Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to Be Better

Updated November 2014: While I stand by the basic messages of this post about diversity and listening to criticism, its rhetoric is no longer part of how I would approach those issues. More importantly, recent developments have made it clear that the author of Requires Only That You Hate, also known in fandom circles as Winterfox and in professional SFF as the writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a deeply unpleasant and manipulative personality whose interest in social justice, whether real or feigned, comes second to a vicious pleasure in attacking those she perceives as enemies.  The evidence for this is now publicly available; I just wanted to make it clear that I'm aware of it, and that I no longer endorse this individual on any level.

This post is a little outside the usual subject matter of the blog, but I think it's important.

A request for readers of this blog who are white, or male, or heterosexual, which I think includes most (but not necessarily all) who find their way here on a regular basis. Read this. Then read the posts it links to, both on that blog and elsewhere. Then read, or at least skim, other posts on Requires Only That You Hate. Try to find something that offends or upsets you. Unless you read only horror and no science fiction or fantasy, I doubt it will take very long.

So, my straight/white/male reader, what might you be thinking after all that reading? Here's one possibility. It's what I (a gay white man) have thought in the past when confronted with similar perspectives. "Well, I certainly support feminism/anti-racism/LGBT rights. And there are definitely some pieces of fantasy/science fiction/horror that show various biases or get into problematic territory. Bakker's defensiveness might be going a little too far. But this acrackedmoon is too extreme/too political/too blind to nuance/too angry. I can't take her seriously."

That sounds like a reasonable enough attitude, right? After all, we all decide every day whether particular opinions are worth our attention. We can't read every word of commentary from every perspective. And surely, just by the law of averages, there have to be anti-racists/feminists/GLBT activists somewhere who aren't worth taking seriously. Right?


Next, read this. What are you thinking now? Perhaps something similar? Maybe Sady Doyle goes on the list of feminists too die-hard to be taken seriously. Or are you beginning to see the problem?

Issues of representation and social justice tend to reach the mainstream of Internet genre fandom only when authors or other "important" bloggers respond negatively to being called out. Their responses get noticed, and much discussion and drama ensues. Now, let me be clear: although my opinion doesn't matter all that much, for reasons I'll get to, I think that's a good thing. These issues need to be discussed by any means necessary. But because such discussions only intermittently draw the attention of straight/white/male fans not already immersed in social justice debates, it's easy for those fans to see a sequence of individual critics, and reject them one by one without engaging the larger question of their own relationship to social justice commentary.

That question, simply put, is this: How can straight/white/men justify our claim to care about the concerns of oppressed groups while ignoring or dismissing any criticism coming from members of those groups that doesn't immediately strike us as valid? And the answer, simply put, is We can't.

*     *     *

One of the things acrackedmoon deals with in the post linked above is the white male fear of being labeled sexist or racist. As far as I can tell, that fear springs from an embarrassing inability to grasp the simple fact that saying, doing, or writing something sexist or racist is not an irremediable blot on one's soul. You don't become Theodore Bilbo by making a single mistake; that's a natural consequence of living in a world full of different kinds of privilege and bigotry. acrackedmoon was not suggesting that R. Scott Bakker is a monster in human form, that he secretly or subconsciously hates women, or that the only solution is for all decent-minded folk to gather pitchforks and torches and storm his castle. She was saying that she, as a woman and a feminist, found his response to criticisms regarding misogyny in his works severely lacking in several ways. Yes, she said it bluntly and mockingly. So what? Critics are not obligated to be nice. If you don't want your ideas and feelings abused, don't share them. Otherwise, accept that not everyone is going to like you and go from there.

Once straight/white/men have decided that the rhetoric or ideology of a particular blogger is over-the-top, we often perceive over-the-top demands as well, even when they plainly don't exist. For some reason discussions of racism and sexism in given books tend to generate unjustified fears of censorship, as though anyone is calling for authors to stop writing or for their works to be destroyed. This feeds the fear of admitting to, acknowledging the mere possibility of, racism or sexism; the white men in question seem to think that the only possible follow-up to such an admission would be to unplug their laptops and vow to write no more. Again, no.

Here's what we need to do, as white/straight/men confronting claims of bigotry against groups of which we're not members, in works we've written or works we like: acknowledge the validity of the interpretation. Even if you're not versed in the academic language on which it draws, accept that that language exists for very good reasons. The little voice that says "But it isn't, but it doesn't..."? Tell that voice to shut up. Part of being open-minded is accepting that you might not be right, even when it really, really feels like you are. You know how, when a friend expresses a firm dislike of some author you really admire, you don't spend the next six months trying to convince that friend he's wrong? Instead, you say "OK," and try to accept that his reading experiences have shaped different criteria by which your favorite author sucks. Maybe you secretly tell yourself that he's wrong and foolish and blind, but I really hope not, and in any case you only say that secretly. You don't throw it in his face. Well, when it comes to sexism, racism, and homophobia, the issues are more important but the principle is the same.

Women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals know more about bigotry than you, white/straight/men. They just do. They know it by bitter personal experience, and by the informed study that often follows such experience. They know more in the same way that Ph.D's in a given field know more than excitable amateurs with a little reading and some crazy theories. Yes, you can construct some wild hypothetical in which the Ph.D's are wrong and the crackpot is right, but if you're deciding that the crackpot is brilliant every single time, something is wrong with your intellectual system. It's ridiculous to regard oneself as open-minded if one constantly rejects the uncomfortable but well-informed radical argument over the safe, deeply ignorant status quo.

The thing about acknowledging the validity of such criticism is that it's not only, and even not primarily, about you. It's about respecting the right of women/POC/LGBT people to be uncomfortable with how they are portrayed (or not portrayed) in fiction, and to voice that discomfort. It's about not seeming (and even if this isn't what's intended, it's how such behavior comes across) more interested in shutting down criticism of something you like than in allowing all members of those groups to contribute to and shape the movements that act on their behalf. It's about not privileging your own progressive self-image above the concerns of those you profess to care about. Feminism belongs to women, anti-racism to POC, and so on. That doesn't mean that straight/white/male allies can't contribute to those movements; it does mean that we need to allow them to be what they are: spaces where, in contrast to the wider society and virtually every sub-culture, the beliefs, needs, and desires of oppressed groups come first. That includes all members of those groups, not just the ones who tell you what you want to hear. (Oh, and that perspective you have, the one you're worried won't be aired if your white/male/straight voice isn't heard? There's a woman, or a person of color, or a lesbian who shares it. Minority discourses are richer than the individual blogs you come across during the latest cycle of drama. They don't need you. Sometimes it's all right to say nothing at all.)

And here's the good news: not only does such an acknowledgement make you a better, more genuinely progressive person, it's also the only thing you have to do. (If you're the writer of the work in question, you might also want to apologize for any frustration or offense you caused, even if you didn't mean to cause any. That's just good manners.) Despite the grim daydreams some white men indulge, you won't be ordered to drop your books onto a pyre and watch them burn. You won't be asked to stop reading them or stop enjoying them, or pledge your absolute agreement with every word of every criticism. What you can do, when reading or writing such works in the future, is remember those criticisms and ask yourself how to avoid perpetuating hurtful ideas while still liking what you like. Or, as another blogger, whose comments are both briefer and sharper than mine, put it, "The best defence is to forget about defence. Just listen and think about it and try to be better."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Vine update, and some general notes

I've gotten out of the habit, so here are a few of my recent Vine reviews that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Steampunk!, a YA anthology of... well, guess: here.

The Demi-Monde: Winter, the first book in a series about a massive VR scenario that jumbles different historical periods: here.

When She Woke: a dystopian variation on The Scarlet Letter: here.

Ed King: a modern retelling of the Oedipus story, the final chapter of which makes for a decent SF novella: here.

The Thorn and The Blossom: an accordion-format curiosity by the great Theodora Goss: here.

The Flame Alphabet: a surreal dystopian novel in which language becomes poisonous: here.

The Games: technothriller with genetically-engineered animal gladiators: here.

The Uninvited Guests: drawing-room comedy with magical elements: here.

As a reminder, I sometimes post on Amazon non-genre reviews that don't appear here. There are also a few lightly-edited or updated versions of posts that originally appeared here and weren't immediately copied there. To see all my Amazon reviews, click here.

I apologize for the lack of content here lately; moving house and dealing with some other personal situations has cut down on my reading time, and various non-genre titles have taken up much of what remains. It'll be at least another three weeks before my schedule opens up much, but in the near future I hope to finish The Century's Best Horror Fiction (only 49 stories to go! Remember you can find my ridiculous brief story-by-story reviews on Twitter) and get back to The Sense of the Past: The Ghostly Stories of Henry James, not to mention the Tartarus Press collections of Arthur Machen I got for Christmas. Before all that, though, and hopefully in the next few days, will be a review of Mark Valentine and John Howard's new joint collection, Secret Europe.

On another topic entirely, I'm thinking that the white-on-black design of this blog is tough to read, and a bit dull to boot. Unfortunately I have absolutely no ideas on what would look better and still fit the tone of the blog. Reader suggestions are welcome.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Century's Best Horror Fiction: Twitter Reviews

Today I received The Century's Best Horror Fiction, a mammoth two-volume anthology edited by John Pelan and published by Cemetery Dance that does exactly what it says on the tin. One story per year, one story per author. 1550+ pages and 700,000+ words. Obviously with something this hefty I'm not going to mention each story in my formal review, but I have decided to do a quick review of each story on Twitter as I finish it. To see the review tweets, which will begin tonight, you can go to my Twitter feed or check out the tag #CBHF. Because space in a tweet is at a premium, I'm only listing the year of publication, not author or title. To find out which story goes with which year, you can check out the table of contents under the appropriately-labeled TOC tab on the Cemetery Dance website, where you can also pick up a copy if it strikes your fancy. (The first printing is almost gone and the already substantial price tag will increase for any second printing, so order soon if you're interested. The individual volumes are also available separately and substantially discounted from; here are Volume One and Volume Two.) As soon as I click "publish" on this post I'm closing the laptop screen and embarking on the 1901 story. Weirdly exciting!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Janus Tree and Other Stories

Let's begin with the only disappointing thing about Glen Hirshberg's third collection: it includes nothing but the stories. No introduction, no afterword, no story notes, not even previous publication info or an author bio. The stories in Part Two are labeled "Tales from the Rolling Dark," but those not familiar with Hirshberg will have no way of knowing that's a reference to the Rolling Darkness Revue, an annual ghost story tour founded by Hirshberg and Peter Atkins. This may seem a small thing to complain about, but front/back matter is a major element in making a collection feel like a book, a coherent entity unto itself, rather than a set of stories that happen to be appearing together. The division into three loosely-themed parts is a help, but the stories do seem a bit lonely on their own.

Perhaps that's appropriate, though. Hirshberg's great gift is to write about profound loneliness, grief, and regret without the resulting fiction ever becoming maudlin or grandiose. He communicates better than almost any writer I could name the pain, both in the moment and in hindsight, of realizing that you can't make the connection you want to make, that sometimes love and friendship and family bonds aren't enough. His characters are often damaged, hurting each other not out of malice but from deeper, inscrutable impulses that turn them into tragic figures. What prevents them also turning into tragic abstractions is Hirshberg's command of character: even in the shorter stories, his protagonists are never types, because they've been given details of personality that don't fit any cliche. Add in prose that creates a credible melancholy atmosphere in virtually any setting, and it's small wonder that Hirshberg is widely considered one of the best writers of horror fiction to emerge in the last decade.

His first collection, 2003's The Two Sams, was an extraordinary debut despite including only five stories; as Ramsey Campbell noted in his introduction, it was the sort of book to guarantee the author's reputation even if he never wrote another word. American Morons followed in 2006, and while there wasn't a single bad or even mediocre story among its seven, the overall effect was less dazzling than that of its predecessor. The Janus Tree is somewhere in between, which makes it very good indeed. Nearly half of these eleven stories have appeared or will appear in best-of-the-year anthologies, and the title story won the Shirley Jackson Award and was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award. I think it's about time to take a closer look at the work that's won all this praise.

"The Janus Tree" features one of Hirshberg's most evocative settings yet, a ruined, fading mining town whose people are as powerless to control their relationships and impulses as they are to restore industry and liveliness to their homes.
What I remember is walking with Robert one night during the summer after sixth grade, all the way across Aluminum Street past the hunched, dark taverns with their decades-old, hand-lettered signs proclaiming NO MINERS still posted in the windows. Just in case Company employees from some other town with enough miners left to matter decided to come by on a road trip, we guessed. We walked under a ridiculous, blazing moon, down rows of tightly packed, boxy Company houses, their yards full of rusting bikes and truck parts and swingless swingsets, into a wind that pummeled our faces or horse-kicked us in the back, depending on whether we were coming or going... We cleared the houses, and the wind half-lifted us off our feet, but we punched forward. To our right, the gouged mountains loomed black and treeless. The moonlight pooling in the biggest of the abandoned blast pits up there made it look more like an eye than a wound. To the east and below us, the plains stretched out, running free of the mountains.
So bleak a landscape casts into stark relief the dramas the young narrator faces: the loss of one friend, his growing affection for another, and his conflict with a third, a bully and drug dealer whose cruelty might, in their barren town, be mere desperation for some genuine feeling. That child antagonist, inexplicably nasty yet not entirely unsympathetic, makes "The Janus Tree" somewhat reminiscent of Hirshberg's earlier story "Struwwelpeter," but Matt Janus is thoroughly different from Peter Andersz; all they have in common is the insight they provide into the intensity of the lives of young adults, an intensity that, as Hirshberg's novel The Snowman's Children so keenly shows, can reverberate down the years into adult life.

The final element of "The Janus Tree," the one that explains why this book is being reviewed on a horror-driven blog, is the supernatural presence that lies beneath it all. Hirshberg's most powerful stories withhold the meaning of their mysterious phenomena until the end, when the connection between plot and theme flows over the reader in a wave of simultaneously chilling and moving comprehension. (You may be getting a sense that I like this stuff.) Here there isn't even an overt sign of the supernatural until the climax, but the barrenness of the town, in which the closest thing to an inspirational teacher is a man so emphysema-riddled and sedentary he barely seems human, creates an eerieness all its own. "The Janus Tree" stands alongside "Struwwelpeter" and "Dancing Men" as one of Hirshberg's most atmospheric and resonant stories.

The other three pieces in Part One ("Longer Stories") aren't as rich as "The Janus Tree," but they're every bit as well-observed and involving. In "I Am Coming to Live in Your Mouth," a wife facing the last days of her terminally-ill husband and a fraught relationship with his mother begins to see a threatening figure around the house. Hirshberg deftly walks the tightrope of writing about imminent death, avoiding both overblown sentimentality and unrevealing despair in favor of a simple, honest representation of the rhythms of the situation: despair, frustration, fleeting happiness, even more fleeting normality. Which may make it sound "heavy," but everything is woven together so carefully that the story never feels burdened with ambition or thematic program. "You Become the Neighborhood," which is (as far as I can tell) original to this collection, links the personal dramas of several residents, mental illness and loneliness and loss, into what is probably the most touching and humane story ever written about... but I shouldn't give away the ending. And then there's "The Pikesville Buffalo," an easy story to summarize but a difficult one to describe. In plot terms it might sound like a farce, but style and craft turn it into a delicately magical meditation on the question one character asks: "How do you survive the love you outlive?"

The "Tales from the Rolling Dark" in Part Two are somewhat shorter than what precedes and follows them, and since Hirshberg's best stories are usually his longest ones, these are a bit less impressive than the rest. The section is, however, book-ended by two excellent tales of the dangers of grief that were reprinted in successive volumes of Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year. In "Shomer," a young Jewish man is asked to guard his uncle's body overnight, and once he's alone in the funeral home he begins to suspect there really is something to guard it against. It's one of the more purely unsettling stories in The Janus Tree, and it's also another harrowing reflection on loss and memory:
Abruptly, another thought surfaced, dragging with it emotions Marty had forgotten were down there, or convinced himself he'd buried, and he sat hard on the depressed pillow and gripped his knees with his hands. The irony was not lost on him, was in fact unmistakeable. For twenty years-- more-- he'd longed for just one more night alone with Uncle El. Like when he was a kid, and El had taken the train down from college and spirited Marty away to the diner for blintzes, to some minor league baseball stadium he'd never been able to find since where fans hooted every time their Owls scored or threatened to score, to the Delaware shore in the dark in the middle of winter to swim for thirty seconds in their underwear and then drive straight back home, shivering, singing along to awful country songs on El's old car radio. So much of the code Marty used for processing the world-- the numbers and slashes for transcribing baseball games in scorecard boxes, the slanting or adjacent --ing and --ed and --er and --un combinations that signaled opportunity on a Boggle board, the squiggles and dots of trop in Torah portions in prayer books that indicates changes of pitch or chances to make the secret pretend-farting noise with your lips-- he'd learned from El, on those nights. And now his wish had been granted. They were going to spend one more night alone together.
At the other end of Part Two is "The Nimble Men," in which the pilot of a small commuter plane on a nighttime layover in rural Ontario sees lights in the surrounding woods that might be the aurora, or something else. The setting is suitably spooky, but what makes the story stand out is the bond between the narrator and his co-pilot, in which light-hearted (and amusing) banter conceals a deeper admiration that, set against the emotional and physical chill of the milieu, is genuinely affecting rather than soppy.

The remaining Rolling Dark stories are effective, but lack the spark carried by the rest of Hirshberg's work. (I imagine they work evwn better when performed aloud in their original context.) "Miss Ill-Kept Runt" has a child protagonist with realistic psychology, and hides its final revelation well, but isn't substantial enough to achieve the fullest possible impact. "Millwell" is creepy, with another inspired setting, but would likewise be better if it were more thoroughly explored. And "Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey" (marvelous title) is flawlessly executed but has a premise that has become familiar over the past forty years' worth of horror fiction.

Part Three features "The Book Depository Stories," of which so far there are only two. The first, "Esmerelda," closed out the Ash-Tree Press anthology Shades of Darkness and appeared in the first volume of The Best Horror of the Year. The second was due to debut in issue 65 of Cemetery Dance, but that issue was delayed so long that it has only just appeared, simultaneously with The Janus Tree. The concept for the series, born of these photographs of a derelict warehouse of school supplies (more information here), is ingenious: as the physical book declines, depositories of dumped volumes appear all over the country, and people-- bibliophiles, urban explorers, the homeless and directionless-- take to visiting them, wandering rooms full of worn, moldy, and forgotten titles.
The Roosevelt, Michigan warehouse, where the books sprout mushrooms from their ruined pages and the hills of still-shrinkwrapped texts and composition notebooks rise shoulder high and higher, a mountain range of waste paper complete with alpine meadows of pink and green binders and waterfalls of paperclips and liquid paper bottles. Miles and miles of them. There's even weather; the rot and damp create a haze that rises from the ground on warmer nights and drifts about the giant, echoing space, as though the words themselves have lifted right off the pages like little Loraxes and floated toward the window sockets to dissipate over the abandoned thoroughfares of the Motor City.
But however appealing in their gothic way, the book depositories aren't safe. These are stories about the power of books and the imagination, and not in the stale, self-congratulatory way you might expect. These abandoned books are dangerous, and the characters who run afoul of them are among Hirshberg's most damaged and driven, living on the edge of insanity in a world that invites such excess, a world that these two stories can only begin to reveal. As impressive as Hirshberg's work to date has been, the book depository series could easily prove to be this author's magnum opus. And coming at the end of this extraordinary collection, an initial taste of it provides an ideal capstone to The Janus Tree's demonstration of the versatility of one of the first great talents in 21st century horror fiction.

The Janus Tree and Other Stories is available from Subterranean Press.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

What sets Ransom Riggs' debut novel apart from other young adult fantasies is not the text but the illustrations. The bulk of them are, as an afterword notes, "authentic, vintage found photographs," from Riggs' collection and those of other vernacular photography enthusiasts. In fact, the novel began with the pictures, which Riggs used to guide the construction of the narrative. This unconventional source of ideas lends the invented milieu a strange, slightly disjointed quality that works for the book rather than against it, creating an appropriately quirky feel that separates the book from the bulk of "teenager discovers magical secret" titles. Factor in the creation of a fairly realistic teen protagonist, and you have a title engaging enough to recommend to YA genre readers of all ages.

Jacob Portman thought he was an ordinary boy destined to lead an ordinary life, but given the type of novel he's in that's obviously not going to last. The stories his grandfather told about a children's home in World War II era Wales and its residents with bizarre talents used to fascinate him, but now he thinks they're just a metaphor for a life lived in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust. That belief isn't destined to last either. When his grandfather dies in a horrifying way that makes Jacob wonder if it was all true, there seems to be no solution but a trip to Wales. What he finds there is even weirder than he imagined, and even more dangerous. The hidden world his grandfather alluded to is very real, and in great danger, and whether he wants to or not, Jacob has a role to play in its fate.

All of which may sound, to those widely-read in the genre, like standard fare. What elevates it is that the fantastic elements, and the way they fit together, are less traditional. Since the novel takes its time in revealing them, a reviewer shouldn't give anything away, but they blend fantasy, science fiction, and horror in a way that doesn't feel restrained or defined by the conventions of any of those genres. It helps that even the non-supernatural elements, from Jacob's unconventional best friend to the way of life of the remote Welsh island where he makes his discoveries, are equally striking, offbeat and amusing but not clumsily or cheesily so. And the wild invention is balanced by the realistic characterization of Jacob, whose relationship with his parents is edged with authentic personality flaws and failures of communication. The first-person narration is only partly successful-- at times Jacob sounds like an ordinary teenager, at others like a writer trying to achieve atmospheric effect-- but it hits often enough to work, and witty asides ("my mother was loath to pass up even the flimsiest excuse for a celebration-- she once invited friends over for our cockatiel's birthday") help keep the prose involving and the pace lively.

Another part of what makes the setting feel rich is that much of it remains unexplored. Only some of the peculiar children of the title have had their powers and personalities revealed, and there's a wider community of unusual types to be discovered. The ending is more of a new beginning that promises further adventures, so it's no surprise to learn that Riggs is currently gathering photos on which to base a sequel. If it puts the same distinctive spin on teen fantasy as its predecessor, it'll be a book to watch out for.