Category Archives: Books

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)


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)


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.


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)