Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: Saltillo; Mau Pilailug; Sunken Ship at WTC; Jonathan Barnes

[Saltillo, "Remember Me," from Ganglion, released 2006]

Heat inescapable...canary seeks shade in a sycamore...lobster offers coffee infused with a spoonful of cold, cold vanilla ice cream...

One of the world's greatest navigators, Mau Piailug, died last week. A Micronesian, in 1976 he sailed alone-- and without compass, sextant or charts-- the 2,500 miles of open ocean from Hawai'i to Tahiti, demonstrating that the peopling of the Pacific islands was deliberate, not due to chance or accident. The Economist in its obituary describes Piailug as a poet of the trek (for the full obit, click here):

"...he would point his canoe into the right slant of wind, and then along a path between a rising star and an opposite, setting one. With his departure star astern and his destination star ahead, he could keep to his course. By day he was guided by the rising and setting sun but also by the ocean herself, the mother of life. He could read how far he was from shore, and its direction, by the feel of the swell against the hull. He could detect shallower water by colour, and see the light of invisible lagoons reflected in the undersides of clouds."

Two weeks ago, in the layers beneath the city, construction crews at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan uncovered the bones of an 18th-century ship. As David Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (for full story, click here):

"In the middle of tomorrow, a great ribbed ghost has emerged from a distant yesterday."

Lobster and canary are reading The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes (Harper 2009; first pb 2010). What a great read! If you like Gaiman's Neverwhere, you will like The Domino Men. Think also Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell mashed with John Le Carre. The protagonist reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or Cary Grant in North by Northwest, with a Lovecraftian cabal as his enemies.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: "Television Man"; Tony Judt, Matthew Cheney, Jeff Spock

[The Talking Heads, "Television Man," from Little Creatures, 1985]

Wake up Canary, wake up! Dawn is upon us, words there are to sing...

We enjoyed three good short musings this week on language, its challenges, possibilities and limits:

Tony Judt has a beautiful essay, "Words," in the current New York Review of Books . He defends rhetorical style and worries about the corrosive effects of inarticulacy. "When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express," Judt writes. "If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. [...] The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right...If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute?"

Matthew Cheney, writing as The Mumpsimus, consistently offers some of the most incisive (yet warm-hearted) commentary on speculative fiction and movies. His report on Readercon earlier this month includes this meditation:

"I'm [i.e., Cheney] not very good at inserting myself into conversations, so I did a lot of observing during the panel, piping up only to offer a sort of counter viewpoint from Gary's [i.e., Gary Wolfe] -- where Gary was in some ways agreeing with Paul Witcover's assertion that writers like T.C. Boyle are just using science fiction as "a trip to the playground". I was hoping we'd be able to discuss this idea a bit more, but time didn't allow it. Had it, I suppose I would have tried to say that to me the resentment of writers not routinely identified with the marketing category of "science fiction" or the community of fans, writers, and publishers that congregates under the SF umbrella -- the resentment of these writers for using the props, tropes, and moves of SF is unappealing to me for a few reasons. It's a clubhouse mentality, one that lets folks inside the clubhouse determine what the secret password is and if anybody standing outside has the right pronunciation of that password. It is, in other words, a purity test: are the intentions in your soul the right ones, the approved ones?"

Read the rest of Cheney's Readercon notes here.

Jeff Spock, a leading digital game designer, suggests some solutions to the challenge of telling stories in the very short form of the "casual game," in "Short Games, Long Stories" (originally in the International Game Developers Association newsletter, reposted to Gamasutra last week).

Spock writes:

"Basically, I [i.e., Spock] recommend (against my better instincts) using traditional story structures and stereotypical characters in order to simplify the player's task of digesting the plot. The analogy that I used in the article, and that I really like, is the "gutter" in comic strips. That white space between two panels has nothing in it, but the human imagination fills in everything that could have been written there. In much the same way, all you need to do to create a story is to suggest where you are in the story arc and what the characters are thinking; there is no need to be more explicit than that. The player's imagination is more than capable of connecting the links and filling in the details."

Read the rest of Spock's suggestions here.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: Recommended Reading, Second Quarter 2010

We adore Alastair Reynolds. Out last month in U.S. paperback from Ace is his House of Suns, another one of his love stories wrapped inside a billion-year epic. Reynolds is a poet of technology: clones are "shatterlings"; "aspic-of-machines" is the term for the nanobots and other medicinal therapies one applies as an unguent to wounds. Reynolds is especially good at the toss-off line that illuminates the deep trend, the broad sweep: "Cloning is a technology like making paper: it is not difficult if one knows how to do it, but extraordinarily tricky to invent from scratch..." (p. 97).

Iain M. Banks is the other current master of the billion-year spree, painting on an enormous canvas but always keeping individual human lives in the forefront. Banks and Reynolds are the heirs of Asimov and Herbert, and especially the Vance of the Demon Princes series and the Alastor novels. (Scalzi and Haldeman as the left-handed heirs to Heinlein?) I am halfway through Banks's Matter, another novel of The Culture, published in 2008 (Orbit). At its heart this is a picaresque, with some of the best pert servant-clueless king dialogue since the 17th century. Or maybe it is a novel of ideas in the 18th-century manner, an anthropological inquiry...

Am also partway through Olga Slavnikova's 2017 (translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz; from The Overlook Press, 2010). Will review in more detail when I finish, but worth the reading: 2017 is genuinely strange, hard to classify, like the reflection you think you see on the edge of vision or the shadow of a bird that flies across your path. "Krylov for some reason lost his sense of his own height and couldn't tell whether he was in fact taller or not." That captures the mood of the book.

Danielle Trussoni's Angelology (from Viking, 2010) is uneven but -- in its best bits-- engrossing. If you like Lukyanenko's Night Watch trilogy, or any of the urban vampire-hunter series (Saintcrow, Butcher, etc.), you will enjoy Angelology...and its likely sequel(s).

The King's Gold by Yxta Maya Murray (from Harper, 2008) is a good romp, "an old world novel of adventure" as the sub-title has it. Sharp and witty characters, literary/historical riddles, pulp action, a wash of the Gothic supernatural...Reminds me of the Special Agent Pendergast series by Preston & Child, also a little bit of Eco, and of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind.

Two that I did not finish, despite high expectations: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, and A Dark Matter by Peter Straub. I need to explore why I did not enjoy either of these, what failed to work for me. Both are well written, thoughtful, serious of purpose. I was pre-disposed to like them: I devoured Kostova's 2005 debut The Historian, and I have long enjoyed Straub's work (regardless of my opinion, he is clearly one of the modern masters of horror and the supernatural) I want to understand what mechanic on my side as a reader rendered these two particular novels cold for me.