Friday, January 27, 2023

Michael Andre-Driussi's Chapter Guides to Gene Wolfe


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Look what came in the mail! Michael Andre-Driussi's series of chapter guides to the works of Gene Wolfe. 

 Michael Andre-Driussi is easily one of the best scholars of Gene's works. And the chapter guides are a particularly interesting critical form because they do not tell you what to think about any particular work. Rather, they guide you through the work, chapter by chapter, drawing your attention to things that should be noticed. Thus they allow you to make up your own mind about what is going on in a particular work.

This is a fruitful way to approach Wolfe's oeuvre because so much of its intent is conveyed by hints and suggestions. He apparently thought that any reasonably attentive reader could pick up on all of them. In this, as in so few other matters, however, he was wrong.

Yesterday, I took a quick tour of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Today, when my work is done, I hope to begin a much slower amble through Peace. These were, respectively, Gene's second and third novels. The man was an early bloomer!

 

And did I come up with a new crackpot theory about The Fifth Head of Cerberus . . . ?

Why, yes, I did. Thank you for asking. 

Veil's Hypothesis, introduced in the first third of the novel, is that the abos native to the planet Sainte Anne are shape-shifters who may have replaced the human settlers, rather than being exterminated long ago. Most readers accept this hypothesis because the anthropologist who is the ostensible author of the second novella, "A Story," by John V. Marsch, has clearly been replaced by Victor, a boy who has been identified as a possible abo, in the final novella, V. R. T.

There are problems with this. The hearsay sightings of abos collected by Marsch are contradictory and unconvincing. Nor is a physical mechanism for the shape-changing ever presented, though Wolfe was clearly able to come up with one, had he needed it. And in V. R. T., it is clear that while Marsch has to some degree become Victor, he retains memories of his life as an anthropologist.

Andre-Driussi's helpful guide draws attention to something I had overlooked on previous readings--a recurrent theme in the second and third novellas of germophobia. The chief evidence that Marsch has become (or is becoming) Victor is the sudden deterioration of his handwriting, which he attributes to being bitten in the hand by a wild cat. 

When these facts are put together with strong indications that the supposed shape-shifters can become animals (including cats), it seems much more likely that the abos are viral in nature: intelligent creatures that survive by infecting host animals and humans.


And is this theory original to me . . .?

No, it is not. A quick Web search reveals that Marc Aramini has come up with a far superior and more detailed explanation of the life cycles of the abos and marsh babies--two native species, rather than one, in a paper titled Proving Veil's Hypothesis: Variance Reduction Techniques, Larval Life Cycles on an East Wind, and Shadow Children Riding Mars(c)hmen in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I admire Aramini's paper and find it completely convincing. You can find it here.

But it was fun figuring out some small part of it out for myself.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Galactic Philadelphia's Grand Night at the Rosenbach

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The Galactic Philadelphia Literary Salon, our fair city's longest-running and most respected fantasy & SF reading series makes a big leap forward tomorrow/today (Wednesday, January 18) when they hold their first reading in the Rosenbach Museum, 2008-2010 Delancey Place.

For this event, they have brought out the heavy hitters Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and C.S.E. Cooney

C. S. E Cooney is a World Fantasy Award-winning author (and I'm here to tell you that the WFA is hard to win), as well as being a poet, playwright, and voice actor. 

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer, and publisher. He has taken a leading role in introducing African science fiction and fantasy to the rest of the world. Recently, he was co-editor of Africa Risen, an anthology of some of the best of African speculative fiction. And since he lives in Africa, right now is your best chance to get his autograph. Ask him to date it, and you'll be able to brag that you knew him back when African spec lit was just dawning on the world.


And the catch . . . ?

The bad news is that the event is ticketed. The good news is that the ticket is only $15. For which you get:

Schedule of Festivities


5:30 pm ~ Wine & Cheese reception, Tour Dr. Rosenbach's private library and Explore an exhibit of The Rosenbach's recent additions to their speculative fiction rare book collection.


6:00 pm ~ C.S.E. Cooney's and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki's readings, with a break in between for announcements and a raffle drawing of books.


7:10 pm (approximately) A Q&A session with our authors.


7:30 pm (approximately) Chat, buy books, and have books autographed.


7:45 pm ~ We'll adjourn to a nearby pub for more book talk and schmoozing.


 To which I will only add that if you're a bookish person and have never been to the Rosenbach, you want want want to see it. It has all the books and most of the manuscripts that the perfect library of your dreams possesses.

Seriously. I recommend this. You'll like it.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Henry Wessells' Wonderful January Sale

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Over at Temporary Culture, my friend Henry Wessells is having a book sale of some 112 items marked down 25% from their usual prices. Two items caught my attention.

The first is my own Blue As the Moon. As fans of Dragonstairs Press (Marianne Porter, prop.) know, once in a blue moon--in fact, literally on the day of a blue moon--Marianne prints a limited edition of 69 copies of a chapbook created for the occasion up for sale. Then, at midnight, any unsold copies are burned in the wood stove. 

This is Marianne's way of celebrating the transience of the printed word, of art, and of life itself.

Dragonstairs Press doesn't have much of a secondary market. Marianne makes the chapbooks and other items, they sell out, and people tend to hold onto them. So when an out-of-print item comes available, it's an occasion.

Blue As the Moon is being offered at $32, down from $40.


The other item is a hardcover copy of Hope Mirrlees' "lost masterpiece of modernism," Paris, a Poem, beautifully designed and letterset-printed by Pegana Press.

 By my reckoning, this is the fourth time this poem has ever been printed. The first was as a chapbook that Virginia Wool printed on her tabletop press, back in the 1920s. The second was a bowdlerized (by Mirrlees herself) version in a mimeographed academic zine dedicated to Woolf. The third time, restored and explicated by Julia Briggs was in Bonnie Kime Scott's Gender in Modernism. So this is the second stand-alone version of the poem ever, and the first in hardcover.

Also, as I said, a beautiful book.

This item is being offered at $750, marked down from $1,000. Which at first blush looks expensive. But in fact it's a bargain. There are only two copies still available from Pegana and they cost $2,200 each. (Hand-crafted books of this caliber ain't cheap.)


You can find the entire catalog here. It's a fun thing to browse.

 

 

Monday, January 9, 2023

DUCKS by Kate Beaton

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It's hard to sum up this book, but I'll begin by saying that along with Maus by Art Spiegelman, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Watchmen by Alan Moore, it is quite possibly one of the four best graphic novels ever. This despite the fact that unlike the others it lacks a high concept.

Ducks is about the two years Kate Beaton spent in the oil sands of Alberta. The pay is good, particularly for a young woman from Cape Breton with college debts to pay off. But the conditions are dreadful, the work is draining, and as is inevitable where the male-to-female ratio is fifty to one, the misogyny is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

So it's strange that these situations produced a work so delicately nuanced, so observant of human behavior, and so generous in its characterizations (of men in particular) as this one.

Kate Benton is--or, very soon now, I must say was--best known for Hark! A Vagrant, whimsical Web cartoons that were usually based on history or literature, cheerfully skewed, and almost always Canadian-centric. One of my friends from North of the Border referred to her as "Canada's cultural secret weapon." When she gave up on producing free cartoons in order to create children's books, her freeloading readers, myself included, mourned.

And then came Ducks

Beaton never mentions the word "capitalism," but in its straightforward portrayal of what it's like to perform demanding work that is simultaneously boring and dangerous simply because one has family to support, it's obviously the villain here. The book does not present itself as a coming of age narrative, yet young Kate starts out perfectly likeable and grows to be rather more admirable by the end. The loneliness, isolation, and suffering of those forced to work far from the comforts the rest of us enjoy are presented by Beaton not only without self-pity but with an explicit awareness that many of those around her had it even worse. Her judgements are all even-handed. This book has a large cast of characters and the same insight into its times and the lives of its people as your favorite nineteenth century novel.

And, just as I warned you at the beginning, I've failed to give you the last glimmer of its virtues. Buy it anyway.

You'll thank me.


And since you wonder . . .

 The best-known Hark! A Vagrant cartoon (though not, oddly, about Canada) is Dude Watching With the Brontes. You can find it here.


Above: Yes, the cover makes it look boring. It's nothing of the sort.  


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Friday, January 6, 2023

A Young Photographer at the Mummers Parade

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Marianne and I rented a room at the Bellevue last weekend so we could spend New Year's Eve at the Pen & Pencil Club with our cronies and New Year's Day watching the Mummers Parade. Staying in a hotel on Broad Street meant that we could watch the parade until we were cold and weary, then go inside to watch the parade on TV until we were warm and rested and then go out again. Repeating as often as necessary. (The Mummers Parade is over eight hours long.)

Partway through the day, we were watching the Mummers when a young photographer with one of those little cameras that take small Polaroid photographs asked Marianne, "May I take your picture?"

"Sure," Marianne said, so the girl did. Then she asked, "May I take another?"

This time I posed with Marianne. To our surprise, the young photographer then gave Marianne the photo. That's it up above.

It's a good photograph--well composed and visually interesting. Which is not a surprise, because her mother, who was there with her, was also a photographer and to judge from the camera she was carrying a serious one.

That's all. It's a small incident but for us a pleasant one. And a reminder of how pleasant it can be to encounter strangers out on the street


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Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Suzy McKee Charnas Meets Her Ideal Reader

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Word is out on social media that Suzy McKee Charnas is no longer with us. She was 83 years old, which is a good run, but it still feels like she died too young. She is possibly best known for Walk to the End of the World and its sequels, but my own personal favorite of her works is The Vampire Tapestry, a novel made up of a series of stories illuminating the inner life of Dr. Edward Weyland, vampire and professor of anthropology.

This is an elegant work, tough and sinewy, beautifully written, and marvelously well thought out. I would go into this in more detail but it's been years since I last reread it, and if I opened the book now I would fall into it, not to reappear for a week. It really is that good.

I met Ms. Charnas only once, back in the eighties, and I doubt I made much of an impression on her. But it's worth recounting because that was the time she first met Judith Moffett.

Judy Moffett began as a serious poet (I greatly admire her collection Whinny Moor Crossing, the title poem in particular), fell into science fiction almost by accident, and quickly became an intensely admired novelist and short fiction writer. She was and is one of those tough-minded, tolerate-no-nonsense, totally admirable women who find in genre a place where they can think and do exactly as they like. And she admired the hell out of Suzy McKee Charnas. Most particularly, as with me, for The Vampire Tapestry.

Judy's day job was as an academic at the University of  Pennsylvania, where she taught, among other things, a science fiction class. As part of which, that year, the class did a reading of a script--written by Charnas, as it turns out--of one of the component stories of the Tapestry. The protagonist was female but the student reading her lines was male.

Judy wrote to Suzy McKee Charnas telling her about the project and inviting her to come and witness an encore performance. An invitation which was readily accepted. Gregory Frost and I, being friends and local writers, were also invited.

Charnas was one of the people she most admired. And her appreciation of The Vampire Tapestry went beyond granular. I remember that she particularly appreciated the presentation of psychological analysis, how it's done and what it can and cannot achieve. As I recall it, she could easily have written a book extolling that novel's virtues. And every word of it would have been deserved. In many ways, Judy was its ideal reader.

So you can imagine how nervous she was at the prospect of meeting her hero. Judith Moffett was not the kind of woman who gets nervous. But this time she was.

And how did work out?

It was a beautiful day with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and sunshine everywhere when I strode across the Penn campus toward the rendezvous point. And there, walking toward me, came Judy and her good friend Suzy, engrossed in conversation and as thick as thieves.

"Judy!" I shouted and "Michael!" she cried, and we hugged (we were neither of us very huggy people but at that moment it seemed right) while Suzy McKee Charnas beamed at us.

It was a lovely moment and a perfect day and the memories of the rest of it are private to Judith Moffett. But, clearly, Suzy McKee Charnas thought almost as highly of Judy as Judy did of her.

And that's all. I just thought you might want to know that.

 

Above: The brooding and appropriate book cover is of the Centipede Press edition of The Vampire Tapestry.


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Tuesday, December 27, 2022

S is For Story ("The Sorcerer's Daughter")

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 This seems to be a season for me to post flash fiction! I'm almost at a loss as to how to explain how this story came about. It involved Eileen Gunn, of course. Anything involving Eileen and fiction leaves me feeling addle-brained and confused.

So anyway. Over on Facebook, I somehow got involved in a conversation with the esteemed Ms. Gunn, and it somehow ended in a fiction duel. She was to write a short-short beginning with slapstick and ending with tragedy and I was to write one beginning in tragedy and ending in slapstick. In one day.

Simple, yes? Only Eileen somehow got the assignment turned around and wrote a story beginning darkly and ending in slapstick. So, after posting the first story, which began dark and ended light, I posted a second, which began light and ended dark. All in the prescribed day.

 Oh, and for some reason the phrase "Gnomes begone!" was supposed to appear in each story. I can't explain this. Just thinking about it leaves me feeling addle-brained and confused.

The only problem was that Eileen wrote a good story and I wrote two terrible ones. So I picked the one with the opposite overall shape of hers and rewrote it. The first version, I regret to say, involved a lot of goose droppings. Those were the first thing to go away. Also, as long as I was revising the story, I figured I might as well create a history for the fantasy world it occurred within. So I did.

And now I have a story that starts out light and silly and ends up dark and despairing. I cannot explain why it was thought this would be a good idea. Just trying to do so makes me feel confused and... and the other thing.

Anyway, here it is, the distinguished thing:

 

The Sorcerer’s Daughter

 

by

 

Michael Swanwick

 

 

Why was her life such a mess? Why did her spells always go wrong? Tisane’s father said she was as naturally powerful as anyone he had ever known—more so even than her late mother, who had been the wonder of the world—but impulsive. “You will be allowed to spell-cast without adult supervision when you’ve mastered calculus and not a minute before.” But she had barely begun learning algebra and already she was fourteen. At this rate, she’d be an old hag before she got to do anything neat.

 

Thinking dark thoughts, Tisane lugged a bucket of milk fresh-squeezed from their milch cow toward the cheese cave her father had excavated with one magisterial wave of his hand.

 

Harrawnk! Startled by who knew what, one of the geese hysterically half-flew half-ran past Tisane and into the barn, whose door she had accidentally left open. With a sigh, she put down the bucket and went after the silly thing.

 

Inside, the goose had somehow flapped and struggled its way up onto a high shelf, far beyond Tisane’s reach. In its panic, it had gotten lodged among the assortment of ancient machines from the Age of Science, which her father always meant to get around to examining someday. Honking bitterly, it endlessly bemoaned its plight.

 

Well, Tisane thought. Here was a good opportunity to try out her theory that magic was chiefly a matter of confidence. Her father was taking his mid-afternoon nap and wouldn’t enjoy being awakened for so small a matter. So she’d save him the inconvenience. Cocking her wrists and wriggling her fingers witchily, she shouted, Down from the shelf, you goose!”

 

Poof! Small, soft feathers exploded into the air. (Tisane inhaled one and almost choked before she managed to cough it free.) Out from the center of that white cloud flew the bedraggled-looking goose. Riding atop it, thin legs closed about its neck was a laughing, red-capped elf.

 

“Fool!” the elf gloated. “I am your doom! I will unstitch your sacks of flour and topple your buckets of milk!” He flew the goose straight at Tisane. If she hadn’t ducked, it would have slammed into her face.

 

Gathering up her skirts, she ran after the airborne prankster out of the barn.

 

“What’s all this foofaraw?” Tisane’s father came lumbering out of their cottage, face red with annoyance.  

 

“Don’t worry, honored sire, I’ve got everything under control.” Once again, Tisane assumed the stance of a sorceress. Confidence! she reminded herself. Grabbing words at random from her reading, she intoned in the most self-assured and commanding voice imaginable, “Double, double, toil and trouble! Gnomes begone!”

 

Then, turning to her father with a bright confident smile, “See? Now they’re someone else’s problem.”

 

“But the great sorcerer’s expression, his horror-struck eyes in particular, made her wonder if maybe she’d gotten the spell wrong. Just a smidgeon, anyway. “By the demons of Old Detroit!” he cried. “You’ve created a von Neumann recursion!”

 

Tisane turned back. There were two elf-and-goose combinations in the sky.

 

Then four.

 

Then eight.

 

The elves were laughing maniacally. Waving their little red caps in the air, they dive-bombed the milk bucket, the geese, the chickens, the watchdog… even the milch-cow, which they sent scampering through the gooseberry bushes and bucking and kicking across the herb garden.

 

“Bring me my staff of power!” Tisane’s father commanded and she ran to fetch it. The staff had once been a nuclear control rod before it was transformed in the forges of the First Mages, back when the old world fell and science was transformed into magic.

 

By the time Tisane got back, the sky was dark with geese and the world echoed with the malicious laughter of the elves. Holding his staff before him, the mighty sorcerer strode forward—

 

And stepped on the toppled bucket of milk. He fell backward and struck his head on the hardened dirt barnyard. Tisane ran to him and raised his head, but he was out cold.

 

Meanwhile, the geese and elves continued to multiply. The sky darkened and the sun dimmed. Tisane’s father had always said that elves were nothing but conceptual machines, no more alive than the legendary computers of yore. She had always wondered what he meant by that. Now she thought she could understand just a glimmer. But not enough to do anything with it.

 

She had power enough within her to accomplish anything. But she didn’t know how to use it. Her algebra was weak and her calculus nonexistent.

 

The last sliver of sun disappeared behind overlapping layers of wings. Darkness swallowed up the world. The laughter of the elves merged and became universal, the roaring surf of an ocean of madness.

 

Tisane managed to drag her father inside the cottage and lay him on his feather bed. Then she lit a candle. Outside, the air was filling with the bodies of elves and geese, as tightly packed as the birds in the print made by the Wizard Escher that hung on the wall in her father’s study. They were so tightly thronged that they could no longer move. Still, they kept multiplying. Tisane could feel it. She had the power in her and it responded to the presence of anything magical.

 

Her last thought before the windows exploded inward was: It’s not fair.

 

Not long after, the total mass of elves and geese became greater than the Chandrasekhar limit, and the entire world collapsed into a black hole. But by then, there was nobody around to marvel at how tidily it had all come about.

 

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