Friday, July 30, 2010

Gigantism's appeal, question of belonging

Continuing this series of why immensely large objects seem to especially resonate with me. It's certainly a topic that's been on my mind, as we saw the Giant Redwoods (and even the oil distilleries and other sprawling industrial locations), but that will tie in more next time. For this post...well, this one's a bit out there, but it was something that occurred to me a while ago. It requires a bit of an explanation.

In college I became obsessed with the movie Zoot Suit. "It was the secret fantasy of every vato..."


Zoot Suits were not only a chicano thing--they essentially cut across most minority groups at the time, the common tie being people who grew up in the US and so felt themselves a part of it (so usually not immigrants themselves, but children and grandchildren of immigrants, as well as grandchildren of slaves), but at the same time weren't completely accepted by the greater US society that they identified with.

So one analysis I came across in several articles tied zoot suits--as a typical aspect of US society taken to an exaggerated, oversized extreme--with low-riders, which do essentially the same but with cars instead of clothing. The theory was that in both cases, the zoot suit and the low-rider were ways of participating in the dominant culture and yet maintaining their distance by making them their own.

So the connection with writing... A few years ago, shortly after I'd begun my stories set in the impossibly tall trees of Boskrea, I recalled that analysis of zoot suits, and it occurred to me that I might be doing the same. I was essentially taking what otherwise has become a cliche of fantasy--people living in very tall trees--and exaggerating that to the point where it no longer felt cliche. At the time I was becoming aware of some writers that have become among my favorites, but because I wasn't spending much time online paying attention to the wide range of speculative fiction, I was basically tied to what my local library had on their shelves, which was a wide selection but definitely weighted toward the pop/commercial fantasies that were wearing thin for me. So I think I felt a sense of not fully belonging (though unlike the analysis of zoot suits and low-riders, it was by my own choice and tastes, not by the opinions of others, which I think is an important distinction), but fantasy and especially secondary world fantasy were still where I felt most at home in my reading.

So for me at the time, the Boskrea stories served as a way of identifying with the secondary-world fantasies that I'd loved so much, but also distancing myself from what was most prominently available. Whether this is an explanation I can generalize to the other forms of exaggerated gigantism or not, I'm skeptical, but I think it does play a partial role, at least, in what drew me to those stories.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

This week's Fantasy has "Perhaps This is Kushi's Story" by Swapna Kishore. What I liked about this one was the way the story within the story works, interesting in itself but also important for Kushi. Key to that was the end of the inner story where the Tribemother asks each girl to suggest how the story would go from there. The society within the story is certainly a strong part of its appeal as well, even though so little is spelled out in any detail.

Also worth mentioning this week is Yoon Ha Lee's "The Territorialist"...though to tell the truth I'm not completely sold on it. I love the sheer sense of imagination that's clear throughout, but I think this is one of those stories that would have benefited by being longer, more fleshed out. I hesitate to say that, because often when I come across comments along those lines, they seem to carry a sense of this-is-so-good-it-deserves-to-be-longer, as if longer itself were always better. Me, I like the concision and immediacy of a good short story. I love flash and even microfiction. But...while this story's imaginative society and complex tensions pulled me along, I felt lost for parts of it, and I think the ending would have been more affecting if I'd had more time to get to know Jershi, Wrack, and Armain, and if I'd had more time to understand what was at stake for this place and its people. But that criticism doesn't change the fact that it was an enjoyable read.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Back from our trip

It may not have been the most restful of vacations, but we've returned from our big road trip and are getting settled back in. We saw lots of cool things--the Earth does mountains in lots of different ways; Nevada is barren, even compared to Wyoming; the Great Salt Desert is weird and fascinating; the Giant Redwoods alone are worth the trip. That last one, of course, ties in to the gigantism series of posts...which I will be getting back in to shortly. I didn't do much actual writing while we were traveling, and it always takes a little while to get back into the swing of routine, but I've already gotten some good revising done since returning and looking forward to more writing-related things in the month ahead.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Vacation time

We're heading out early tomorrow (at least I hope it's still early-ish) to drive across mountains and desert and down to the ocean. So that will be my inspiration this week. Ocean, volcanic mudpots, mountains, and especially the giant redwoods. Less inspirational will be the extreme heat right until the last half hour or so, at which point the temperature will drop some 30-40 degrees.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Short Fiction...Thursday

Getting ready for a road trip here, so I haven't had a lot of time for blogging, but I just finished "The Isthmus Variation" by Kris Millering and loved it. It doesn't have the things I usually latch onto when I say I like a story--the setting isn't particularly distinct; the structure isn't experimental or innovative--but it's just a great story about treachery, intrigue, art (in the broadest sense...drama to be more precise), and story. The story is told by the player in a slowly unraveling form of drama, the Slow Game, which takes place over the course of an evening at what seems to be an innocent dinner party for the nobility. Really I'd have to say of all those I've been recommending here once a week all year, this is certainly among my favorites.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gigantism's appeal 1: something different

I'm going to start with the simplest explanation and move on to other reasons as I continue this series of posts. There's nothing intellectually deep about this one, but the simple fact that a setting where the characters live inside/within something vast is different from the more common medieval and classical settings found so often in fantasy...that appeals to me. Different isn't automatically a sign of greater literary merit or anything of the sort, but for me, being different is something I value in stories.

I'm a member of a few writing communities, and frequently the question comes up of whether an idea is over-used or something along those lines. The answer that generally comes back is that clichés become clichés because people respond to them, and that it's all in the execution. Good and useful answers for the most part...but at the same time there's a part of me that wants to say, "Yeah, but don't you want to branch out, discover something new, attempt something different?"

So even if it's not a reliable marker for a better story or greater merit, when I find something that has a different feel from things I've read before (not just in setting, though setting is what I'm talking about now), that's likely to catch my attention and make me want to read it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Gigantism

One of the things I enjoy about Mervyn Peake's Titus stories is the sheer Gothic size of Gormenghast Castle. The seemingly implausible way that the collection of buildings making up the castle becomes essentially an entire world for the people inside.

Another book I loved was Iain Banks's The Bridge, where the main character, while in a coma after a car accident, finds himself among a people who live in a bridge grown to such size that a single span of the bridge is basically a large neighborhood, if not an entire city, and no one knows where (or if) the bridge ends.

Tad Williams's Otherland series sends its characters through dozens of different (virtual) worlds, and I remember especially liking one where the whole world was a house, with different, societies claiming different wings or rooms.

I can think of short stories or novellas that are set in an endless, house-lined road; a house; a hedge; a factory; a web-lined chasm. For some reason these appeal to me greatly. Whether the story as a whole is completely successful or not, they stick with me.

In my own writing, I've found myself drawn to these kinds of extreme settings as well. A several-million-inhabitant city colonizing four implausibly giant trees. A post-apocalyptic playground where the playground equipment is impossibly big. A network of vines big enough to hold dozens of small villages and all the game and hunting space those villagers need. A wall so high no one has seen the land below or remembers what they're guarding or from whom.

The big-ness isn't used to the same effect in all of these stories, and I wouldn't want to create some sort of rigid term for this grouping, but what draws me, it seems, is this sense of the characters being very small in relation to the Big Object(s). (I've left it vague in my stories whether these things really are impossibly big, or whether the characters are actually incredibly small...but really it doesn't matter as long as the story remains within the confines of the imagined society.)

I've come up with a few reasons of why that seems to appeal to me, which I'll explore in some upcoming posts. Before that, if anyone knows of other stories that seem to play with the same size weirdness, let me know about them!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Bar Book Club

We had our reading group last night at Coopersmiths, discussing Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer.

Beer of choice: Wayfarer Copper Ale, which is a new one, as far as I can recall.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book. I went in thinking it would be a rather facile list of all the things about our society that grate on us. Something that might be entertaining for an article in a magazine but not at book length. Instead I found it to be a thought-provoking book, all about how the societal shifts of the past decades have left us much less connected to, well, anything we can really identify with, and how that lack of connection leads to so much that annoys and frustrates us (about politics, media, Hollywood). It's not, though, a nostalgic, everything-was-better-in-the-50s book, to be clear. Rather it's how earlier society (including the 50s) for all the negative things there might have been part of that mindset, provided certain tools for countering this kind of selfish self-hatred. So now that we've left those times behind and enjoy all kinds of freedoms that weren't possible then...what new ways can we find of countering that?

In the end Meyer ties it in, somewhat at least, with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I found to be a very powerful book when I read it seven or eight years ago. The narrator's sense of Quality as a philosophical value, which is pretty much the same thing Meyer calls Authenticity, is what we need to forge for ourselves through our choices and actions.

Anyway, I don't mean to rehash the full argument, but I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the book as much as I did, even if I didn't agree with everything he said. The discussion was good as well. Our next book is Faulkner's Light in August, which makes it the second Faulkner in about a year and a half. (There was some nashing of teeth on that count with someone who hadn't really appreciated Go Down Moses...)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

Samantha Henderson's "The Red Bride" is a darkly wonderful story. It reveals that grim undercurrent of the story slowly, beginning in what seems a simple bedtime story told by an enslaved alien nurse to her human ward. The setup allows for some bits about how stories translate from one culture and language (and species) to another, and just in general it feels very skillfully handled. Beautiful story.

I also just discovered that Subterranean Online published a Peter Beagle story set in the same locale as his Innkeeper's Song and Giant Bones books, "Return." I haven't had a chance to read it all yet, and to tell the truth, I remember little from the book, apart from the fact that I really liked it on many levels when I read it some 10 years ago (I think...). Well, that's not quite true--I remember a lot of little snippets, brief scenes, images, but the underlying story that ties them together is largely forgotten. Anyway, that's next on my list to read, and I'll recommend it without even having read it.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Inspiration

(now with a new monkey and inkpot logo...though I wouldn't claim the two images ended up combining seamlessly)

Last week we went up into the mountains, up through Rocky Mountain National Park. Beautiful views of the mountains, the patches of snow, elk. Watched a marmot waddle off among the trees. Saw a nice waterfall. Even if Trail Ridge Road isn't the most remote and wild of places within the park, I always find it inspiring or at least invigorating to be out in places like that.

The trip back down was impressive in part for the ominously growing clouds of smoke rising before us. We'd seen what looked like haze earlier in the morning, and with how the road twisted, I thought it was well to the west of our route, but we kept coming closer and closer. The edge of the smoke filtered the sunlight in a strange way, almost as if it made a rainbow of the shades from the color of salmon through various reds until it became brown. The turned out to be a little north and west of Estes, where we came out, in a remote area that was little threat to people, even as it grew over the next couple of days. They say it was lightning-started, so the kind of wildfire that's often best for the forest if you allow it to burn itself out, though they did decide to do some fire-fighting so that it didn't spread too far. Last I heard it was still smoldering (a week later) but contained or mostly contained.

Now we're getting ready for a trip to northern California in a few weeks, to the Giant Redwoods area, so I'm sure I'll have plenty more to inspire me as we travel.