Monthly Archives: November 2004

Thinking Alike

Here’s an interesting coincidence. I was doing a bit of compiling of which 2004 novels have gotten the most and/or the most significant reviews. If you examine Locus reviewer Gary K. Wolfe’s lead reviews from his column each month (since Locus columnists generally lead with what they think is the strongest title), and compare them to the books John Clute has reviewed, once every four weeks, for SF Weekly, you find that 7, out of a possible 13, titles are the same. The coincidence is more remarkable if you count only novels: 7 out of 10. (Wolfe has led with two anthologies and one collection; Clute has covered two collections.)

The 7 novels that both critics reviewed (not always entirely favorably) are:

  • Paul McAuley, White Devils
  • Gregory Benford, Beyond Infinity
  • Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle
  • Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Neal Stephenson, The System of the World
  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

Wolfe’s review of Roth is in the December issue; Clute’s review went online today.

In addition, Wolfe has reviewed novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, Elizabeth Hand, and Gene Wolfe; Clute, Heinlein, David Mitchell, Albert Robida, and Alexander C. Irvine. (Wolfe did review the Irvine novel, in his August column; the only novel he covered that month. Other Locusfolk reviewed the Heinlein and Mitchell volumes. Wolfe’s column for January leads with an anthology.)

Alien Species

Here’s a cool story, from Reuters via the LA Times (,1,5996299.story), to file in the ever-expanding ‘inconclusive evidence’ file of global warming skeptics–

As the climate changes, species migrate farther and farther north, encroaching into territories where the native human populations have no words for them. Excerpts:

Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.

“We can’t even describe what we’re seeing,” said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

In the Inuit language Inuktitut, robins are known just as the “bird with the red breast,” she said.

Inuit hunters in northern Canada recently saw some ducks but had not figured out what species they were, in Inuktitut or any other language.

In Arctic Europe, birch trees are gaining ground and Saami reindeer herders are seeing roe deer or even elk, a forest-dwelling cousin of moose, on former lichen pastures.

The lack of words to describe newcomers does not stop at animals and plants. Words, such as thunderstorm don’t exist because they are phenomena indigenous peoples have never known.

Two by Shepard

Ever since starting this blog, over a year ago, I’ve intended to discuss, at least occasionally, things I’ve been reading. Call it the restless urge to review.

Not that comments here are intended as formal reviews. Merely commentary about things I’ve found noteworthy to comment about.

In the past couple weeks I’ve ready two new books by Lucius Shepard. (I’ve missed a number of other recent books by him, meaning I’ve bought them and they’re on my shelves but I haven’t yet read them; this is true of most authors, even my very favorite authors, and is notably true of Shepard since he’s issued so many short-novel/novellas over the past couple years.)

Viator (Night Shade Press) is about a cargo ship that’s been run aground on a small Alaskan island. The protagonist, Tom Wilander, has been hired, along with four others, to occupy the wreck and evalute its salvage value. As they live on the wreck, they experience various perceptions, or delusions; they become obsessed by the patterns of rust, or the shapes of glass fragments, from the wreckage. Tom has dreams of flying creatures, and his obsession with the ship, his growing impression that the ship is moving toward some transdimensional version of the island, that the ship is unwilling to die, threatens to jeopardize his growing relationship with a woman in the nearby town who welcomes his companionship, but who is increasingly impatient with his obsessions.

The story has the obsessive force of something by J.G. Ballard, and Shepard acknowledges that his style here is deliberately intense: long meandering sentences, paragraph and page long, with no quotation marks for dialogue. It gives the sense of the exotic and the impersonal, the impression of vast forces that overshadow mundane events. Yet– at the very end, there is a gesture toward a ‘rational’ explanation. It shifts the story from the genre you’ve thought you’ve been reading, to another one altogether. There are enough unexplained details to leave the story ambiguous, a la a classic Twilight Zone episode, but I can’t help but think it would have been stronger as a pure fantastic allegory, something in which reality and the subjective are not parsed.

A Handbook of American Prayer is a first person narrative by one Wardlin Stuart, a barkeep sent to prison for a bar scuffle that results in murder. Stabbed by a fellow inmate in prison, his desperate reflexive prayers, and his subsequent survival, result in a philosophy of ‘prayerstyle’ whereby the formulation of poetic prayers, for specific, achieveable goals, brings about a success that produces a book sale, a personal-ad marriage and release from prison, and a national reputation. His book is chosen by Oprah; he makes the cover of Time and Newsweek; and during an interview with Larry King, he brings forth the wrath of a traditional TV preacher named Monroe Treat, whose wrath drives the remainder of the book.

The book accentuates the strengths and weaknesses of Shepard’s writing. The book has a remote, distant air, in that much of it narrated rather than dramatized, and the focus isn’t even on the prayerstyle and its metaphysical implications as on the interpersonal events of the first person narrator– for instance, the fact that he sells the book from jail is mentioned only in passing; and the apparent miracle of the prayers that work is barely examined, in favor of much agonized self-reflection by the narrator. In a way, this makes sense: the book is written as if Wardlin’s reputation and national reputation is well-known, establish, and need hardly be mentioned. It makes sense, if this were a real person writing his biography; but it’s not usually the way fiction is written.

Shepard’s writing suffers, if it’s a flaw, from being far more intelligent than most of the characters he writes about. Shepard can’t resist long paragraphs (entire pages) analyzing a situation. These are fascinating–essays really–but they don’t contribute to the book’s plausibility. At the same time Shepard excels at sharp verbal exchanges and character confrontations. The Larry King interview, the threat to Monroe Treat in the diner, are spectacles.

There’s a fantasy element in the mysterious person, who’s maybe been summoned into being by Wardlin, who appears and disappears, who’s identified with the persona ‘Lord of Loneliness’ in Wardlin’s poem/prayers; this makes the book fantasy even if the prayer is all the effect of psychology and happenstance.

The best parts are the editorializing about the social and public effects of the story: the description of the book tour (page 68); Darren speculating what would happen if Jesus appeared today (p180); his analysis of how Wardlin succeeds because he doubts (p177); and aside such as Therese’s (Wardlin’s wife) job to undress for a certain Mr. Kim (chatper 13).

Notably amusing: Shepard/the narrator’s remarks about Roger Ebert (page 97):

all globular and pampered in his blue blazer and open-collared dress shirt, he seemed to have the substantiality of a human parfait one moment, of a cartoon elf the next…

And about George W. Bush (page 213):

I contemplated the prospect that there would one day be a George W. Bush Presidential Library and decided it would be stocked with volumes such as The Little Golden Book of Trees.

Fahrenheit Pinot

Ray Bradbury was at the White House yesterday, to receive a National Medal of Arts, along with numerous others, in a ceremony presided over by President Bush. There’s a link on the homepage to a Washington Post article, with a pic. Apparently this wasn’t announced in advance, and so today there was a flurry of emails between Locus HQ and the White House (yes the actual White House) to confirm details and receive an official photo, which should appear (just in time!) in the December issue of Locus. Given Bradbury’s outrage over Michael Moore’s appropriation of his “Fahrenheit” title for Moore’s anti-Bush documentary, one might speculate whether Bradbury is a supporter of Bush; but that is neither here nor there, considering the genuine achievement of a genre writer of more than 6 decades, a slave in the slums of literature, being recognized finally among the highest artists of the land. Bradbury said “This is the happiest day in my life”, and I can believe it, and respect it.

Saw “Sideways” last night, a superb comedy/drama about two middle-aged college friends on a tour of wineries in central California for a week before one of their’s wedding [is that grammatical?]. The wine nerd is obsessed with Pinots, disdainful of Merlots, and his obsession with wine and its inebriative consequences is seen as the reason for his failure in life (he’s divorced, with no prospects) and art (his novel doesn’t sell); yet, he is nobler and more sympathetic than his friend, who aggressively cheats on his bride-to-be and gets away with it. I like wine, red wine, well enough to have toured many of those same wineries, and visited the same towns (Buellton, Solvang) more than once, but not enough to understand the disdain for Merlot. In any case, a fine, non-Hollywood-formula film.

The Locus boffins have begun assembling their recommended reading lists for 2004, a process I do not read enough each year to participate in, though in past years I’ve tried to simulate the results of by compiling various published lists and reviews into some sort of consensus. My process for this varies from year to year. If you’re reading this and have any strong opinions about the best/most important books of 2004, please email me with as much commentary as you care to provide.

I saw the announcement of the winners of the National Book Awards last night, and today while perusing Barnes & Noble in my semi-weekly new books hunt I remembered the title of the fiction winner vaguely enough to recognize the book itself on the new books shelf, and so bought a copy. (It’s The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck. Also bought the new Jack Vance, and Spectrum 11.) I have this vague ambition to occasionally sample literary non-genre fare, by way of seeking out the winners of the 3 or 4 most prominent literary prizes each year; not that I usually fulfill this ambition. But since Tuck’s novel is actually pretty short — a mere 245 pages! — maybe I’ll get through this one. (Actually, as previously alluded, I will definitely get to the Man Booker Prize winner from this year — Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I would have anyway.)

I have turned back on comments, for the 2 or 3 of you who might occasionally reply. The spam threats seem to apply only to Movable Type blogs.

Incredibly… Fast

Saw The Incredibles last night, about which first I will note that movie ticket prices in suburban LA have reached $10. This was at an AMC chain. (I suppose they’ve been that high in Manhattan for a while.) Liked the movie a lot, thought it more consistently clever and inspired and intelligent than, say, Shrek 2 or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But I also felt, moreso even than those two films, that the pace was so fast, especially near the end, with minute after minute of 1 1/2 second scenes, that it seemed to verge on the incomprehensible. Blink, or sneeze, and you’ve lost the storyline. I realize the pace of American movies has gotten faster and faster over the decades, with film students baffled or bored at being tasked to view the ‘classics’, but has it really gotten to the point where filmmakers fear they’ll lose their attention deficit audiences if any nondialogue scene lasts 5 seconds…? The material was so rich, I felt at times I was experiencing the cinematic equivalent of viewing a book of art masterpieces as a flip book…

Or, hmm, maybe it’s a ploy to make me pay to see it again… or buy the DVD. Hmm.

It’s All Just ‘Theories’, All the Way Down

My modest proposal for situations like the current one in Georgia in which religious parents want to put stickers on biology textbooks stressing that evolution is only “a theory”, is to put analogous stickers on *all* the science textbooks. Especially the geology and astronomy ones. And the history textbooks too. All of it should be “approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Starting with a lesson in the scientific method, and what “theory” means in that context.

Curious to note the cover of the November issue of “National Geographic”, with a photo of a Jamaican lizard and the headline WAS DARWIN WRONG? Open to the article, turn the page and the answer is “NO. The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming.” (The article is by David Quammen.) You wonder if the NG editors are trying to trick disbelievers, or should I say believers, into opening the issue. The issue also has a new world map, with, on the reverse, a cool “Earth at Night” composite photograph.

Friday Evening: Mondegreen

Isabel Glass was amused that I mentioned her presence in my WFC report. But I did not divulge her secret.

Netflix has changed its colors.

There must be some technical, or French, term for mis-understanding a spoken word or phrase, and I hereby acknowledge this fault in last night’s post. Upon checking the lyric sheet to the latest R.E.M. album, I see that the phrase I thought I quoted in my title (from “Electron Blue”) is actually “you know where to run”. Hmm. I like my phrase better. (Update Saturday morning: the word is “mondegreen”, as both Ted Chiang and Rick Kleffel advised me.)

Back to business: an essay by Bob Eggleton is in works, about the 50th anniversary of Godzilla, for posting on Locus Online.

I was sorting and reorganizing all the files on my PC today, to do a new backup of everything, and came across the directory of files of fiction and poetry fragments and drafts that I wrote years and years ago and never finished, or never sent out. People routinely ask me if *I’ve* written fiction or intend to. Well, yes, no, not really, I did once but got sidetracked. I sometimes worry, the morning after, if my posts here are overly self-indulgent. Perhaps the solution is to go beyond the self-indulgent into the blatantly self-indulgent, so that from now on you won’t regard the moderately indulgent as anything unusual. So perhaps I will quote you… my poetry….


the gallant iconoclasts

sprang from within

their radiant positions,

reprised their slow wisdom,

and descended momentarily,


You Know It In Rhyme

I mentioned a while back that I was contemplating a response to Jonathan Strahan’s post about the latest R.E.M. album, Around the Sun.

So here it is. I have no academic or professional background in music… but I know what I like ;).

Here are my rules about listening to new music.

  • It takes several listenings before one can pass judgment, or form an intelligent opinion. Many listenings, if the music is anything other than formula pop.
    • Corollary: I’m cynically skeptical about newspaper and magazine reviews that seem to pass judgment quickly, after listening to a new album for a few days at most, from an advance copy, before the official release. This applies to most reviews appearing in newspapers and magazines. I suppose professional music reviewers might be more expert at this than I am, but personally I can’t imagine how they do it.
    • And also: I’m fascinating by how different people response differently to music. Jonathan responds to the lack of the drummer. It wouldn’t occur to me. I respond to certain kinds of melodies, minor keys and ambiguous resolutions, and certain kinds of lyrics that evoke without necessarily explaining. At the opposite extreme is the long-time pop music reviewer for the L.A. Times, Robert Hilburn, whose reviews often seem to respond only to lyrics — he adores Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young. And Roger Ebert, like Isaac Asimov apparently completely oblivious to music — Ebert reviewed the South Park movie without once mentioning the songs, which I thought the highlight of the film.
  • Because, subsequent listenings, days and weeks and months and years later, can shift one’s impression.
    • The more attractive a new song’s melody seems — the catchier it seems — the more likely it is to quickly pall.
    • The songs that don’t impress on first or second listening, that fade into the album drift at first, can eventually emerge as vital experiences on repeated listenings, as their subtleties sink in.

Then there is my own attitude, my own perspective, which is more about me than about popular standards about music. I respond to minor keys, to complex structures that are not apparent on first or second or even fifth hearing. I’m not a shiny happy people person. I don’t look for music to make me happy. I look for music to evoke for me those ineffable impressions that I’d not previously realized, or experienced.

And I rarely form impressions about entire albums. More usually, particular songs, or groups of songs.

For example — my favorite R.E.M. album might be Up, for the mordancy of “Sad Professor”, the inspiration of “Walk Unafraid”, and the glorious finale of “Diminished”, “Parakeet”, and “Falls to Climb”. “Diminished” has this amazing structure: abc, bcd, abcd, c. It ends ambiguously, unresolved — it’s about a guy trying to rationalize the murder of his lover — like certain Springsteen songs.

As for the current album, Around the Sun: the opener, “Leaving New York”, strikes me as generic R.E.M.: just fine. “Electron Blue” is very catchy, like it a lot. “The Outsiders”, with its rap/hip hop conclusion, very appealing despite. My focus lands on “High Speed Train”, despite the backing vocals that initially struck me as cheesey, this is the dark penetrating song that explores without enforcing conclusions. And the finale, “Around the Sun”, might have the most inspirational lyrics since I can remember: very fine.

But after another dozen listenings, I might change my mind.


Amazon and PW have made up, apparently, or fixed the glitch that affecting listings on Amazon yesterday, when none of the books I checked had a Publishers Weekly (or Booklist, etc.) review displayed. Two people wrote today to point out books that do too have PW reviews, and indeed, checking titles just now from yesterday’s New Books page, most of them do. It looks like Amazon did some modification of the standard page format, perhaps.

Mystery Mail

Today there was a USPS Priority Mail envelope, with no return address, plastered with 15 37-cent stamps. Inside, a photocopy of a 101-page screenplay, “I, Robot”, by Jeff Vintar. Third draft, dated December 2001. No letter, no return address. I do on rare occasion get unsolicited submissions–more often by email–from people who haven’t done their homework to realize that neither Locus, nor Locus Online, is a market for fiction (or screenplays). Yet a quick Google search reveals that Jeff Vintar was in fact the screenwriter for the I, Robot movie that came out a few months ago, starring Will Smith… which I didn’t see. So I can’t tell if this is the actual script that was used. Even so. Who sent this, and why?