Words, words: Quote, October 31

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In the spirit of Halloween:

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Beware the autumn people. … For some, autumn comes early, stays late, through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the only normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No, the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks through their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles—breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”

From Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury.

Highly recommended: From Couch to Moon’s review of Bradbury’s classic book.

Something weird this way comes.

Something weird this way comes.

 

From the Archives: Review: The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

Once upon a time, as a lad, I read a lot of epic fantasy. I can’t recall everything I read, but the years 1991 and 1992 appear to have been particularly fruitful. I recall, for instance, reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, the only King I would read until I was in my twenties. My father read King voraciously, and I knew from a young age that Stephen King was scary, knowledge–nay, a certainty–that was informed by the PSA he did on behalf of libraries. (Seriously, this commercial had an unreasonable influence on me.)

Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

The Eyes of the Dragon is unexpectedly short, and I use the qualifier both because King and the fantasy genre are known for going long. Need to kill a spider? Grab The Stand. But The Eyes of the Dragon stands out, too, to the degree that I recall it showing the dark side of fantasy, almost certainly due to King’s inclinations. Yes, there is darkness in fairy tales, but the followers of Tolkien had happily marched into the simple dichotomy of Good v. Evil, and King added shades of gray–or so it seemed. Perhaps I was just the right age to begin appreciating the degree to which wickedness and compassion can coexist.

Stephen Lawhead’s books, too, were favorites of mine during those years. Although I enjoyed The Dragon King Trilogy, it belongs more to traditional fantasy than his subsequent efforts, The Pendragon Cycle and The Song of Albion. (The Pendragon Cycle was a trilogy when I read it; Lawhead later expanded it with two additional volumes.) This was the first time I encountered a mythology other than that of the Greeks and Romans, in this case, Celtic. It was like a lightning bolt to this shy, chubby kid; I doodled Celtic knots in the margins of my notebooks for years afterward. I was old enough and insightful enough to recognize the Christianity that Lawhead was peddling, but was able to ignore it. I’ve never been willing to go back and see just how overt he was really being about his faith, though. (At least, that’s how I perceived it then, and still do.)

The culmination of all of my fantasy reading was Ramond Feist’s Magician, and its successors, the series that marked, I think, my transition from childhood to (the beginnings of) adulthood. I adored Magician–indeed, was there, in Midkemia, alongside Pug and his friends–and ate up Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon. (That title. The melodrama! The willingness to go all in with “Sethanon!” Candy to a 12 year old.) By Shadow of a Dark Queen (1994), I had developed an eye for Feist’s tricks, and was weary of the series going on and on… Couldn’t it just, like, end? But in Magician Feist wrote a totally unremarkable sentence–“The spring rains were heavy that year.”–that still rolls through my mind several times per week. (More on that in a subsequent post.)

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

So it is that I turn my attention to Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. I enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) and its follow-up, Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007), but detected that which I had learned to fear from fantasy series: Infinitely long individual volumes, delays between entries in the series, and a slow decline in quality. I hasten to add that this is my experience of both fantasy series (generally) and the Gentleman Bastard books (in particular). One year ago tomorrowI reviewed the third book in Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, The Republic of Thieves.

From the Archives: Judging Books by Their Covers, Part II

It’s chilly and rainy here in the City of Brotherly SHUT THE F*CK UP MAN YOU WANNA DO THIS?! Oh, sorry; I thought Philly’s nickname should reflect things one is likely to hear on its streets. I can almost guarantee you that, late in the evening, arguments will be had by phone at Philly’s train stations. Because there’s nothing wants to hear more after having been on the go all day (and I mean all day) than someone arguing with his or her significant other about how they did not say that to some other person. Fate is a cruel mistress.

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s a perfectly autumnal day here in Philly, perfect for playing a game I (re)introduced earlier this months (via From the Archives): Judging a Book by Its Cover. Part II. This time…it’s personal. Personally, I find the second to last cover (Pretty Boy Dead) the creepiest. Of course, the title contributes to the creep-factor. I really like the last cover, for Strange Encounters, even though it’s pretty creepy, too. Everything’s creepy today, folks.

strange

 

I have a fetish for fascination with alien abduction art and ephemera. I date it to my childhood, in the ’80s (yes, I am that old), when daytime television, at whose tit I eagerly sucked, was rife with commercials for phone psychics and books on “the paranormal.” (See: Mysteries of the Unknown. Seriously, go see. How can you resist that title?!) I was one of those weiner kids (they’re called “sensitive” now) who was scared of everything, including these commercials. “Don’t watch,” my dad would drone, probably exhausted at the mere thought of another freak out. Then, from my spot on the floor, I’d throw my arms over my head and…peek at the TV, of course. You don’t break eye contact with the TV. Ever. For any reason. I’m watching it from my peripheral vision right now.

One year ago today: I invited readers to judge some books by their covers for a second time.

 

Review: Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Undeniably one of speculative fiction’s “events” of 2014, The Southern Reach trilogy comes to (strangling) fruition with the publication of Acceptance (FSG Originals, September 2014). (“Strangling” because of the strange text explorers find in Area X’s most remote environs, “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Get it? Oh, never mind.)

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

The speculative fiction community has rapturously received The Southern Reach trilogy, due perhaps, in part, to Jeff VanderMeer’s obvious literary ambitions. This ain’t your granddad’s science fiction; Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance are well-written (and slickly packaged) commentaries on the developing global environmental crisis, as well as examinations of the nature of “weird fiction” itself. The Southern Reach has enjoyed more muted success beyond its genre. The reviewer for The New York Times (definitely not a cutting-edge resource for speculative fiction news) was decidedly mixed in his reaction to Annihilation. 

Full disclosure: I thoroughly enjoyed Annihilation and, having now completed the trilogy, consider it the best entry in the series. Annihilation seemed, at least in comparison to its successors, to be the most “distilled” essence of what VanderMeer was trying to accomplish. I suspect this is due in part to the origins of the story (it came to VanderMeer in a dream), but it is also related to the structure of the story: If Annihilation serves as the “setup,” and the establishment of the mystery of Area X, then Authority is the “bridge” to Acceptance, the “resolution” to the story. I use quotes here because, of course, resolution is a relative term. Given the constraints of the genre, as well as simple good storytelling sense, VanderMeer was forced to walk the line between spelling out his vision for readers and providing them no answer at all. Some readers will be disappointed that VanderMeer hews more to the latter than the former.

Of course, all of this goes to show the ways in which the separate volumes in a trilogy (or series) ultimately become subsumed into the larger story. Would Acceptance stand on its own? I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read Annihilation and Authority. Acceptance follows in the wake of its preceding “chapters.” Even were it not the concluding volume in what amounts to a serial novel, though, Acceptance isn’t quite up to snuff, at least when compared to Annihilation, but it’s certainly head-and-shoulders above most other entries in the genre.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

Acceptance alternates perspectives between Ghost Bird (the Area X produced doppelganger of the biologist from Annihilation), Saul (the lighthouse keeper), and Gloria, the former director of the Southern Reach–related to the reader in the second person, an effectively unsettling decision on VanderMeer’s part. The threads of the story bring together different timelines (pre-Area X, post-Authority, etc.), further disorienting the reader. Ultimately, the effect is to mask the nature of Area X to the reader, who will be busy trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. But VanderMeer uses the technique to build tension, too, moving the story forward, keeping the reader guessing, if not always successfully–after all, the reader knows how Gloria’s story will end, and, to some degree, Saul’s. Of course, it’s the “why” and the “how” the reader is chasing here, not the “what.”

VanderMeer employs in Acceptance the same recursive, elliptical syntax he began building toward in Annihilation and Authority. His sentences uncoil outward, clause upon a clause, lending them a strangely hypnotic quality well-suited to the subject matter. There are times when VanderMeer’s flow works against him. For instance, some of the sections discussing Gloria’s involvement with the Southern Reach, and her bureaucratic in-fighting with Lowry, can tend toward tedium, but, as with his examination of institutional decrepitude in Authority, that may well be the point. VanderMeer’s prose demands patience of the reader.

That patience may or may not be rewarded in the book’s conclusion. How satisfactory a reader will find the ending of Acceptance is, of course, a matter of personal taste. That said, it’s safe to say that readers who expect definitive answers or resolution from their narratives are better off steering clear of The Southern Reach. Answers of a sort are given, and the fates of characters decided. Word is VanderMeer may further develop the ending with a follow-up novella.

The Southern Reach is successful both because of its actual achievements, which are sometimes limited, and its ambitions, which push forward the boundaries of speculative fiction as a genre. Readers still on the fence in regards to whether or not they should read the trilogy are advised to consider how patient they are and to what degree they require definitive endings; VanderMeer asks much but dispenses little. That said, there are great things to be found in Area X, especially in Annihilation and Acceptance. A highly accomplished, if flawed, series that is recommended to most speculative fiction readers, especially those who appreciate atmosphere and character over plot.

Note: For those of you who are interested in “what it all means,” I recommend checking out this thread on Reddit. (Includes spoilers.) A friend tells me that, during a signing, he discussed the thread with VanderMeer, who said it “has some good ideas in it.” I have my own intuitive, uninformed theory; DM me on Twitter if you’re interested.

Words, words: Quote, October 27

Attentive readers are by now aware have been bludgeoned with the knowledge that my blog’s “tagline” (“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”), as well as the title of this “quotes” feature, is taken from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. In fact, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is almost ridiculously quotable, and many of its lines rattle around in my head, although it’s been nearly 20 years since I last read it. One of my favorite passages is a monologue on the nature of reality delivered by Guildenstern:

“A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until–‘My God,’ says a second man, ‘I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn.’ At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience… ‘Look, look!’ recites the crowd. ‘A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer.'”

There’s a manic quality to Guildenstern’s speech, the addition of clause to clause to clause, that not only suggests its medium (theater), but almost compels the reader to read it aloud.

Rosencrantz &; Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

The key line of Guildenstern’s dialog, to me, “A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience.” (My emphasis.) There’s something unquestionably true about this. If, for instance, a man sees a ghost, we dismiss him as a nut, or having an overactive imagination, or what have you. Add in a witness, and the event becomes more compelling, more difficult (but not impossible) to explain. Beyond that, it loses whatever magic it possessed; the event becomes, as Guildenstern indicates, the “common experience.”

Conversely, I suppose, Guildenstern might be read as critiquing the ability of groups to delude themselves: The man sees a unicorn, a second man sees the unicorn, but additional people only see a deer. Your reality is singular, might even be magical, but it cannot be shared; where you see unicorns, the crowd sees deer. In other words: “I just saw the most amazing thing,” Abraham Joshua Heschel is rumored to have said, “the sun set!”

Happy Monday.