Sunday, April 17, 2016

Briefly, regarding the hype machine

I've now posted favorable reviews of over half the short stories in One Thousand Words for War.  One might think I was hyping the book or something.  One would be right.  I've been included in a very fine YA anthology; I'm proud of that fact and you, the discriminating consumer, DESERVE TO KNOW about this VALUABLE BUYING OPPORTUNITY!!!

A couple of you have backchanneled me regarding the twin questions of overkill and credibility.  These are understandable concerns.

I recognized fairly early on in the process of "professionalizing" my writing that the publishing industry had some sketchy corners to it.  I make reference to a few of them here, including the general emphasis on writer "platforming" as a mechanism for increasing sales.  Originally this meant sales of the author's own books; increasingly the expectation is that authors will shill for other books in the same genre and from the same publisher.  No, those author blurbs you read on back covers are not all coming from writers who enjoyed the book in question, or even who necessarily read it.

Fortunately for me, this realization came at roughly the same time as the realization that I'm not an elite writing talent.  The latter realization frees me in certain respects:  I don't need to worry about a failure to be dishonest costing me millions of dollars, because I'm not going to be making millions of dollars in any case.  I don't need to trade in my integrity, because I have nothing to trade it for.

To that end, I promised myself three things early on:

1.  I would never write anything I didn't want to write.
2.  I would never allow fear of public or professional approbation to prevent me from writing anything I wanted to write.
3.  I would never publicly misrepresent my feelings about my own work, or that of others.

The single greatest benefit of not being a full-time professional writer is that I can adhere to those three principles with a clear conscience.  I am free to, for instance, mercilessly ridicule Bartolo Colon.  And I am free FROM saying positive things I don't mean about other people's work.  You are unlikely to see me publicly criticize other people's writing or professional conduct unless there's a VERY good reason.  This is less out of concern for professional consequences than it is a manifestation of the golden rule; I don't want other writers to do it to me.  In general, if I think something I've read is average or below average or godawful, I simply won't make mention of it.

You may, however, depend upon the principle that when I endorse a book or story, here or elsewhere, I do so out of sincere admiration.  I will usually try to provide the reasons for my endorsement, and those too will be sincerely meant.  You may or may not share my impression of the work, but I won't be trying to foist it on you out of any ulterior motive.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Alien Truce" and "In Other Words"

             If there’s anything teenagers understand, it’s being misunderstood.  Two of the stories in One Thousand Words for War, Nori Odoi’s “Alien Truce” and Lisa Timpf’s “In Other Words” appear on their surfaces to be simple, well-crafted tales of alien-human misunderstanding.  Lurking herein, though, is some very sophisticated thematic material, particularly as pertains to the process by which ideas become words, and vice versa.

Historically, science fiction narratives have taken for granted that many human characteristics would be true of technologically advanced aliens as well.  They’ve been portrayed as bipedal, for one thing, because that makes it easier for an actor in a rubber suit to portray them.  More subtle is the assumption that alien communication would function as it does for most terrestrial species—through the use of ambient pressure changes in the atmosphere which are sensed by vibrating membranes in the receptor organs of the recipient.  Or, if you prefer: by making noises.  There’s no logical reason this would need to be the case; at least as much meaning could be conveyed by, for instance, pulses of light, or exchanges of pheromones, or by means that human beings wouldn’t even recognize as sensory.  Innovative sci-fi authors might throw telepathy at the reader, but it’s rarely well-explored; there’s seldom a credible biological explanation aside from some kind of question-begging concept of a “hive mind”, and generally the characters and reader experience telepathic communication in the form of words spoken directly into the brain--except in italics—which is weird, given that the brain should have no need for the spoken representation of the idea when the idea itself is directly accessible.

In portraying a difficult and complex negotiation between humans and aliens, Odoi springs two surprises.  Neither is without precedent in science fiction, but each is innovative and unusual where modern YA is concerned.  The first is her separation of consciousness from the communicative act; she suggests a trance state that involves what amounts to a dream shared by both discussants.  Odoi’s background in poetry proves important here as she conveys to a reader an exchange of pure thought, ideas in their essence rather than reduced to their signifiers.  Secondly, Odoi presents an organism that evolves in symbiosis with another species, a critter which apparently exists solely to facilitate this form of communication.  Odoi’s version is considerably cuddlier that Douglas Adams’ famous “Babel Fish,” which bodes well for plush toy sales when the movie version comes out.

While Odoi fiddles briefly with the familiar trope of a “universal translator,” Timpf’s “In Other Words” places the concept at the center of the story.  Unlike Odoi’s aliens, who are so different from humans that they are initially unrecognizable as a sentient species, Timpf’s are similar enough to humans that the two species are able to project their own flaws and foibles on one another.  This makes for a situation ripe for misunderstanding—especially if some of the players involved don’t wish for understanding to be achieved.

Where Odoi dwells in the mystical aspects of sharing ideas, Timpf is more concerned with the mechanical details by which meaning is constructed.  A veteran of writing of all sorts—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—Timpf uses the failure of a translating computer to illustrate sophisticated ideas about how we seek to understand one another.   In doing so, she demonstrates that where the sharing of words may fail, the sharing of experiences may still succeed.  Early reviews of the anthology have ranked Timpf’s story very high among the stories herein, and it’s easy to see why—she has a rare ability to make complex concepts comprehensible, and enjoyable, for young readers.

           Both Nori Odoi and Lisa Timpf provide fun, imaginative reads that open the door to discussions of language, comprehension, and meaning.  Their work may involve aliens, but it's anything but alienating.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

One Thousand Words for Kishotenketsu

                Kishotenketsu is technically a form of storytelling as opposed to a genre in itself.  Developed in East Asian societies, the process involves a story progressing through four stages:  Ki, in which characters and settings are introduced; sho, in which the plot develops but no radical changes occur; ten, a “twist” often involving a radical departure from the original setting or a transition to a previously unexplored topic; and ketsu, a conclusion tying the original plot to the twist and resolving the story.

                In most respects, this story form isn’t utterly alien to western readers.  There are a couple of points of departure, however, that can be a little bit disorienting.  The first is the radical potential of the ten.  Done clumsily, or even in many cases when done correctly, the ten presents itself as a complete non-sequitur, a “WTF?” moment that disrupts the linear progression of the plot which western readers are accustomed to.  It’s hard to do well, but the payoff is potentially immense; think in terms of the perspective shift that occurs at the halfway point of Gone Girl.  Cathy Bryant’s “Maverick”, which I examine here, is an example of kishotenketsu in which the ten is of paramount importance.

                The second point of departure lies not in what’s present, but in what’s absent.  Specifically:  it is theoretically possible to execute a story in the kishotenketsu form without conflict of any kind.  When they asked for stories for One Thousand Words for War, editors Hope Erica Schultz and Madeline Smoot challenged contributors to consider integrating kishotenketsu traditions into their stories, including, potentially, crafting a war story without war in it.

                As with most challenges in my life, I took one look and ran screaming in the other direction.  At this stage in my development as a writer, I have no metric by which to evaluate my work except for Number Of Creative Stabbings; any story I’d craft without conflict would be as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.  And yet, several of the anthology’s authors did manage the trick, and with considerable √©lan and emotional impact.

                This, however, presents me with a problem as a reviewer.  Kishotenketsu is in many cases almost all plot, and highly twist-dependent.  To describe such a story is, to a considerable extent, to spoil it.  I will, therefore, confine myself to saying that I admired:

·         “Unexpected Guests”, in which Laura A. Ring draws upon her considerable experience as a professional ethnographer to create a tale of a Pakistani village legendary for its hospitality, and a trio of visitors who have good reason to wear burkas.  Her experience with the culture she’s describing is evident in the details; her voice is original and striking.

·         “Eighteen Roses”, in which Ameria Lewis portrays a teenage friendship dramatically transformed by technology.  This one isn’t subtle, but sometimes subtlety isn’t what you want in a story.  The twist is emotionally resonant and the relationship between the girls feels inauthentic and authentic by turns—which is, in this case, a compliment.   The cardinal rule of anthologies is that every story should be someone’s favorite, and I have no doubt that this story will be the favorite of many young female readers.

·         “Strands of Grass,” concerning a fantasy kingdom with a distinct flavor of medieval Japan, and a girl general’s recollection of her father’s lessons.  Renee Whittington’s previous published work has been exclusively poetry, and she writes here with a poet’s sensibility—every word precisely selected for maximum impact, and with attention to the music of language.  A grassy plateau is “a cake fallen on one side”; the unbound hair of funeral attendees “tangles about us in a flurry, as wild as grief can be.”  This story, perhaps more than any other in the anthology, demonstrates the tonal variety that kishotenketsu can offer—here, the ten is comparatively unimportant, and the plot mechanics are entirely secondary to the lyrical beauty of the language.

·         “Another Sunset,” less a short story than a series of snapshots, from prolific author Anne E. Johnson.  Johnson uses kishotenketsu to celebrate the virtue of stillness, the choice to observe rather than to act.  Johnson’s skills as a writer compliment her theme; her great gift lies in the portrayal of visual imagery, and her prose is vivid and descriptive, whether applied to a sunset or to other, less common phenomena.

Not everyone can write kishotenketsu, but everybody ought to know about it.  I feel fortunate to share an anthology with writers as adaptive, as creative, and as distinctively skilled as these.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Maverick"

                 The Bulwer-Lytton Prize is one of the most unusual awards, and one of the most sought-after, in all of literature.  Every year since 1982, tens of thousands of writers from all around the world have taken up the challenge “to compose the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels.”

     In 2012, Cathy Bryant offered this:

“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, noting as she did the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodecids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”

                It was no contest at all.  Ms. Bryant took top honors, and was thereby recognized for one full year as The Worst Writer in the World.  Four short years later, she’s slumming with the likes of me as a contributor to One Thousand Words for War.  How the mighty have fallen.

                The Bulwer-Lytton is one of twenty different literary prizes Bryant has won in the course of publishing dozens upon dozens of short stories and full length works of fiction and non-fiction.  She is, by a comfortable margin, the most decorated contributor to the book.  The passage above will give you some idea as to why; it takes a hell of a writer to write that badly.  Bryant’s gift is the ability to catch lightning in a bottle—to cram maximum literary impact into the shortest possible space, be it serious or humorous, or some combination of both.  A Mancunian with a very British literary sensibility, Bryant is what you might get if you shoved Douglas Adams into a trash compactor until he was compressed to roughly one cubic foot in size.

                Bryant’s distinction here is that she’s the only contributor to take the concept “One Thousand Words for War” literally.  Her contribution, “Maverick”, is a work of flash fiction—the emerging literary form that challenges authors to cram an entire story into a few hundred words.  Flash fic is a queer beast, but it’s not hard to see how it evolved.  The birth of online communications has created a marketplace in which millions scream simultaneously for attention; this means that attention spans have shrunk at the same time that presses have faced increasing competition for shrinking publication space.

                Flash fiction is extremely difficult to do well.  There is no space for preliminaries or for scene setting.  The characters, world, and plot must be introduced, the conflict established, the action built, the conflict resolved, and the curtain brought down in roughly the length of time it takes the reader to watch a TV commercial.  For the same reasons, a good piece of flash fiction is extremely difficult to review without giving the game away; to describe it is, functionally, to repeat it.

                Suffice to say that “Maverick” is a very, very good piece of flash fiction, particularly in its accessibility to young readers; a more ideal instructional resource for introducing the genre you’ll never find.  Bryant sets up an utterly crazed conflict scenario best summarized as “Ghostbusters in Vietnam,” creates a sense of place through the dialects of her characters, establishes the roles and personalities of her main protagonists—and then unleashes a hellacious plot twist, shattering the expectations of her readers like an ice cube under a hammer.  And then she’s out the door, leaving you to paste the remains of your cranium back together.

                I’d say more, but this post would wind up longer than the story it’s reviewing.  You’ll not get more bang for your buck as a reader than “Maverick” offers.  It truly is work worthy of the one-time Worst Writer in the World.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Mechanika"

                Norilsk is a real place.  Located above the Arctic Circle in the deepest reaches of Siberia, it is the northernmost city on Earth with at least 100,000 residents.  The average temperature is below freezing for nine months out of the year, and the city is snowbound for upwards of 250 days annually.  It is not a place where human beings should exist.  Historically, it has served two purposes:  as a center for the extraction of plentiful mineral deposits, and as the de facto center of Stalin’s gulag system of forced labor.  It is one of the coldest, one of the most polluted, and one of the most dangerous communities on Earth.  And it is difficult to know exactly what goes on in Norilsk today; since 2001, the city has been mysteriously closed to all non-Russians.

                Mara Dabrishus’s “Mechanika,” technically a work of dystopian fantasy, could just as easily be classified as urban fantasy given the pervasive way the city itself looms over the entire narrative.  Snow piles up at the base of candy-colored tenements.  Buses full of exhausted workers belch diesel fumes as they lurch pointlessly from one razor-wire encased checkpoint to another.  The polar twilight looms over all, broken only by the hollow glow of the ubiquitous ultraviolet lamps which are the only visible evidence of the authorities’ interest in keeping the citizens alive, so that they may continue to work in the mines. 

The title of the story refers to a particular location within Norilsk, but it might just as easily refer to the city itself, or even to its citizens.  The entire edifice is a single, soulless machine.  The only virtue recognized is efficiency; Dabrishus is careful to show how even those characters who have not been completely broken by the system have been colored by the all-consuming emphasis on maximum return for minimum energy.

                Most pervasive of all is the cold, “seep[ing] into the bones” of the community’s haggard occupants, numbing them to their fate and to one another.  In scene after scene, we find characters fleeing emotional awareness, seeking refuge in alcohol or harder drugs, or simply closing themselves off mentally.  This same numbness characterizes the ambiguous authorities of the story—this is not the cartoonishly evil government of Panem, but rather, an unfeeling bureaucracy dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of a machine.  Dabrishus places us in the same position as her characters, dispensing information about the state in meager spoonfulls—there are ambiguous references to an “old era” and “new era”, to labor strikes and nationalist rebellions.  Of particular interest is Dabrishus’s choice to transplant the Stalin-era NKVD into an environment marked by modern technology such as flash drives and cell phones—as a result, the totalitarianism she creates isn’t linked to a particular era, but timeless, and the reader is left unmoored, with no historical context to anchor to.  We share the protagonists’ sense of disorientation, of isolation.

                Dabrishus’s most daring decision of all is to infect her protagonist, Zoya, with some of this same numbness.  In a genre marked by wildfire heroines who can’t be controlled or tamed—by, to be frank, a hundred carbon copies of Katniss Everdeen—Zoya is something very different.  Zoya has spent her entire life in the cold, both in literal and figurative terms, and has been particularly shaped by her interactions with an emotionally absent mother who has been shattered by the system.  Zoya has never in her life laid eyes on a growing tree.  There is still a spark within her, but we catch only fragmentary glimpses of it—in tiny gestures of kindness to people who have nothing left to offer her.  More often, we see her huddle away from that which might make her vulnerable, from commitment to a cause or to a person.  Her rebellions are, for the most part, rebellions of inaction, of refusal to engage or to comply.  Her primary instinct, shared with those around her, is to escape from pain.  Ultimately, the “war” in this story is within Zoya—the instinct to flee versus the decision to engage.  The way this struggle marks her character puts her head and shoulders above most dystopian heroines in terms of psychological complexity.

I’ve already remarked on Dabrishus’s ability to craft a haunting big-picture environment, but her single greatest gift as a writer lies in what she does when she pulls the camera in tight.  There is mastery in the tiny details here.  The neglected carpet of a tenement hallway, worn through almost to the poured concrete beneath.  The way a knife blade, warmed in candlelight, casts flickering penumbras against the walls of an underground chamber.  The way a bloody microchip clings to the discolored linoleum of a sink.  The single cracked tooth in a sailor’s mouth.  Dabrishus strings beautiful sentences together with as much skill as any bestselling author you’d care to name.

“Mechanika” has not been foregrounded in any of the preliminary reviews of A Thousand Words for War.  I don’t know why.  It's arguably the best story in the anthology.  After reading the proofs, I went out and immediately researched Dabrishus’s background.  It turns out that she specializes in YA equestrian fiction, and that her work in that genre has been exceedingly well-reviewed.  So:  if you’re into horses at all, for heaven’s sake, go here and start buying things.  For my own part, I’m looking forward to Dabrishus taking on additional projects outside of that genre; she is, very clearly, an author who can write about anything.

Friday, April 8, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Beyond the Promised Land"

                Eternity is a long damned time.  Human beings have a difficult time maintaining interest in a sixty-minute television program (or, to my sorrow, in a 90-minute speech class).  It seems, therefore, that an “eternity in paradise” would be a serious challenge even for an infinitely powerful supreme being to design.  Infinite interest requires infinite variety; otherwise, after the first million years or so, even heaven itself would become a hell.

                Darrel Duckworth’s contribution to One Thousand Words For War is “Beyond the Promised Land,” a story based on the ingenious idea of taking Valhalla seriously.  Scandinavian mythology has experienced a mini-vogue among young adults lately, partially as a result of the portrayal of the Norse pantheon in the Marvel movies, and partially as a result of popular gaming titles such as Skyrim and The Banner Saga.  Duckworth is at home in this milieu, demonstrating familiarity with the relevant mythology as well as an eye for fine detail such as period-appropriate Viking weaponry.

                Duckworth’s protagonist, Jond, dies young and strong in battle, and finds himself elevated to Valhalla, where he wars by day and feasts by night.  Initially rejoicing at his fate, Jond subsequently discovers that these orgiastic pleasures grow stale after the first few thousand repetitions.  Not to worry, though—Valhalla proves to be more complicated than it seems, and to hold complexities and mysteries unknown to the lore-masters of Midgard.

                Reading Duckworth, I find myself reminded of one of my favorite novelists, Joe Abercrombie.  Abercrombie burst upon the epic fantasy scene with his First Law trilogy, a set of (very) adult novels demonstrating a genius for the portrayal of violence and a deep-seated understanding of human flaws and frailties.  He subsequently attempted to broaden his audience with his Shattered Sea trilogy, a series aimed at young adults and featuring a setting somewhat similar to medieval Scandinavia.  The Shattered Sea books are very fine, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration to them; one senses the author wanting to cut loose with some seriously grim insights, but limited by his target audience.  The work bulges and strains beneath these constraints like an overstuffed sausage.

                Duckworth has some of the same talents as Abercrombie—particularly his gift for writing action—but seems much more at home in YA than Abercrombie does.  Perhaps the most impressive stylistic element of the story is the way Duckworth begins with rip-roaring descriptions of Jond’s bloodlust, and then ratchets down the intensity by notches as the nightly battles repeat themselves endlessly.  His protagonist’s ennui is mirrored in the writer’s style, until we too find ourselves wondering what else there might be to be discovered in this afterlife, what might lie beyond the fog-shrouded portal in the Great Hall.  Where Abercrombie feels like he’s bursting with secrets that he’s afraid to tell us, Duckworth stands alongside the readers gazing with us into the unknown, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

                I’m often told that it’s exceptionally difficult to get teenage boys to read books, that the pleasures of gaming and the demands of masculinity have ensured that the YA market will be dominated by books targeted to female readers for the foreseeable future.  Certainly the bestseller lists contain evidence of this.  Darrel Duckworth doesn’t give a flip.  His work is unapologetically targeted to a male audience.  But Duckworth isn’t out to confirm the archetypes of male YA—he’s out to challenge them.  Working within the constructs of an action narrative, Duckworth subtly weaves a critique of toxic masculinity, of the whole “warrior code” with which young men are raised.  Here is an antidote to such corrosive models of “manhood” as Donald Trump or John Cena.  Here is an author eager to show young men that there are—to paraphrase Duckworth--more ways of being a man than they have been promised, more than they have dreamed.

                Readers of this blog will already be aware that I have a weakness for narratives which concern themselves with the infinite, with the concept of higher intelligences and purposes for humanity that transcend life itself.  My own unpublished novel, Axis of Eternity, deals with these questions, and above all with the dichotomy between perishable flesh and the intangible aspect of human beings which longs for permanence.  Duckworth tackles those same questions, and does so with considerable style.  His is a story that will stay with me for a while—and, I think, with young readers as well.