Most Recent Most Commented Most Read

Posted by Matt | June 11th, 2011

As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. Part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).

The first time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a relationship, a household. When Marya Morevna, the youngest daughter of a bourgeois family in early-1900s St. Petersburg, sees a bird fall from a tree and turn into a man who knocks on the door and asks to marry the girl in the window, she feels that she has “seen the world naked,” discovered its secrets–even when the bird marries her oldest and most beautiful sister. After her two other sisters succumb to avian engagements of their own, Marya is primed for her own turn, one up on her sisters because “they did not know what their husbands really were. They were missing vital information. Marya saw right away that this made a tilted kind of marriage, and she wanted no part of that. [...] This was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.”

So Marya waits for her bird, secure in her knowledge of what is to come and thus paying only casual attention as the world changes around her: as Tsarist Russia falls, as Leninism turns to Stalinism, as her family’s house is redistributed among eleven other families. And thus, waiting for her bird, Marya is–despite her anticipatory readiness–quite unprepared when the suitor who shows up at the door is the demonic figure of Koschei the Deathless.

There are no treaties in their courtship: Koschei wages war on Marya, tempting her mind with knowledge of the secret world-behind-the-world she had only glimpsed before; tempting her senses with food and sex and luxury; seducing her with words, and with the abjection of surrender. And surrender she does, for a time. But as Marya becomes accustomed to Koschei’s world–to the magical living city of Buyan which Koschei the Deathless, as Tsar of Life, rules; to being a center of attention rather than a fourth daughter; to pain and pleasure both–surrender becomes not enough, not right for her. Koschei will sleep with her, shower her in luxury, but he will not marry her. Nor will he share the location of his death, which he has ripped from himself as a gambit in his endless war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. To facilitate the marriage, Marya must perform three impossible tasks for Kochei’s sister, Baba Yaga; to earn Koschei’s trust as his match, she must show herself to be as rapacious as he is himself, must realize her own power over him:

“If you want me, Koschei Bessmertny, tell me where your death is. Between us there must be no lies. To the world we may lie and go stalking with claws out, but not to each other. It is only fair: You know where my death is, at the point of your knife or between strangling fingers or in a glass of poison. Show me that you can rest in my hand like a chick, small and weak and knowing that I could crush you if I wished it, but that I will not, will never.”

And never she does; til death do they part, and beyond death–Koschei and Marya share surprisingly few pages in Deathless, yet those pages are ripe with the passion implicit in the nondenominational idea of marriage, of never and forever and til death.

But then, enter Ivan, and the world changes again.

There is always an Ivan in these tales. Marya has been told to expect him; has been told she must reject him; has been told she will not reject him. Always there is an Ivan, a human man who falls in love with Koschei’s bride, who saves her–in this case, from that endless, unwinnable war against Viy. Always Koschei’s bride falls in love with Ivan, too; always Ivan finds Koschei’s hidden death and kills the Deathless, again and again through history. Always, in Valente’s version of the tale, Koschei-who-cannot-die exacts his revenge by forcing his unfaithful love to labor in a factory full of unfaithful loves, producing soldier puppets for his war against Death. But these are modern times, revolutionary times in Russia, and Marya is not Koschei’s usual love. At the heart of the story is Marya’s attempt to find a third alternative, her exploration of ways to be true to both her monstrous love for Koschei and her mundane love for Ivan.

Not for the last time, Valente here uses fairly tale logic as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on. Love, for one, and representation, and the link between the two. Implicit in Deathless is the question of why people love each other, and the story’s answer is largely a matter of representation. Marya appears to love Koschei, to grossly oversimplify, because he represents the secret world she had wanted to be part of since childhood, a world she felt able to know and empowered to participate in fully; she loves Ivan because he represents what she might have been, if she had never seen the secret world, never lost her red scarf, never left Leningrad and been thrust into Koschei’s war against Viy. Koschei in his turn loves Marya because she has proven herself capable of seeing the secret world, and he desires to be seen–because she represents change, and after endless failed brides, he desires change, a participant rather than a supplicant. And Ivan loves Marya, one suspects, as a matter of conquest, as what securing one such as her for a wife would represent about himself. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, then.

These characters–Koschei and Baba Yaga and Ivan and Marya–are like Harlequin figures of Russian folktale, stock characters who in different combinations act out a variety of tales. An excellence of Deathless is how Valente manages to tell a thoroughly modern version of the “Death of Koschei the Deathless” folktale while staying true to these archetypes and to most of the core tale, yet satisfying best when these characters are seen as individual people beyond their archetypes. It is easy to generalize that each character wants a sense of normality, a sense that they fit into someone else’s narrative; harder is figuring out the best fit, which consumes Valente’s tale. It is easy to see Marya’s explorations with Koschei as explorations of dominance and submission, harder to affix labels onto the characters like “dominant” and “submissive,” “top” and “bottom.” It is easy to see the movement of the book as towards polyamory, harder to affix that label to the state of the character relationships at any point in the book. The relationships keep changing, as the characters keep learning. Valente tracks this through the series of names, titles, and endearments each character is given as the tale progresses–Marya becomes Masha becomes Mashenka becomes Morevna. And the result is that Marya in Deathless is like other Maryas, but also unique; and so with Ivan; and so with Koschei: and the tale works out as it does both because of their usual traits and because of their unique ones.

This register of storytelling, that melds a modern concept of serious psychological drama with a folktale-like circumscription of motivations and possibilities, is I suspect one of the more common bars to appreciating Valente’s work. Why would a character do X? and Why didn’t they just do Y? are questions that leap from the text; why is there so often a gap between how imaginatively Valente’s characters speak and how constrained they act? There’s the temptation to tally these questions up as just poor characterization, except that the same questions are often wondered of real people in real situations, real relationships. Valente’s storytelling register, the register used in Deathless, is a way of conceptualizing–if not necessarily understanding–these decisions. It is a register that I imagine speaks most to, or most of, people most aware of the weight of stories on their decisions, people who most feel the constraint of predefined roles upon their lives. Those most aware that there’s a difference between what they feel is true and what they’re told is true, between what they feel is right versus the actions they’re told should be right.

This doesn’t mean that the character story of Deathless is above criticism. Most notably, the unique story that follows from these particular characters seems at times to be fighting with a common narrative that Valente tends to impose on her revisionist tales: the foolish but stubborn male suitor whose attempts to heroically save his beloved, in accordance with the typical pattern of fairy tales, are at best unwelcome by, and at worst disastrous for, a woman who has learned to love monsters. This narrative appears in many of Valente’s recent novels–Habitation of the Blessed and Palimpsest and both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales, without even trying to be exhaustive–but its presence here feels problematic not merely for its expectedness. Valente is a very honest writer, and when her work presents a politicized idea for consideration–such as D/s and poly relationships here–she never shies away from portraying both the constructive and destructive possibilities inherent. What’s being advocated is not so much a single specific way of life, but rather an open-mindedness towards people’s right to discover what way of life works best for them. “No one should be judged for loving more than they ought,” as one character puts it. Marya’s journey in Deathless is very much a process of discovery of how much she can love, and how best to go about it. There’s a rather touching scene when Marya attempts to define her relationship with Ivan by following the same script of control that Koschei led her through, and it fails miserably. Marya and Ivan must write their own script, what works for one lover will not necessarily work for another: these are not matters of stock roles but of individual negotiations. And yet, this ideal of open-mindedness towards individual solutions feels compromised here by the presence of what, for readers of Valente’s work, is becoming just as much a fixed narrative as the one she’s trying to subvert. It becomes not so much an open-minded narrative as a narrative that exchanges a lack of place for one group with lack of place for another: for all the pages Ivan occupies, Valente doesn’t really seem sure what to do with him–his inclusion at the end of Deathless feels less than half-hearted–and yet she is reluctant to replace him with a better model of human male. The sense that Valente is stuck on the same revisionist narrative in these types of tales, and the limited options this narrative appears to give her characters, suggests that Deathless may itself be a demonstration of the very sort of entrapment by traditional roles that the novel otherwise speaks so successfully against.

Of course, what makes this so evident is the relationship between Marya and Koschei. Perhaps it is because Koschei is not a human male, that Valente is able to introduce a deep level of personality and urgency in his and Marya’s union that’s been rare in her depictions of relationships. Valente’s writing in past books could seem distant and impersonal, due to multiple points of view; could seem languorous, with elaborate layers of structure and long lists of bling. Here, the close focus on Marya makes the story feel more personal; here, minus a short prologue, the structure is straightforward. Here, the sentences are shorter and sharper. “Punishment doesn’t mean you aren’t loved. On the contrary. You can really only punish someone you love,” says Marya, as she begins to realize that those who would sleep with monsters must inevitably become monsters themselves. And that the question of power in a relationship is the question of who gets to define the relationship’s narrative.

* * *

Continue to part 2 of the review

Posted by Matt | March 16th, 2011

SF36 logoFebruary marked the 36th annual Boston SciFi Film Festival, and the first night of the SF36 was devoted to five recent short films under the program title “Dangerous Visions” (no connection to the famous 1967 anthology). I thought it might be worth examining these films briefly, to see what today’s “dangerous visions” were, and to capture something of the state of contemporary short film SF. Given how Neill Blomkamp’s short “Alive in Joburg” begot his big-budget feature film District 9, these may be directors to keep an eye on in the future. And a few of these films, at least, are very much worth watching in the present.

Some caveats. First, I am not a film critic. There will be cinematic areas and techniques–matters of directing, editing, cinematography, acting–that may be crucial to fully appreciating a film, but that I simply won’t recognize enough to comment on. I am writing this from the standpoint of a casual watcher of film but a more-than-casual consumer of science fiction, in the hope it might be useful primarily to a similar audience. Second, I should note that this review of one night’s program should not overly reflect on the SciFi Film Festival overall, which included ten days of other programming.

Finally, please also note that my presumption is that most people reading this will not easily have access to view these films, so I will be describing plots in detail, including “spoilers.” However, for “Planes de Futuro” and “Solita” I have included links to watch the films online; you may wish to do so before reading those sections below. Although, because these are such short films and each goes by so quickly, I think knowing what happens in them and why may lead to a greater appreciation of the films while watching them.

Time’s Up Eve

US, Patrick Rea (writer and director), Jon Niccum (writer)

Times Up, Eve poster imageWe open the film, and the Festival overall, with a black and white shot of the mean streets of a nameless city at night. A damsel in distress gives us voice-over as she runs, avec trench coat, away from shadowy pursuers. Yes, we’re on planet noir. As she runs, our protagonist Eve explains to us that she is one of the last humans left, that aliens have come to Earth to harvest our souls. Eve takes refuge in her office building, where she looks longingly at framed videos of her BFF and a boyfriend. There is a noise from below. She uncovers a peephole in the office floor, watches as her downstairs neighbor–a “dealer” who facilitated the harvesting of souls–is himself taken by the aliens. Then the noises move to the stairwell. Eve flees to the streets, only to encounter two shuffling human forms. They are (surprise!) the zombie-like husks of her best friend and her boyfriend, come wanting their souls back–because (surprise!surprise!) Eve, too, is a dealer in souls, who sold them both out to prolong her own freedom. She reveals that she has kept her boyfriend’s soul in a small box shaped like a treasure chest, rather than giving it to the aliens (no mention is made of the BFF’s soul). And rather than giving up her boyfriend’s soul to the aliens now, she tosses it into a sewer, leaving her former friend and her former boyfriend to hold her down as the aliens take her own soul. Time’s up, Eve. It’s not hard living without a soul, a slumped and inert Eve muses as the film ends, when you haven’t had one for a long time anyway.

Some of these individual elements are well done: Eve fleeing not to her home but to her office, and the related sense–if underdeveloped–that the aliens are simply doing a job as well; the tiny shining marbles of the souls, which are the only bit of color in the film. The storytelling is well-paced and, with a run time of only 12 minutes, economical. But while literalizing the idea of selling souls in this manner might have been a dangerous vision in 1950, today it feels not so much retro as dated, an extended setup for final lines that don’t cut as they once might have. And the film’s central image–a professional woman, a sexual woman (and indeed Eve, the proto-woman) as a soul-stealing but otherwise undeveloped character–makes an unfortunately apt introduction to this collection of short films, considering how often that image will be repeated.

Cosas Feas (“Nasty Stuff”)

Mexico, Isaac Ezban (writer and director)

Cosas Feas poster image“Cosas Feas,” for example, is a film not improved by its proximity to the misogyny of some of the other films. Kriko Krakinsky is a schoolboy in Mexico attending his first sexual education class. As the diagrams and descriptions offered by the teacher become more and more explicit, Kriko begins first to sweat, then to tremble, and finally he flees the classroom, to the mocking jeers of his classmates over his apparent embarrassment. When he returns home, however, we realize that something more than boyish embarrassment is afoot. His parents, and his older brother and accompanying girlfriend, all act in a parody of domestic tranquility. Random pictures and objects hang crookedly on the walls for decoration; Kriko’s mother cooks without having any idea what food should look like; the father reads non sequitur excerpts from the newspaper; the brother and his girlfriend scream and moan and shake from their upstairs bedroom all night long without sleep at all–and Kriko has been forbidden to disturb them. Meanwhile, clips of classic SF films of alien invasion play on the TV, and Kriko himself totes around a small planet on his keychain. When he asks his parents where they are from originally, they only reply that they’re from far away indeed. “Cosas Feas” announces loudly but cleverly just how knowing it is.

Which is important for what comes next: one night Kriko can no longer bear the thumps and screams from his brother’s room, and sneaks in. He encounters his brother performing oral sex on his girlfriend–except her vagina is a monstrous toothed-and-tentacled maw spewing green slime, H.R. Giger-like in its mix of insect and reptilian qualities. My first reaction was mortification: if the somewhat distant, off-camera fear of female sexuality present in “Time’s Up, Eve” wasn’t bad enough, here was SF’s oft-implicit fear of female sexuality made vividly explicit. The scene went on and on. I began to sweat, and then to tremble. I contemplated walking out, in protest and disgust–at both the visuals, and the message. And that’s when I realized (I can be kind of slow) that this was precisely Kriko’s reaction to the depiction of human sexuality at the start of the film. I realized that my reaction was precisely what filmmaker Isaac Ezban had hoped to evoke. Alien sex doesn’t mean scantily-clad blue-skinned humanoid aliens who fuck in exactly the same way humans do; alien sex means alien sex. This is science fiction in the sense of Kij Johnson’s “Spar,” or in the sense Peter Watts frequently deploys: that the human way isn’t necessarily the only way or even the best way, and that true aliens would be just as likely to find us disgusting as we so often find their portrayals.

Screengrab from Cosas Feas

In “Cosas Feas,” Kriko imagines what his older brother and his girlfriend are up to that causes so much noise to come from their bedroom at night.

On further consideration, if there’s anything truly wrong with “Cosas Feas” it is that it goes on for about five minutes too long after this point, leading up to Kriko’s own first mating ceremony. (Also, the quality of the print was iffy, and the subtitles often belated). On the other hand, the acting is all very well done in a necessarily over-the-top sort of way; and the close, somewhat fish-eyed cinematography very ably conveys the claustrophobic world of a solitary child aware he doesn’t quite fit in. In this way the film ably straddles the line between depiction of the truly alien, and more everyday human experiences of coexistence and assimilation–for youth into the world of adulthood, and for many “aliens” into new cultures. So: a true SF film that’s interesting and undeniably effective in retrospect, although not a lot of fun to sit through.

Zombie Radio

UK/Hong Kong, Lawrence Gray (writer and director)

The breezy tone of “Zombie Radio” made it a good respite after the visual and thematic assault of “Cosas Feas”; on the other hand, that very breeziness, and the film’s placement here between the night’s two most memorable shorts, combined to make it largely forgettable. But here’s what I remember: “Freak of the Week” Frank, a conspiracy nut and claimed alien abductee, is a frequent caller to a radio news and opinion show–a show hosted by a sultry woman who apparently rejected Frank when they were in school together. During one such call, Frank’s car collides with a bicyclist–ridden by another attractive woman–while he fumbles with the phone trying to report a Bigfoot sighting. He and the bicyclist make common cause and chase the Bigfoot together; later, she takes him to bed, calling into the radio show and taunting the host that she must be a heartless zombie for rejecting Frank. Later, however, when they find Bigfoot, she is lured away from Frank by Bigfoot’s gifts and his primal manliness. Frank, upset at this turn of events, breaks into the radio studio and beheads the host, revealing–when the head keeps talking–that she is in fact a zombie. Frank then commandeers the microphone, and starts reporting on the real conspiracies and catastrophes of the day: the economy; climate change; etc.

Trailer for “Zombie Radio”

“Zombie Radio” is amusing enough in its sense of the ironic truth that the worst fears of conspiracy theorists pale in comparison to the real disasters occurring in the world. I think it might work well as a Pixar (or Python)-esque prelude or bonus clip to a feature film like Shaun of the Dead–it has the same understated British humor, and the colorful cinematography and cast ably convey a world that’s just slightly larger than life, supersaturated. Bigfoot, for example, is portrayed simply as a very large, unselfconscious man: John Candy playing “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. This realism–exaggerated, but realism nonetheless–gives the film’s ending some extra bite. What pulls the film through to that ending is an ensemble cast that collectively delivers the best performance of any of these films.

Planes de Futuro (“Future Plans”)

Spain, Ivan A Solas (writer and director)
IMDB | Watch Online

Planes de Futuro poster imageThis is closer to what I hoped to see: a film where, I’d imagine, the limited budget dictated a focus on using qualities particular to film to generate interesting, economical storytelling. It has a storytelling technique that could only work in film. So we are again in black and white, although the setting here is a brighter, more airy bedroom. A young man, David, awakes from slumber, whereupon he’s startled by a somewhat older woman standing by the bed in a slinky black dress (here we go again). She reveals that she is Eva–and there’s that most SFnal name again–the girl who recently broke up with him, come from the future. But he does not believe her, and orders her from the room. And then we begin again with David awakening: this is a groundhog day story, facilitated by time travel. Eva must convince David that she is who she says she is, that something terrible will soon happen to him. And, with this terrible event unavoidably on the horizon, that she wants a child from him to remember him by. With each misstep, each unconvincing statement, she learns and adjusts her argument, and so the film is actually a very small set of lines and scenes repeated again and again. Not a film for the impatient: I heard some sighs from the audience as the film progressed and the repetitions piled up, although I myself thought the pacing well-judged and never grew bored. If the ending is not unexpected–a message of getting what you need, as opposed to getting what you thought you wanted–it is also not at all belabored, and well composed. The scene is bright, Eva’s slinky dress is gone, her hair is down, and the camerawork is evocative of the hazy, powerful state of half-conscious association, compared to the methodical quest for proof that had gone before.


US, Steven Fine (writer and director), Barrie Potter and Evan Puschak (writers)
IMDB | Watch Online

After the previous films I was all set for “Solita” to be a robot version of Lolita. That at least might have been dangerous. Instead, the film opens with the Argo, a spaceship on a mission of exploration, whose crew has been lost but for a sole surviving man, David Pierce. Attempting to complete the ship’s mission, David sends an odd farewell message to his brother, sets the warp drive, and dons the virtual reality goggles that the crew use to pass the time during long spaceflights. The ship is not heard from again. A salvage/rescue mission is eventually launched–the space tug Solita–which includes David’s brother, Robert Pierce. After turning down an invitation from Solita’s lovely navigator Marta to pass the time in warp together, Robert instead dons the VR goggles during warp, as his brother David had done, and somehow catches a glimpse of David inside the forested VR world. The rescue tug emerges from warp, they find the lost ship, and Robert discovers David dead, still wearing VR goggles. Solita arranges to tow the lost ship home, and on the warp back, our man Robert again dons the goggles; at the journey’s close, he is discovered dead, still wearing them. The lovely navigator sobs, throwing herself upon his inert body. Then we shift back to the VR world, where Robert at last meets up with David at the edge of a large body of water (see: SAIL AWAY), ready to begin their journey into whatever happens next, together.

Trailer for “Solita”

Of these five films, “Solita” feels closest to Hollywood-style science fiction. Along with “Cosas Feas,” it is the film that uses the most special effects–holographic computer interfaces, exterior shots of spaceships–wrapped around a not-terribly-scientific story that would feel several decades old were it to appear as written science fiction. In terms of popular awareness, however, it may be quite topical–as I write this, Time magazine’s cover story is on transhumanism, and a “robot opera” on the theme is set to begin a national run. What “Solita” does reasonably well, as a bridge to these concerns, is a more down-to-Earth twisting and mixing of the natural and the synthetic, in a way that does seem to be increasingly happening in today’s world. The scenes of the “real world” in the film are those that will appear to the audience most obviously unreal: the ship moving through space; the very spare scenes of the ship’s interior–chairs around a table, a lounge chair–which might be sets for a minimalist stage play. On the other hand, the “virtual reality world” is set around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s temple of the natural, with its dense woods, chirping birds, sandy beach, and water lapping the shoreline. Which would seem to be stacking the deck, except there’s also some brief dialog where Solita’s crew sit around the table eating synthetic goop, commenting on how much they prefer it to older real foods. And in another scene, Marta comments that she has trouble telling her sleeping dreams from VR.

That sounds suggestive, but there’s nothing particularly complex going on here, no nested realities. What there is, is honest human confusion and uncertainty. The result is a film that’s endearingly and engagingly conveyed, if not in an especially meaty way. “Solita” can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a film about an individual character’s personal choice, or the broader pattern of choice factors that exist in its world, and so ends up feeling a little spare from both angles, a little simplistic. Yet by intent or coincidence, “Solita” does describe a certain trajectory in popular thought about the future–away from space, and to matters of authenticity in self and place. It comes across as almost meta-commentary on SF itself. On one hand, the choice made is a rejection of traditional genre SF tropes; on the other hand, the chosen VR realm is in a sense SF itself, an artificial world of expanded possibility. In Robert’s choice there’s thus a sense that SF may capture some important element of human life that cold and empty depictions of reality, however sleekly futuristic, do not; but tempered by the awareness of the wish-fulfillment potential of that expanded possibility, the awareness that it’s describing something not really there and so may be delusion-inducing. Humanity, the sense seems to be, needs a home, whether imaginary or not. And as compared to many big-budget Hollywood treatments of virtual reality and transhumanism, which tend to be monster stories advocating knowing one’s place, “Solita” earns points by its refusal to moralize about its choice made, for capturing something of the appeal of both sides.

* * *

Trying to extrapolate trends and patterns from only five films is probably an exercise in trying too hard, but it is at least worth noting a few data points. In addition to being the only one of these science fiction films set in space, “Solita” is also the lone film set in the future (although “Planes de Futuro” does feature a character from the future). None of the films pass the Bechdel test; more of an issue is that there are no conversations between men and women that are not about sexual relationships, and there is only one woman whose character is not defined by her sexual pairing with a man (the exception is Eve’s best friend in “Time’s Up, Eve,” who of that film’s characters gets the least time on-screen). Unmarried sexual women–who seem to always be wearing black in these films–are portrayed at best as distractions; at worst they are soul-stealers. Quite possibly related to this, none of these films had women directors or writers. This may suggest that the limited number of women in Hollywood involved at a high level with SF films [edit 23 March 2011: as John Scalzi has picked up on] is unlikely to be bolstered by new blood any time soon, alas.

Given the “girl cooties” treatment of sexuality largely on display, it’s probably not surprising that ties of blood and the nuclear family are a frequent solace to the characters in these films. In “Solita” fraternal ties, and the chance to continue living life with an older brother, trump a possible romance. In “Cosas Feas” it is only Kriko’s family who are capable of looking out for him and providing him with what he needs. And in “Planes de Futuro” it is only when Eva sheds her image of seductress, and assumes the image and gestures of a mother caring for a young child, that she gains the inner peace she had sought.

So, science fiction as a genre for backward-looking mama’s boys, then? As a fan of SF I know this isn’t always the case, but I did have an uncomfortable sense of it, watching these films in succession. Given the frequent backward glances the films cast at science fiction’s history, what is scary to contemplate is that this “Dangerous Visions” suite of films on the Festival’s opening night was to be followed on the third night by a program of five more films collectively titled “Retro Speculatives.” I skipped it. I had expected a large, young crowd the opening Friday night of the Festival, what with media fandom being a big industry these days and Boston being the locus for so many colleges, high-tech companies, and increasingly for film-making and gaming companies. But after watching these short films, the sparsely-attended theater and the largely middle-aged attendees made more sense. This was a program that seemed designed for insiders, for people who wanted to belong to something, rather than for bringing in casual viewers who simply wanted to see intelligent and challenging films, and understood that such films would necessarily include science fiction. And yet some of these films can offer intelligence and challenge–although for me, only after I had mentally shaken off the associations between the films that the collective program had given me.

Posted by Matt | December 31st, 2010

Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree. Angry Robot 2010 (US & UK): paperback.

Somewhat belatedly, I should mention that my review of Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree has been published by Strange Horizons. When Kaaron Warren is writing, she tells us in an Author’s Notes section at the end of the book, she keeps a notebook of “threads,” ideas she wants to interweave throughout the text. In the Notes section she gives us several pages of such threads. In a small case of congruence, when I read a book for review I do something similar: I jot down the threads I’m seeing, the repeated or emphasized elements in the text that might be interesting to write about. So I thought here, since Warren shared with us some of her threads, I’d share some of mine that didn’t make it into the published review:

Warren as a writer known for horror short fiction, and many themes and images Warren has dealt with in her short fiction are clustered here around the Tree like a bleak Christmas–beach and bones, babies and blood, birds and masks of clay.

Basic premise is also reminiscent of horror films like Friday the 13th: young female camp councilors put on front of respectability, but really are eager for the kids to fall asleep so they can hook up with the men. Like those movies there’s the sporty one, the brainy one, the kind one, etc. Like those movies, one by one they drop out of the story. But here, often in a more positive (or at least neutral) way. Is Warren playing on expectations, of the story type and/or of her own reputation in horror fiction?

Although there is some of the usual horror movie plot logic used: bad things–death or rape or both–happen mainly (only?) when women make errors in judgment, typically due to overconfidence or insecurity.

Also feels a bit like a feminist take on the traditional male post-apocalyptic narrative: typically lone man leading single child or woman, here that image and its implications–generational, educational, species survival/reproductive–have been thoroughly domesticated.

Metatextual elements, the focus on stories. Each Order has a different origin story of the Tree. Most contain a seed of truth, none are wholly true. Also game of “telephone” Lillah and her brother invent. How stories get distorted by the passage of time and distance seems a recurring theme.

Selected past reviews at other venues:

Posted by Matt | December 31st, 2010

There is, to be clear, no such thing as the Encyclopedia Fantastika. I use the label because my models for these brief pieces are the wonderful “motif” entries in John Clute & John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and in Peter Nicholls and Clute’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

SAIL AWAY. At the conclusion of some fantasy stories, especially those with epic themes, a subset of the victorious heroes will sail away from the land of the tale, forever departing it. This image of sailing away, of leave-taking over water, is powerful because, in the best tradition of the fantastic, it unites a complex mesh of primal narrative themes, psychological metaphors, and actual cultural activities. In epic fantasies, centrally concerned with the restoration of rightness and health to a land afflicted by wrongness, heroic figures are typically bonded with the land. The land will reflect their moral advancement, and in turn their moral standing is a gauge of the land’s health. For the heroes to sail away displays that the land has been healed as much as it can be–that the hero’s work has been done. In this display, the instability of water marks an important contrast to the land. Merely walking away from a land can be an act of repudiation. But the contrast of a newly-stabilized land with water can suggest that something has been birthed, often a new nation or ordering of nations, based on a concept of rightful rule. And so, by association, a new hero. This hero’s sailing away is often a stately farewell, ceremonial–a sign that proper order has been restored to the land. This often marks another contrast, with what was often a panicked and unruly initial departure earlier in the story. Sailing is a potent symbol of mastering chaos.

On the other hand, there is more than a hint of death ritual in scenes of sailing away, as sending the dead away by boat, and/or a land of the dead reachable only by crossing water, figures in many world cultures–and is duplicated in such scenes as the Departure of Boromir. The departure of the hero necessarily results in a land lessened by their absence. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, this lessening is a literalized departure of what the heroes symbolize: that is, the departure, or death, of moral absolutes and certainty from the world. In this sense sailing away as a movement can be a deliberately anachronistic evocation of a time when sailing was a perilous to journey into the unknown and unmapped. This uncertainty is now our world writ large. Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, and in other epic works such as Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, the hero’s departure is connected to the departure of magic and possibility from the world. In these cases the departure has connective and explanatory content. It connects the fantasy world with our own, or one like our own, and explains the mundanity of our world. This has led some critics (cf China Miéville) to label this narrative of departure as consolatory, in that the modern world is presented as inherently imperfectable–and so discouraging of attempts at perfecting it. The hero has healed the land, but only imperfectly; and the land, in turn, is often unable to heal the hero: the hero has perhaps become too pure for the land to sustain. This disparity, that the hero must often leave the land and move on to some heaven-like realm to receive healing, sets ultimate limits on our ability to improve conditions in this world, and so is often conservative. And the associated element of sacrifice often makes it a movement utilized by Christian authors or authors steeped in Christian cultures. This can also be true of the sort of SF that can read like fantasy: each of Gene Wolfe’s Sun series, for example–New, Long, and Short–ends with a departure by ship. But in cases where heroes are offered a chance to sail away and refuse this opportunity–as do both Taran and Eilonwy in Alexander’s Prydain, or Raederle at the end of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy–there can be both a conservative sense of knowing one’s proper place, of quasi-Christian rejection of temptation, combined with an un-Christian groundedness in the land and affirmation of its vitality and the primacy of the relationships it offers. Ursula Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy cleverly mixed these possible endings: the commonly-told ending, the book’s narrator tells us, is that the hero Ged, having given up his magic, sailed away never to be heard from again; but, we are also told, others hold that he returned to the forests and mountains of his homeland, where we first encountered him.

The content of the movement of sailing away is not just metaphorical–the question “what would it be like to live in a world in which qualitative differences between lands were incarnate” can be evocative because many cultural stories of our world have historically represented lands in that fashion–America as a golden land of opportunity, for example. This can have negative consequences. Insofar as it is often an entire race that sails away (Tolkien’s elves, Alexander’s Sons of Don), this movement can be connected with notions of racial essentialism and can have colonial connotations. It can feel like attempts at justification: there is a pattern of a “superior” race sailing to a land, saving it from great evil, and then sailing away; and it is the rare fantasy in which those who remain are depicted as glad to see such drive-by saviours depart. It is also a movement generally rejecting of multicultural ideas, in that it tends to imply that there are separate, rightful places for different races and other groups. Exceptions–such as the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, who teach each other to love each other’s realms–are nearly always individual, and nearly always due to love. There can be a complexity to this movement, then, even in “classic” genre works often regarded as morally simple: the meaning can change depending on the scale examined, and so will be read differently by different readers at different times. And with these tropes established by the classics, more modern fantasies can–deliberately or not–offer larger subversions of the motif. In VanderMeer’s Finch, for example, the usual movements of departure are first revealed to be false, and then fail; and what is left, as the eponymous Finch observes by rickety rowboat, is a teeming mass of races and peoples with equally valid land claims now faced with the challenge of living together, however imperfectly.

If you have any good examples that I missed, or further thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments.

Posted by Matt | November 29th, 2010

Darin Bradley, Noise. Spectra 2010 (US): trade paperback.

My review of Darin Bradley’s debut novel Noise has been published by Strange Horizons. When I came to write this review, I had the notion to mention a few other books I had reviewed recently that shared some similar qualities. That’s when I realized that these books all had the same publisher, and, checking further, the same editor. I wrote the following paragraph. But it ended up not fitting into the review I went on to write, so I present it here, as an outtake.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Juliet Ulman had acquired Bradley’s book for Bantam Dell/Spectra, before her untimely downsizing. In several ways Noise is very characteristic of the late run of Ulman’s editorship that I’ve read–books like Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, and Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing. These works all feature excellent, refined prose; most include small but effective experiments with narrative structure; most can be read as speculative updatings of classic stories (Palimpsest of the Narnia-like portal fantasy, One for Sorrow as a speculative take on The Catcher in the Rye, elements of The Love We Share echo Sleeping Beauty, and Bradley’s Noise can read like an Americanized, post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies). And all these works chronicle the dissociation of America’s Generation Y, that generation’s–my generation’s–complex relationship to the classic narratives and myths embedded in our society at large and in the specific places we live, our fascination with secret knowledge, and our at-times scary susceptibility to more overt forms of story.

Selected past reviews at other venues: