Greatly Exaggerated

I don’t have anything in particular bringing me out of my long vacation, except to try and beat the clock before it’s been a whole year. And if I wait on something momentous enough to make a big re-entrance on, well, I’ll keep putting it off. Therefore: Behold! Blog necromancy.

Now let us celebrate with some musings on mortality from another reclusive, hiatus-prone weirdo who keeps coming back around:


Arse Longa, Tvita Brevis

Last week I was directed to this wonderful page in the scholarly demesnes of the Interwebs: a collection of graffiti from the walls of Pompei, preserved along with everything else at the time of its cataclysm. The sentiments expressed range from the banal (“Romula hung out here with Staphylus”; “Marcus loves Spendusa”) to the confrontational (“Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!”) to the aphoristic (“Once you are dead, you are nothing”) to the obscene (“On June 15th, Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus”), along with combinations of several of the above (“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog”) – in other words, almost exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see scrawled in Sharpie on the walls of your local underfunded public restroom or city park. There’s perhaps more emphasis than in modern times about who was taking a dump where (“Anyone who wants to defecate in this place is advised to move along.  If you act contrary to this warning, you will have to pay a penalty”) but, on the whole, it’s an almost comfortably recognizable litany: expressions of love, boasts about getting laid, grousing about the bad service, dirty gossip, and, of course, complaints about all the graffiti.

We would find the people of the ancient world to be alien and incomprehensible in many ways, and startlingly familiar in others, and which cultural mores fall into which category isn’t always what we might assume. But what strikes me (as was noted in the comment thread where this link came up) is how much this reads to modern eyes like a sort of classical Twitter, or Texts from Last Night – brief, on-the-spot records of lives in progress, little triumphs and humiliations and quarrels and public notices. The next time you hear some blowhard talking about how our culture is going to hell in a handbasket because of texting or tweeting, think of the Pompeians, who would surely have taken to smartphones with the same enthusiasm they seem to have had for wine, buggery, and crapping in public.

It’s hard to say what we can point to as universal human qualities, but I think, now that we have the miracle of literacy, we’re likely to want to use that incredible tool from time to time to record and share quotidian things, and to pass notes to each other about socializing and carousing and screwing and poop. And well we should; there’s room in the world for all of it, “high” and “low” sentiments and everything in between. Anyone who tries to tell you different is being an insufferable snob. (I suggest outing them as such on the wall of the bathhouse.)


Not Dead but Dreaming

I seem to have been inexplicably On Hiatus for a while. Sorry about that. Your regularly-scheduled1 broadcasts will resume shortly.

In the meantime – and in keeping with the reference invoked by this post’s title, here at the outset of the Season of Mists – go have a read of this brace of posts by Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum on Lingua Franca on the subject of H.P. Lovecraft’s old (excuse me) haunts, and the troubling aspects of the Gentleman of Providence we latter-day fans are obliged to have a hard look at.

(And on that second theme, for my beloved and eloquent cousin, who recently reminded me of it: How to be a fan of problematic things.)

Ta for now. Back soon.

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1 Such as they are. Quit laughing.


A Battle That is Not a Battle, a Game That is Not a Game: The Player of Games

The Player of Games is the book that almost always gets my recommendation as the best place to start with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Rereading it for this month’s book group selection, I stand by that assessment – which is no slight on its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, a thrilling and masterful work of space opera in its own right. But while Phlebas introduces the Culture from the viewpoint of an enemy, Player is the first book with a Culture protagonist – which makes it a good test for a new reader, because I suspect the way Banks’ hyperadvanced utopian civilization sees itself in this book is something you’re going to either love or hate.

Which brings up something that sank in for me even more on this reading than my first: The Player of Games is an extremely political book. I noticed it my first time through, of course; all the Culture books are political, and boldly so – looked at collectively, as Iain Banks’ Gesamtkunstwerk, they advance a powerful and complicated argument about organizing human societies and the choices we face in doing so. And maybe more nakedly than some of its successors, Player wears its politics on its sleeve, to an extent that I think a reader’s reaction to its underlying assumptions is going to depend a lot on how much you are in harmony with Banks’ – and the Culture’s – political philosophy.

Beyond the cut: Soapbox SF, difficult heroes, and the Sparrowhawk Maneuver (and also spoilers)


Black Flowers Blossom

Massive Attack’s gorgeous and haunting “Teardrop” is now widely and instantly recognizable as the “theme from House,” the only real shame of which is that the cut that plays over the opening credits drops Elizabeth Fraser’s reliably ethereal vocals.1 That aside, I’m not one to sniff in hipster disdain of something cool getting dispersed to the masses; I think it’s actually kind of wonderful that thousands of people who wouldn’t know trip-hop from trance have now spent years getting a weekly dose of high-quality downbeat electronica, even if the legacy of the entertainment it came with has proven to be a mixed blessing.2

Less well-known – by which I mean that I had no idea either until the other night – is that “Teardrop” has been given several worthy and interesting cover treatments. In particular, allow me to draw your eye and ear to this version by Jóse González, set to visuals that may be even more trippy and unsettling than the original.3 It’s a version I find to be powerful and beautiful in its own right, honoring the source material while not attempting to recreate it – qualities, IMHO, of most of the best covers. As a musician who can be  perhaps over-enthusiastic about adding songs I fall in love with to my performing repertoire, it’s a good thing to be reminded of – that the material should almost always be a vessel for the voice of the interpreter, and not the other way around.

(Hat-tip to Fred Clark of slacktivist for pointing to this, in case you want to know who to blame for your dreams tonight.)

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1 Which, really, though I’m all for wide dissemination of all things Fraseran, Liz has shown every sign of caring sod-all about being ready for prime time. Witness the Cocteau Twins’ first appearance on American network television on The Tonight Show in the ’90s, performing “Bluebeard” – what surely counts as one of the more accessible and radio-friendly tunes in the CT catalogue – when she was unable to resist tormenting the vocals to “Carolyn’s Fingers” levels of abstraction.

2 I’m not quite up for going into much depth about my mixed feelings concerning House, MD, but for now suffice it to say that I’m glad to see that the trope of the Asshole Genius Antihero is showing signs of waning.

3 Which video featured a singing animatronic fetus, so consider yourself duly warned.


Fame Fame Fatal Fame

So my fellow blogger Elly Zupko made a post recently that put forth some impassioned-but-not-unreasonable arguments that the policy of many book review blogs to refuse consideration of self-published works might just possibly be worth a second thought. Elly is herself an independently-published author, whose first novel The War Master’s Daughter was recently brought forth into the world and is seeking its intended audience; she will be the first to admit that this was a plea out of self-interest at least as much as anything else. As occasionally happens amid the chaotic tides of the Web, the post picked up some unexpected momentum, and it turns out that some of the folks in the book-reviewing regions of Outer Blogistan were less than pleased to find an upstart asking, with insufficient demureness, for a seat at the table. So it came to pass that Elly awoke one day last week to find that a small but nontrivial portion of the Internet had been dropped on her head.

Now, Elly is a friend and a sometime colleague, which is why she gets the relaxed-and-groovy first-name treatment here; but, full disclosure aside, I find myself more inclined than not to be sympathetic to her cause here. While a few words in her post may have been impolitic – a point she concedes with no small grace in her followup – even this might be understandable given the frustration self-published authors can face in being taken seriously. While it’s true that writers who self-publish have too often been the exemplars of neither art nor decorum, anyone who finds themselves judged out of hand, over and over, by the worst examples of the group they represent has some leeway, I think, to be intemperate once in a while about it.

(Beyond the cut: Legitimacy, opportunity, gatekeeping, and the dilemma of the inner six-year-old)


“Became the Special Man”: Ziggy at Forty

Catching up last night on my Internet reading after a long week, I was pleased to find out that this wonderful thing exists: a montage of David Bowie performing “Ziggy Stardust” over four decades, set to the original.

I would have been thirteen or fourteen, I think, when I had my first serious encounter with Bowie,1 and it was as he was in the Ziggy years: fey and glam and ambiguously queer, the messianic spaceman who’d happily fuck you and your girlfriend and leave you begging for another taste. Bowie himself had long moved on from that image – this was the mid-late ’80s – but that hardly mattered; it was his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust that I fell in love with, and that’s the mask of his I probably still adore the most, a quarter-century on.

I have a future post in mind where I mean to explore a little further the impact Bowie-as-Ziggy had on me, musically and otherwise. For now, though, it’s fascinating to see how this song has threaded through Bowie’s protean career, and how he’s kept it as part of his repertoire despite leaving behind nearly everything else about that persona. I’m not sure I could articulate what it is about “Ziggy Stardust” as a musical work that makes it so enduring – but it clearly is, and still resonates forty years later, when so much else of the decade it heralded has gone to glittery dust. Everyone who makes art should be so lucky as to create something as lasting.

(For more exploration of “Ziggy Stardust” as a song, see its entry on Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a smart and ambitious blog that’s in the process of dissecting Bowie’s entire ouvre one song at a time.)

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1 As a musician, that is. Labyrinth came out in the summer of my twelfth year, and made an impression that was nearly as significant, but of a different sort – though fey and glam and ambiguous were certainly in play there too, come to think of it.


Column of the Infinite

I was musing the other day about how “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is possibly the definitive Decemberists song because it has star-crossed lovers and death by drowning and Victoriana and a Doleful Ghost, which reminded me of one of the things I often come round to thinking about as both a consumer and creator of Art. It’s one of those “there are two kinds of people” constructions that’s nonsense as soon as you give it any real scrutiny, but as wrong-but-useful models go, it’s at least an interesting place to start meditating.

So, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach creating and building a body of work. The one most people tend to admire more, at least at a glance, is the one typified by David Bowie and Neil Gaiman and the late John M. Ford, where the creator reinvents their work (and, perhaps, self) with each new project, rarely or never covering the same territory twice. This is very ambitious, and impressive, and unquestionably challenging; and the three examples there are certainly among my heroes and inspirations. My hat’s absolutely off to folks who can manage this protean, dynamic, ever-progressing approach.

But there’s also what I’ve come to think of as the Brancusi school, where an artist returns again and again to a handful of subjects to ring changes on them and explore new permutations on old themes. And I’ve come to realize that I have just as much admiration for creators who follow this path, the ones who wear their obsessions on their sleeves. My grandfather was certainly one of these – quite possibly a Brancusi follower in a literal sense.1 Lots of people on my bookshelves are as well: Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Patricia McKillip.2 And some of the music I most adore was created for projects centered around a single artist’s obsessive vision, like Current 93′s David Tibet or the Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman.3

I take some comfort in this because I know in my own work (and work-in-progress) that I’m a Brancusi. I really can’t help myself, even as I’m aware I’m doing it; I look at my notes for future projects and I can see the patterns starting to form there, little singularities whose event horizons I’ll be unable to pull away from. I expect this will also be somewhat true of what I write here. (Hey, there’s a reason I chose the name I did for this blog.) So it’s probably good for me to take stock from time to time how many of the artists who inspire me have similar threads that run through so much of what they create. If nothing else, it gives me permission, in case I need it, to quit worrying so much and just embrace it.

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1 The Ray Gallucci ouvre is woefully underrepresented online, but his work is full of riffs on the same organic and quasi-organic shapes: circles and globes, spines and branches, layered strata, extended tubes.

2 Barker’s repeating themes, of course, are transformation, the intersection of beauty and monstrousness, the parade of the strange, and the secret otherworld. Barron has been noted for his exploration of the devouring cosmos, the hidden invading swarm, and the loss of self that happens when humanity comes face-to-face with the outer darkness. And McKillip has come back to the idea of the shapechanger so many times that her work is practically modern fantasy’s Metamorphoses.

I was going to put Grant Morrison on that list, and I think he very much belongs among the Brancusians; but damned if I can sum up the thread in his metatextual batshit mysticism enough to say why.

3 I mean to come back to these guys in more depth in future posts, but briefly: Aside from the way he’s made the through-line of his musical career the exploration of his very personal and idiosyncratic spiritual journey, Tibet gets extra credit for actually signposting some of his recurring motifs by making them into mantras that get repeated from one work to another. I’m not entirely clear on what “the inmost light” means when he says it, but I know it’s an awfully important idea to him. Saloman has a long list of interesting fixations, but I especially think there’s a very serious paper waiting to be written about the use of water as both a nurturing and destructive force in his work.


(Rilkean) Heart and Soul

The Missus and I were out and about earlier today when T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul” came over the radio, a song that’s in fairly frequent rotation on her preferred local station. I can’t help but like that tune; as far as siren-fronted ’80s synthpop goes, it may be pretty near the pinnacle. (Also, I did not realize the name was a Star Trek reference, which certainly brings up my estimation of them a notch or two.)

Watching the video now, which I probably haven’t done since before I was legal to drive, something else strikes me: neither the song nor its accompanying visuals are that many hallucinogens away from being a Cocteau Twins number. But I suppose that was true of lots of things c. 1986.


Back to Riverside: Some thoughts on Swordspoint

My book group‘s selection of the month, which we’ll be discussing later this week, is Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – a book that was one of the best things to happen to me twenty years ago or so. This isn’t the only time I’ve picked it up since it first rearranged my head back in the ’90s, but it’s been a while.

Returning to an old favorite, especially one from your teenage years, is a dodgy prospect; you’re never quite sure if the Suck Fairy‘s been at your toys while you were away. In this case, I needn’t have worried. If anything, it’s a book I find more to love about now, if only because twenty-plus years of thinking about stories and language and fantasy have given me a better appreciation for all the things Kushner does right.

(Beyond the cut: prose, plotting, incluing, interstiality, subtext, switch-hitting heroes, and mild spoilers)


The Parable of the Fruit Punch Czar: A meditation on power, responsibility, and community

As fortune, good or ill, would have it, I picked the weekend before a busy and hurried week to launch this blog, and have not had the time I’d have liked to follow up with a post of any substance. In the interest, then, of not letting this field lie fallow overlong, allow me to point the Gentle Reader to someone else’s excellent thoughts.

I have Making Light linked over in the sidebar under the Essentials category of my blogroll. For almost nine years it’s been one of my very favorite places on the Interwebs; though I’m not the active commenter there I was years ago, it’s still one of the sites I make sure to check in on regularly even when I don’t have time to run down every interesting online rabbit-hole I’d like to. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Making Light is the weblog of SFF editors Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden and their friends and fellow-travellers, swelled by a host of excellent commenters (who refer to themselves collectively as the Fluorosphere). For people who enjoy smart and eye-opening discussions of writing, art, fandom, language, communities, politics, publishing, and a host of related subjects, there’s no other place quite like it.

So here, from last weekend, is a small taste of what makes ML great: Teresa’s tale of the Fruit punch czar, a distillation of patterns observed in the delegation, assumption, and transferrence of responsibilty. It’s framed in the community of SFF fandom, but describes a phenomenon that’s all too universal. Like many of the things the Nielsen Haydens and company write about, it has the effect of condensing a lot of small ideas you might not have known you knew into something fascinating and revelatory. And, like almost everything Fluorospheran, the discussion in the comments is at least as good and illuminating as the post itself.

For me, having been through changes in a lot of organizations (professional and otherwise), and having observed several of the weird and uncomfortable things that can happen when a role is passed from the person who defined it, this is an enormously useful bit of terminology. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of batons passed in situations where it might have helped to be able to say “Uh-oh. This is a Fruit Punch Czar in the making.” It’s hard to say how much just having that knowledge can prevent such things from occurring, but, jeeze, it sure couldn’t hurt.


No Beginnings

Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with “BANG! Expand! Sssss…”, then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question.

- Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist

It must be arbitrary, then, the place at which we choose to embark.

- Clive Barker, Weaveworld

I would say that I’m bad at beginnings, but I’m not sure that’s true. I’m bad at endings, or possibly just challenged at producing enough middles so that endings are possible. But the start of an endeavor produces a particular kind of terror, the blank page stretching ahead perfect and unmarred, waiting for all the mistakes to be made.

Nonetheless, everything has to start somewhere. So here we are.

Therefore, by way of introduction: Hello, and welcome! I’m Dan; I am (in no particular order) a writer and student of the craft of language, both professionally and avocationally; a musician and music lover with broad and eccentric tastes; a nerd; a Unitarian Universalist; a feminist and LGBTQ advocate, and supporter of social justice in general; a cook and gourmand; a former Theatre major; a poet, or at least a versifier with pretentions; and, maybe more than anything else, a lover of stories, without much prejudice as to the medium they’re conveyed in. I expect I’ll be writing about all of these things here, and the places where they intersect, as well as whatever other shiny topics or ideas present themselves to me.

This is not a beginning. This is simply where things go forward. Watch this space.


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