cox, Ron Drummond, Victoria McManus, and Graham Sleight. Con organizer Eric Van participated heavily as well.

"Here's the document we came up with, after the break.

The Core Canon of Slipstream

1. Collected Fictions (coll 1998), Jorge Luis Borges
2. Invisible Cities (1972, trans 1974), Italo Calvino
3. Little, Big (1981), John Crowley
4. Magic for Beginners (coll 2005), Kelly Link
5. Dhalgren (1974), Samuel R. Delany
6. Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Fiction (coll, 1995), Angela Carter
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, trans 1970), Gabriel Garcia Marquez
8. The Ægypt Cycle (1987-2007), John Crowley
9. Feeling Very Strange (anth 2006), John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly (eds.)
10. The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (coll 2001)
11. Stranger Things Happen (coll 2001), Kelly Link
12. The Lottery and Other Stories (coll 1949), Shirley Jackson
13. Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Thomas Pynchon
14. Conjunctions 39 (anth 2002), Peter Straub (ed.)
15. The Metamorphosis (1915), Franz Kafka
16. The Trial (1925), Franz Kafka
17. Orlando (1928), Virginia Woolf
18. The Castle (1926), Franz Kafka
19. The complete works of Franz Kafka
20. V; (1963), Thomas Pynchon
21. Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter
22. The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (anth 2007), Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (eds.)
23. The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories [UK title Busy About the Tree of Life] (coll 1988), Pamela Zoline
24. Foucault's Pendulum (1988, trans 1989), Umberto Eco
25. Sarah Canary (1991), Karen Joy Fowler
26. City of Saints and Madmen (coll 2002), Jeff VanderMeer
27. Interfictions (anth 2007), Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.)

A Working Slipstream Canon, continued:

28. His Monkey Wife (1930), John Collier
29. Waiting for Godot (1952), Samuel Beckett
30. The Satanic Verses (1988), Salman Rushdie
31. Carmen Dog (1990), Carol Emshwiller
32. Mason & Dixon (1998), Thomas Pynchon
33. The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (coll 2002), Jeffrey Ford
34. Changing Planes (coll 2003), Ursula K. Le Guin
35. Bibliomancy (coll 2003), Elizabeth Hand
36. Novelties and Souvenirs (coll 2004), John Crowley
37. The complete works of Thomas Pynchon
38. Naked Lunch (1959), William Burroughs
39. Giles Goat-Boy (1966), John Barth
40. Lost in the Funhouse (1968), John Barth
41. Ada (1969), Vladimir Nabokov
42. Love in the Time of Cholera (1987), Gabriel Garcia Marquez
43. Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison
44. Verging on the Pertinent (1989), Carol Emshwiller
45. The Start of the End of It All (coll 1990), Carol Emshwiller
46. Was (1992), Geoff Ryman
47. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (coll 1994), A.S. Byatt
48. Black Glass (coll 1997), Karen Joy Fowler
49. Ciphers (1997), Paul Di Filippo
50. Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Nalo Hopkinson
51. The Vintage Book of Amnesia (anth 2001), Jonathan Lethem (ed.)
52. In the Forest of Forgetting (2007), Theodora Goss
53. The Complete Stories (coll 1971), Franz Kafka
54. Finnegans Wake (1939), James Joyce
55. The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Shirley Jackson
56. Chimera (1972), John Barth
57. The Woman Warrior (1976), Maxine Hong Kingston
58. Slapstick (1976), Kurt Vonnegut
59. Engine Summer (1979), John Crowley
60. Fundamental Disch (coll 1980), Thomas M. Disch
61. Sixty Stories (coll 1981), Donald Barthelme
62. The House of the Sprits (1982), Isabel Allende
63. The complete works of Samuel Beckett
64. Moonwise (1991), Greer Gilman
65. Brittle Innings (1994), Michael Bishop
66. Pussy, King of Pirates (1996), Kathy Acker
67. Humpty Dumpty: An Oval (1996). Damon Knight
68. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1997), Haruki Murakami
69. A Season in Hell (1873), Arthur Rimbaud
70. Ulysses (1922), James Joyce
71. Lolly Willowes (1926), Sylvia Townsend Warner
72. Steppenwolf (1927), Herman Hesse
73. The Waves (1931), Virginia Woolf
74. The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-1959), Mervyn Peake
75. Lanark (1981), Alasdair Gray
76. Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Kathy Acker
77. The Bridge (1986), Iain Banks
78. The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987), Joanna Russ
79. Vineland (1990), Thomas Pynchon
80. Adventures in Unhistory (coll 2006), Avram Davidson
81. As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), Jonathan Lethem
82. The Godhead Trilogy (Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, The Eternal Footman) (1994-99), James Morrow
83. In the Stone House (coll 2000), Barry Malzberg
84. Perdido Street Station (2000), China Mieville
85. Kappa Child (2001), Hiromi Goto
86. Sister Noon (2001), Karen Joy Fowler
87. Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories (coll 2002), Carol Emshwiller
88. Set This House in Order (2003), Matt Ruff
89. Black Juice (2004), Margo Lanagan
90. The Labyrinth (2004), Catherynne M. Valente
91. Map of Dreams (2006), M. Rickert
92. Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Luigi Pirandello
93. The Glass Bead Game (1943), Hermann Hesse
94. Ice (1967), Anna Kavan
95. City Life (coll 1970), Donald Barthelme
96. Grendel (1971), John Gardner
97. Strangeness (anth 1977), Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor (eds)
98. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera
99. Empire of the Sun (1984), J.G. Ballard
100. Days Between Stations (1985), Steve Erickson
101. Tainaron: Mail From Another City (1985), Leena Krohn
102. Forty Stories (coll 1987), Donald Barthelme
103. Medea: The Sorceress (1991), Diane Wakoski
104. X, Y (1993), Michael Blumlein
105. The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (coll 1996), Jonathan Lethem
106. Godmother Night (1996), Rachel Pollack
107. Big Fish (1998), Daniel Wallace
108. House of Leaves (2000), Mark Danielewski
109. The Library (2002), Zoran Zivkovic
110. The Impossible Bird (2002), Patrick O'Leary
111. The Lovely Bones (2002), Alice Sebold
112. Pattern Recognition (2003), William Gibson
113. Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell
114. Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (2004), F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan (eds.)
115. The Girl in the Glass (2005), Jeffrey Ford"

My immediate reaction is to think that the only works that really merit the generic moniker of Slipstream are those that are self-consciously participating in that idea, e.g., Vandermeer (26), Link (11), and the recent anthologies (9, 22, 27), whereas the older works -- Borges, Ballard, Calvino, and even obvious aunts and uncles like Dhalgren and The Heat Death of the Universe -- while among Slipstream's clear antecedents (and components of Bruce's original postulated canon), are something else. In essence, it seems to me, 15-20 years of wrestling with the desire to synthesize all this disparate stuff we all like and want to launch off from has actually created a new genre, which consists of the better work by the community of people who participate in or attend panels like this. And one big difference between the new Slipstreamers and their antecedents, I would suggest, is that New Wavers of note were doing really revolutionary work that was in many cases stylistically and politically radical and provocative, whereas today's work in the anthologies is mostly well-Clarionized storytelling that follows most of the rules and pursues a prose poetical exercise in aesthetic decadence, a kind of spec fictional literary oenophilia. Which makes part of me, given the apocalyptic state of our world, want to plant a brick of virtual C4 under the conference table and try to create some bona fide Infernokrusher.

That said, it's a stimulating discussion worthy of your attention. And if you haven't been regularly visiting the Inferior 4+1, you need to do so if for no other reason than to savor Mr. Di Filippo's delicious tapas of ephemeral literature (especially 60s paperbacks) from his personal Borgesian Slipstream library (I know, I immediately contradict myself).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Catching up with Angry Old Men

Simon Sellars of Ballardian has a great interview up this week with Michael Moorcock on his and Ballard's pioneering work of the 60s and their observations on the present scene. Great stuff, like:

Their perspective on Burroughs:

"Jimmy and I were both great fans of William Burroughs. We weren’t so much influenced by him as inspired by him. We were also interested in condensing narrative, of finding forms which would enable us to carry as many narratives as possible in as short a space. We were, I suppose, anti-modern rather than post-modern. Our ideas didn’t come out of academia. They were answers to the problems of working writers trying to find the best ways of dealing with our particular experience. Burroughs pointed the way, as we saw it."

And their perspective on the contemporary scene:

"Like Jimmy, I think I’ve grown angrier and more radical in most respects as I’ve grown older. We’re both as disgusted with what’s going on in politics and business as we ever were. I just did a ‘fighting editorial’ for Interzone, calling on writers to take the kind of risks Burroughs (from whom Interzone took their title) took. The kind of risks Ballard took, for that matter. We’re living in cautious, retroactive times and I think we need to make an effort to resist what we too easily accept as the zeitgeist. I know this is also how Jimmy feels. I don’t think either of us is especially nostalgic or querulous, but it’s comforting to know that when we get together we’re a couple of Angry Old Men with as much invested in the present and, indeed, future as we ever had."

Feeling very strange is fun in an aesthetic decadent way, but the Old Ones pose a fair question: where are the real SF literary risk-takers today?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Adbusting, Iraqi Insurgent Style

Author and game designer Allen Varney pinged me this evening with a wild story from Sky News: apparently some Iraqi insurgents are Photoshopping ads for Hollywood movies and turning them into creepy psyops about the slaughter of American soldiers, then peddling instructions on how to propagate them across the American webscape.

This includes predictable fare, like the Owen Wilson-Gene Hackman fighter pilot flick "Behind Enemy Lines"...

And Mel Gibson hero pics "The Patriot"...

...and "We Were Soldiers"...

As well as less intuitive choices, such as "Fast Food Nation"...

And "The Animal" (Rob Schneider=W?).

You heard it here first.

Free prize to anyone who can locate one of these busta-memes in actual covert placement on the web.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Ethan the Skiffy Narrative Slayer

Over at Do the Math, jazz pianist and cultural omnivore Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus has a No Fear of the Future-worthy encyclopedic post regarding the Tom Baker years of Doctor Who, the full run of Buffy, and the unexplored overlaps between the two. How Ethan manages to crank out bunker busters of the brain like this while touring the world to promote his band's new album, Prog (which you must buy if you haven't already -- totally ass-kicking piano trio covers of Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Rush's Tom Sawyer, along with some Bowie, some Bachrach, and bassist Reid Anderson's percussive masterpiece Physical Cities) only his nutritionist knows.

Especially brilliant is his disquisition on the strange pleasures of reading overthought analytical works regarding our favorite pop cultural comfort food:

'We all have guilty pleasures. One of mine is reading the analytical books about TB and BTVS. This is from chapter four, "Send up: Authorship and Organization," from Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado (this is the chapter about TB):

"The disagreement over audiences and dramatic values between [Graham] Williams and [John] Nathan-Turner itself raised quite dramatically the ways in which and institution like Doctor Who can vary according to different production and professional practices. This chapter will look at ways in which variations within professional ideology materially affect production practices; and further, at ways in which professional values that are ostensibly identical can themselves be inflected differently according to pressure from within and outside the television industry."

'And this is by Neal King, from his essay "Brownskirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon" from the anthology Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale:

"The quasi-fascist philosophy that justifies Buffy's slaying concerns me in my next discussion. I will outline the show's cosmology and by doing so, set up my imaginary Buffyverse, just to make my point about the show's potential for fascism. I conclude with a better solution to this problem, one that stretches credulity less and eliminates the show's nasty streak of racism. The important characteristics of the existing Buffyverse that prime it for fascism include elements of a Manichean racism (tempered by an Augustinian division of the world's evils), adherence to primal and state authority, and formation of citizenship in ritual combat. I consider these in turn."

'These are absurd pursuits, but nonetheless, if you want to keep me quiet and absorbed, just give me a new book of TB or BTVS analysis and you won't hear from me for several hours. In fact, that chapter in the Tulloch/Alvarado is one of the most interesting things I have ever read. The book as a whole is swollen with overly turgid prose, but in that chapter the great Douglas Adams is interviewed extensively in counterpoint with producers Williams and Nathan-Turner, and it gets quite gritty and revealing! As far as Buffy and fascism goes, I have never studied philosophy. Someone who has will undoubtedly protest that I need to actually read Augustine for real, but, I assure you, that is not going to happen. Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale is the closest that I am ever going to get.'

Check it out.


Black pearls on a Zinnia

After reading the post at Boing Boing the other day regarding the use of the iPhone camera as a microscope, I took a stab at some amateur macro to document the splendid string of black pearls (some sort of insect eggs) I discovered on a Zinnia snipped from my garden and now sitting in a vase in my kitchen.

Very cool.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Today would have been Robert A. Heinlein's 100th birthday, had he been as immortal as some of his characters.

It's no secret that, unlike some Heinlein fans I could name, I don't believe the man could do no wrong. He was too complex for that, and I strongly disagree with some of the things he said and wrote. I detest Farnham's Freehold and The Day After Tomorrow, was bored by I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough For Love, and haven't even attempted to read The Number of the Beast or To Sail Beyond the Sunset (though I have recently been ploughing through his early attempt at a novel For Us, The Living, an intriguing if plotless diatribe written after his unsuccessful attempt to enter politics as a polyamorous nudist supporter of Upton Sinclair's EPIC. No, I'm not joking).

That said, if he'd written nothing but 'All You Zombies', 'The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag', and 'The Man Who Traveled in Elephants', he would still (IMHO) be deserving of his Grand Master status. And as well as these gems, he also gave us 'The Long Watch', 'The Green Hills of Earth', 'The Man Who Sold the Moon', 'Requiem', Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Between Planets, Glory Road, and many other works that I've enjoyed reading and re-reading. While I'm no fan of Starship Troopers, I acknowledge its importance to the genre, if only for the "responses" and outright piss-takes it has inspired and which I have enjoyed.

His influence on the sf writing community has been immeasurable: to cite just one example, I am pleased and grateful his philosophy that the sf writers who he helped out in times of crisis (and there were many of them, some of whom disagreed fervently with his politics at the time), should not pay back these favours but "pay them forward", has been adopted by many others in the field.

Take him for all in all, the world would be a much poorer place had he never lived, and I can think of no higher praise for anyone.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Another Green World

There's a fun brain-popping (and compelling) bit of science nonfiction from Freeman Dyson in the July 19 issue of The New York Review of Books, titled "Our Biotech Future." Among his talking points:

- Biotech will blossom into something bright and beautiful once it undergoes a Small is Beautiful domestication similar to what the computer industry experienced from 1981-1999, and kids and hobbyists are practicing genetic experimentation in their playrooms. As an early telegraph of this trend, he suggests, see the recent appearance of brightly colored genetically modified tropical fish in pet stores.

- Linear Darwinian evolution, in which species progress and differentiate through time like the branches on the tree of life, is a kind of anomalous interlude. Most of Earth's biological history was a golden age of synthetic rather than reductionist biology, in which horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist, and a similar period is now ascendant: "Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared...And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented." Quoting microbial taxonomist Carl Woese (who sounds like he's been reading Rudy Rucker's gnarly blog):

-- "Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow -- patterns in an energy flow...it is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization."

- Green technology that results from these trends, such as silcon-based leafy plants that more efficiently photosynthesize to generate energy and grow edible parts, is the key to ending rural pverty and restoring equilbrium to the North-South balance of power.

A provocative synthesis of various ideas and a fun read. Not sure I buy the socio-economic optimism, but it's some crunchy food for thought.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Rocking SF power chords

In the August 2007 issue of Asimov's, cyberpunk grandmasters Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling collaborate on a hilariously fun story that dollops out duelling SF power chords like the genre equivalent of a riff-off between Frank Zappa and Joe Walsh. "Hormiga Canyon": take one part Jan-Michael Vincent dirt biking across the post-apocalyptic desert in Damnation Alley (with a wonderfully incongruous strand of Renaissance Faire DIY chainmail), one classic cyber-trickster, mix them with the Mythbusters guys, then throw them into a gnarly southern California desert that discovers the Calabi-Yau lurking beneath the milieu of Carlos Castaneda and the Warner Bros. backlot of Them! Yes, it's a giant ant story.

"A colossal ant burst from a ticket of manzanita, bearing three fierce-looking natives. The riders were clutching the ant's insectile bristles like Mongols holding a horse's mane. They were deeply tanned men with filed teeth, floppy hair, and bizarre patterns painted on their faces. Original Californians.

"The Tongvans sprang at Jayson and Stefan; second later the boys were swathed in woven nets, wrapped up like pupas side by side.

"The largest Tongvan leaned over Stefan. He was a wiry, dignified gentleman just over five feet tall. He'd painted an intricate pattern of fern-like scrolls around his eyes and mouth. He had a deeply skeptical, highly judgmental look, very much like an overworked immigration officer at LAX."

Highly recommended -- the perfect smart silly summer matinee for your favorite sofa, a buttered popcorn path to the Nagual. Check it out. The first third of the story is up on the Asimov's site for your reading enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fred Saberhagen (1920-2007)

This just turned up in my in-box. Rotten, evil news that Fred Saberhagen has died. I knew he'd been fighting cancer for several years, but you always hope those afflicted are able to lick that nasty disease.
Fred Thomas Saberhagen passed away in his Albuquerque, New Mexico home on Friday, June 29, 2007. He was 77 years old.

Fred Saberhagen was the author of over 65 historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels, including such series at the Dracula and Berserker series. His first published story was "Volume Paa-Pyx" which appeared in the February 1961 issue of Galaxy, and his first published novel was The Golden People in 1964.

Before starting his writing career, Saberhagen served in the US Air Force, worked as a civilian electronics technician, and wrote and edited articles on science and technology for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was born and raised in Chicago, but lived for many years in Albuquerque.

A memorial will be announced for later in the year. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to any of the following: Doctors without Borders. Catholic Relief, SFWA Emergency Medical Fund, or John 23rd Catholic Church in Albuquerque. Saberhagen is survived by his wife, Joan Spicci.

I first met Saberhagen back in 1991, when he was gracious enough to be my writer guest of honor at Aggiecon 22. And a more cooperative guest I couldn't have asked for. He was friendly and accomodating to all the fans and con workers there. Privately, myself and several other concom began affectionately referring to him as "Yoda" after seeing him sitting in various areas in the university's student center outside of the convention events, silently observing all the students going to and fro. Around midnight on Friday we found him sipping coffee in a mostly-empty food court. He had a serene, dignified air about him, just like a Jedi Master should have.

I'd encountered him occasionally at various conventions in the ensuing years, and he always had a kind word for me. Once I started publishing interviews, he was always on my short list of people who I wanted to sit down with some day. Alas, I waited too long, and that day will never come.