At the Corner of Imagined and Real

'Time Traveler (Chuck),' by user PINKÉ on Flickr

[Image: “Time Traveler,” by user PINKÉ on (Used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you).) The photographer’s caption: “Chuck used his time machine to travel back in time. He was shocked to discover there wasn’t any air conditioning. He was glad to get back. July 2013.” Chuck seems to have had many adventures in geography, although as far as I can tell this has been his only one in time.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

On Velvet Turf

I dash outdoors so I will know
a little more about the day—
I stride forth filled with the whiff.
What’s to know is always a little to the left,
deep in the vine-covered hole of a hedgehog down
by the mossy stump. If something is impaled down there
I want to know. I don’t mind throwing myself
into the cistern of the Middle Ages.
Who knows, here once the embattled farmers stood,
their gallant foreheads broadly glistening.
I’ve read whole books standing up naked.
I’ve bragged all my life of the glories
I had in common with the rest of the world,
glories that fled through the windfields
and raked rivers, through the sere leaves
of the trees—
now that the broken gravy boat will sail no more
and the electric fence electrify no one,
now that the crepitating rain has come
and the winter lilt departed, it is time
to come out of my hole—
though the stars take me back
more than I am willing to admit.

(Mary Ruefle [source])


Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms. There is a certain materialist doctrine which claims that we can dispense with mind and with art because man is just a more or less highly developed mechanism governed by chemical processes. I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being.

(Joseph Beuys [source])

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Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

'The Magicians,' by Lev Grossman (cover)I don’t know the process whereby Lev Grossman came to write the first of his trilogy, but I can imagine its developing something like this…

The germ of the story would be a what-if question an author might ask of himself, a rather involved question along these lines:

Stories centered around magic and fantasy lands are all so damned full of wonder: of the characters’ (sometimes just the reader’s) slack-jawed omigosh-so-utterly-amazing appreciation of the miraculous. Suppose such a book, with such a subject and setting, was populated instead by realistic, no, by out-and-out cynical characters: characters bored of magic, characters who sneer at the course of their lives which has led them to magic, characters — no matter how magically talented — who often out-and-out hate magic and refuse to use it? What would such a book be like? Hmm. Let me see…

The most direct route to an answer would start with the age of cynicism, “age” in the sense of both an historical era and a time of individual human lifespan. It would start, in short, with 21st-century American teenagers — even better, perhaps, teenagers from New York City (and specifically, best of all, from finger-snapping nasal-voweled Brooklyn).

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An E-Publishing Experiment: Short Fiction for Under a Buck

AtmospheresI am not even close to the first person to wonder: is it possible — let alone worthwhile — to sell short short stories piecemeal, directly to readers, without going through the intermediary of a magazine or publisher?

Answering the first part of that question comes (relatively) easily, as it happens. Pursuing the answer to the second, however, can be messier. More… fraught.

So, the experiment:

I’ve uploaded a short story to Amazon, where it will sell as an e-“book” for 99¢ (US) and the equivalent price in other currencies. If I could have, I’d have priced it even lower; for now, though, that represents the lowest price which Amazon even allows for an e-book. Still, I have no plans to lower the price later. Let’s just see how it goes.

What do you need to know about the story?

  • The cover appears at the top right of this post; the title, obviously, is “Atmospheres.”
  • Genre? Fiction, of course. Maybe literary fiction (although that does carry an unseemly whiff of self-congratulation, doesn’t it?). Some might consider it to be a fantasy. A, well… let’s say a light contemporary fantasy. Don’t expect any pixies or elves, however, nor dragons, trolls, wizards, and the rest of that lot.
  • Excerpt: here’s how it begins…

Nathan DeKuyper had often dreamed of flying — not in some engined or lighter-than-air contraption, but personally, on his own. Springing-into-the-air flying. Aerodynamically-stretched-out-extremities flying, like Superman, requiring no wings of his own nor flapping of arms. Propelled in three dimensions by mere intent, by wanting to be there instead of here. Gliding, climbing, barrel rolling, power diving, treetop skimming, with the wind threatening to strip his glasses from his head, his eyes tearing, his hearing aid clattering dangerously, his clothes snapping and ballooning about him. No one would see him, or if they saw him they’d look away, rub their eyes, look up again… but he’d be gone by then, already dismissed as an illusion, all but forgotten.

Of course he had dreamed of flying. Hadn’t everyone? But — well, of course — he’d never actually flown.

Until the day he did.

  • How short is it? (Regular readers of my prose here and elsewhere may especially need reassurance on this score.) Only about 7,000 words: easily consumed at a sitting, I think (hope).
  • As an e-book sold through Amazon, it’s in Kindle-readable format. However — this is important — you do not need a Kindle to read it. Once you purchase it, you should be able to read it with Amazon’s Kindle software, available both as a regular Web browser plug-in and as a smartphone/tablet app.
  • Oh, duh: where to get it. Of course. You can get it here.

As I said, let’s just see how it goes. I’ll mention the whole thing on Facebook and Twitter, maybe even more than once, but have no “promotional” plans beyond that — word-of-mouth will carry it, or it won’t. And yes, I’ll report back on the whole thing. Sometime, haha.

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Magic, Good and Bad (2)

[Video: the first 2-1/2 minutes of the 2006 Hogfather mini-series]

A few weeks ago, a post here shared this one’s title. (At the time, I didn’t intend to do a follow-up, so the earlier one wasn’t numbered.) That post considered… well, the point of the fiction in fiction. If the underpinning of what happens in a story is “real” — the laws of physics and so on — then why make up any important details? (Other than special cases like keeping the material non-libelous, of course.) Writers invent not just names but entire casts of characters, family histories, geographies, historical events (both the core facts and the marginalia), languages…

And when you get into the fantasy and science-fiction genres — “speculative fiction,” as they say despite the tautology — well, even the laws of physics go out the window.* History gets re-written. Facts we know now are replaced by other facts we will know only in some particular version of the future. Things turn into other things (or seem to) just because someone waves in their direction with a hand, a wand of miraculous construction, or an infernal machine…

As I said in that first post, I didn’t intend to debate whether the use of impossibilities presented as commonplace was good or bad. I wasn’t trying to make a case for or against fantasy and/or science fiction. And the post drew substantial thoughtful comments from Froog and Marta (which I thought might happen, in both cases). I continued to think about the topic myself, too, since I hadn’t really drawn any conclusions.

And then the Christmas holiday drew near…

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Magic, Good and Bad

[Image: excerpt from a 1941 adventure of Mandrake the Magician, “The Adventure of the Striped Orchid.” Click to enlarge; if you’d like to read the whole thing, find it at the ilovecomix archive (free registration required).]

You don’t have to be particularly old to know of the Mandrake the Magician character and comic strip — which is still being published daily, although it first appeared in 1934. (Mandrake himself is widely regarded as the first costumed superhero.)

Mandrake is indeed a “magician,” in a loose sense of the term. More precisely, he’s an illusionist. For instance, in the above series, he didn’t actually make the “Uncle” character swell up like that; as the caption for the fourth panel says, Uncle just seemed to inflate. A key element of Mandrake’s mythology can be found in the word “gesture,” often modified with a form of the word “hypnotic.” Mandrake gestures hypnotically. Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture. And so on. The hypnotic spell takes effect immediately, presumably just because Mandrake knows exactly how to waggle his fingers and flip his wrist. Furthermore, the spell strikes only his selected targets and does not, well, explode omnidirectionally, like an anti-personnel weapon. As you can see here, the strip’s art at such a key moment takes the point of view of Mandrake’s hapless victim.

Oddly, though, Mandrake’s spells sometimes affect inanimate objects as well as people. Over there on the right, we have a cover from one of the Mandrake comic books (click to enlarge it); clearly, he has just gestured hypnotically in the direction of the jewel thieves — as a result of which, the thieves imagine themselves disoriented, spinning in mid-air.

…but the bag containing the jewelry is itself in mid-air, and it has sprung open, and the jewels themselves are spilling out.

What’s going on here? Has he hypnotized the jewels? Or has he somehow included an illusion of the open sack and the spilling jewels as part of the overall illusion? Either way, you have to admit, that’s a hell of a gesture.

While researching this post, I noticed something else a little off — namely, that Mandrake himself either gets caught up in the illusion (in the way that a woman wearing cologne can actually get a whiff of herself) or, again, somehow includes himself in the illusion just to make it complete.

At right, for example, another of the comic book covers highlights a moment when Mandrake has hypnotized a cowboy (or has he?) to picture himself, mounted on a horse, galloping across the roof of a house. But Mandrake (and his faithful companion Lothar) is looking up into the air. If the cowboy has simply been hypnotized, and is not actually galloping overhead, then what is Mandrake (and Lothar) looking up at?

(The horse, too, seems awfully panicky.)

Finally, if you really want to get picky: in order to hypnotize someone, Mandrake must be looking into his or her eyes. (Earlier in the “Striped Orchid” series, he must fight off a drugged Lothar — who has attacked him from behind and caught him in a death grip. Until Lothar releases one hand for a moment, allowing Mandrake to turn and look back at him… and pierce the druggy fog with a hypnotic gaze.) How has he hypnotized the cowboy in this case? the horse? Lothar? himself?

Thinking about the holes in Mandrake’s universe has been one small result of my having read a post over at Froog’s place, way back in October. I’ve been pondering that post ever since.

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Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

[Image: Big Top, a photograph (!) by user “*Trippy4U” at the deviantART site. More in the note
at the foot of this
(looooong) post.]

On the planet of Literature of the Fantastic (considered separately from its sister worlds, for horror and science fiction), you will find three major continents, inhabited (with a great deal of crossover) by generally three types of being.

You will find, for starters, the land of ancient and often supernatural beings: gods and lesser immortals of myth (dryads, cyclopes, and such); fairies, elves, pixies, and leprechauns; unicorns, dragons, and mermaids; any or all of the Four Horsemen (especially Death).

Across the ocean in one direction lies the land of latter-day heroics. (“Latter-day” refers to the time of this continent’s creation, although many of its denizens are centuries or even millennia of age.) Aside from humans, the most common inhabitants may be horses. Swords and other weapons are commonly brandished here, occasionally in the vicinity of immigrants and tourists from the first land, often in the direction of wild creatures invented specifically (because convenient) for the tale at hand: ents and orcs, sand worms, Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, blast-ended skrewts…

On the face of it, on the third continent we’d feel most at home. The populace here is all familiar to us, just from looking around at the (present or past) “real” world: donkeys and dogs and other domestic animals; lions and swans, friendly brontosauri; and, well, the people next door. But then we dig a little deeper and the “reality” drops away: the animals talk, not just among themselves but to us, they argue and scheme, some of them have jobs; and when we visit the people next door, we find them mixing potions in the kitchen, the surfaces of their bedroom furniture writhing with living ivy, their homes’ very walls sided not with vinyl or clapboard but with gingerbread and treacle.

Many of the Grimm “fairy” tales — which feature no fairies — fall into the latter category, and so do Aesop’s fables. Also here you’ll find whole shelves full of one-off, sui generis works with (nearly or in fact) no counterpart elsewhere.

And on one of those shelves, you’ll find Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

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Book Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

My full review of this book is up, over at The Book Book.

Part conventional murder mystery, part dark urban fantasy, The City & The City is constructed on a bizarre high concept which the author makes somehow believable: two Eastern European cities are not just neighbors, adjacent to each other; they’re even closer than that. They […wait a beat…] overlap.

Note that this departs from the parallel-universes or -dimensions premise employed in many science fiction and fantasy novels since the mid-20th century. Those other narratives generally suppose that the two places have completely different timelines, perhaps branching off from each other, so that events in one place have no direct impact on the other; people can move between dimensions only with difficulty, by way of some exotic technology or talent.

The people in The City & The City have no such weird abilities or devices. They’re just normal human beings. Physically, they can move from one city to the other just by stepping from one to the other.

The key word there: “physically.” For the two cities have developed legal and cultural barriers preventing crossover. They have different languages. They have different architectural and clothing styles, favor different color schemes. Their cuisines smell and taste different. (They even differ in their diplomatic relationships. One city is recognized by the US and Canada; the other, by Canada only. If you want to fly from the US to the latter, you must do so from some other country — like Canada.) From childhood, people learn to unsee the people and objects in the other city. They are forbidden to cross back and forth except at one location, a single otherwise conventional border crossing with gates and guards.

All of which has no bearing on the investigations and solutions of most crimes. But now, an American woman has been killed in City A, and the body found in City B…

When I started reading this book, I knew pretty much nothing about it. I’d seen comments on it on various blogs I read and respect; these comments praised it highly but never for specific reasons (other than with expressions like “blew my mind”). Even after I began reading, it took me a while to catch on — by Miéville’s design, I think. The body is discovered; the detective talks with eyewitnesses and colleagues, and collectively they start developing some theories. But then at the end of Chapter 1, a dozen or so pages in, I came to the following passage. The detective-narrator, in an idle moment, finds himself watching an elderly woman on a nearby street.

… In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.

That screeching sound, that crash you just heard? That was the echo of my collision with the word unnoticing. Even when I read back a few sentences, and then ahead — “should not have seen her”? “her foreign street” vs. “local GunterStrász”? — I was still confused as hell. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

And that, above all else, is what I want from a mystery.

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Book Review: Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

Here’s how I imagine it must have gone:

The woman went about her work calmly but with determination. Cupped in her hands before her, on the table, was a mysterious jewel; depending on the light in which and the angle from which viewed, sometimes the jewel glittered with color and sometimes seemed black enough to suck the air as well as the light from the room. The woman bent, and put her face over the jewel, and she breathed on it. As we watched, the jewel changed form, became a living, a visibly breathing creature.

It both made us clap, and scared the hell out of us…

The woman was Margo Lanagan; the jewel, the fairy tale of “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” And the creature? Oh my, the creature: Lanagan’s 2008 young-adult novel, Tender Morsels.

My review of this book is now online at The Book Book blog.

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(Under) Mining Your Dreams

[Image: “Good and Evil,” by Daniel Merriam. See the original, more clearly, at Merriam’s own site.]

From whiskey river’s commonplace book (“the pursuit of fantasy“):

Writing in the Dark

It’s not difficult.
Anyway, it’s necessary.

Wait till morning, and you’ll forget.
And who knows if morning will come.

Fumble for the light, and you’ll be
stark awake, but the vision
will be fading, slipping
out of reach.

You must have paper at hand,
a felt-tip pen, ballpoints don’t always flow,
pencil points tend to break. There’s nothing
shameful in that much prudence: those are our tools.

Never mind about crossing your t’s, dotting your i’s–
but take care not to cover
one word with the next. Practice will reveal
how one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other
to keep each line
clear of the next.

Keep writing in the dark:
a record of the night, or
words that pulled you from depths of unknowing,
words that flew through your mind, strange birds
crying their urgency with human voices,

or opened
as flowers of a tree that blooms
only once in a lifetime:

words that may have the power
to make the sun rise again.

(Denise Levertov [source])


Surely you remember

After they all leave,
I remain alone with the poems,
some poems of mine, some of others.
I prefer poems that others have written.
I remain quiet, and slowly
the knot in my throat dissolves.
I remain.

Sometimes I wish everyone would go away.
Maybe it’s nice, after all, to write poems.
You sit in your room and the walls grow taller.
Colors deepen.
A blue kerchief becomes a deep well.

You wish everyone would go away.
You don’t know what’s the matter with you.
Perhaps you’ll think of something.
Then it all passes, and you are pure crystal.

After that, love.
Narcissus was so much in love with himself.
Only a fool doesn’t understand
he loved the river, too.

You sit alone.
Your heart aches, but
won’t break.
The faded images wash away one by one.
Then the defects.
A sun sets at midnight. You remember
the dark flowers too.

You wish you were dead or alive or
somebody else.
Isn’t there a country you love? A word?
Surely you remember.

Only a fool lets the sun set when it likes.
It always drifts off too early
westward to the islands.

Sun and moon, winter and summer
will come to you,
infinite treasures.

(Dahlia Ravikovitch; translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch)

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After “The End”…

No, alas — not here to report anything like the conclusion of Seems to Fit. Just sharing a tidbit from the irrepressible xkcd webcomic. The first three panels of today’s contribution to the collective wisdom are above; click the image to see the final panel.

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