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Friday, December 29, 2017

"Hunter Lake" by Gene Wolfe

First appeared in Gordon Van Gelder's F&SF. Reprinted by Stephen Jones. 
Mother (Susan) and daughter (Ettie) search for Hunter Lake, which is said to be haunted--whether because Native Americans tortured or were tortured is left unclear (see below). They travel down a scant trail to find their guide. They don't find him, but they do find the lake.

Their guide doesn't appear, but the water begins to rise. They've heard creepy stories about the lake being the hunter (although a hunter was also said to have found the lake), so Ettie runs, losing a loafer. The mother at first thinks it is a tidal phenomenon but catches her daughter's fear and flees behind her, with the lake in pursuit.

Tides can be a little creepy. (See video.) However, they can't chase someone dashing up a hillside. And this is a lake, not an ocean, which has a lot more water. Tides redistribute earth's water due to the gravitational pull of the moon. So water from other parts of the ocean are piling up on the near and far side of where the moon is.

They find a cabin that Susan initially takes as their own, but it is white clapboard, not log. Susan takes stuffing the cracks with clothes while Ettie decides to wake up from her dream.

It turns out Henrietta (Ettie?) has a daughter, Joan, who knows that her grandmother died from fluid in her lungs.

Some of the strangenesses of the tale:

  1. It was all a dream: Ettie/Henrietta wakes up. This is supposed to be a big narrative no-no. But it creates a somewhat interesting scenario. Ettie recognizes this is a dream early on. However, most of the logic seems fairly straight-forward except for the lake. That Ettie recognizes this is a dream but Susan does not, seems like it should be important. However, it is hard to say what exactly that means. Does Susan have a flawed personality that Ettie does not? The text doesn't really support a strong case although maybe Ettie has a stronger dose of reality. But isn't it Ettie that creates the fear of the lake in the first place?
  2. Dual POV: This allows us to inhabit both consciousnesses--Susan and Ettie. This is possible through the dream. Is it necessary? It does allow us to examine and compare each POV. Clearly, Ettie's is the preferred perspective since she is the survivor. Yet Susan seems to be the cooler and more reasoning head. Somehow she never see this is a dream. Should Ettie have stuck around to convince Susan to wake up? Or maybe it is only Ettie's dream, so that only she can wake up. If the latter, why pick a Dual POV? Maybe it is just for contrivance to create an old-fashioned flavor.
  3. Present-day dream leaps into the future: The main body of the story feels contemporary to its writing, discussing internet and rabbit-ear TV being outdated. But what we thought was the present day becomes a dream of a distant past--presumably at least twenty years into the future where Henrietta has a daughter of her own. Henrietta is rather old-fashioned name to begin with. By 1970, it had fallen out of the top 1000. (By 1956, the top 500; its heyday seeming to be from the 1900s through the 1920s.) So even the name juxtaposed against the internet makes the story have a dreamlike or asynchronous reality.
  4. Is this supernatural or science fiction?: One might assume this is a tale of horror/fantasy, but it was included in Wolfe's science fiction collection. Was he just toying with us? Or is the lake a reality, an alien visitor? If so, how did Ettie manage to survive? Why did it select to kill Susan and not Ettie?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Gene Wolfe's Mathoms from the Time Closet: Robot's Story, Against the Lafayette Escadrille, Loco Parentis

First appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. "Against the Lafayette Escadrille" was up for Nebula award. Reprinted by Algis Budrys, Charles G. Waugh, Martin Harry Greenberg, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer. 

"Robot's Story": Robot escapes one fate in order to tell a story that mirrors the predicament he fled.

"Against the Lafayette Escadrille": A man builds as near a replica of the Fokker triplane as he can. When he flies, he spies an unusual hot-air balloon.

"Loco Parentis": Told in dialogue format, the story-play treats parents who aren't sure about the humanity of the children they are rearing.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom." In other words, it would seem that Wolfe did not initially value these pieces. He liked enough that he submitted them but never reprinted the two that weren't award-nominated. Two involve changes of perspective while the centerpiece, the award-nominee, evokes an emotional mood. Yet I suspect it derives some of its power being proximity to the other examinations of time.

"Robot's Story": Syntactically, the story is strange. There are two outsides, it says, but one is more sheltered than the other. This suggests at least two things. 1) One is always on the outside with these people. 2) It is as cold outside as with these people.

In the next paragraph, the sentence constructions open with three sets of "The kids are": 1) "the older ones" (which is multiply strange: A) that the younger ones are generally called kids and B) that we don't know exactly what a "one" is); 2) "the younger ones" (while this makes more sense--we expect the younger ones to be kids--we've already been pushed off balance, and if the older and younger ones are kids, what's left? Moreover, are they older or younger in comparison to what? Each other? the narrator? Robot?); 3) "Robot" which is strange because we expect the plural subject to be linked to singular noun. But not always. Perhaps, if we were to cut the Gordian knot, the construction makes all of them equivalent or the same person or persons. Or maybe everyone is a kid, compared to the narrator. However, the narrative doesn't create certainties.

What is clear is that the narrator considers Robot to be a living, young man or "kid" of nineteen, perhaps of this age. Robot considers himself to be a machine of five years from the future. The narrator likes Robot. He is the most useful (fixes plumbing), the least hostile, and interesting compared to the other kids.  The narrator says that Robot can be depressed, which wouldn't fit most of our ideas of what a robot is. However, this may be explained by Robot's sentence "I don't know how good I was made." This could be bad grammar, indicating poor craftsmanship that allowed poor grammar and possible depression (after all, only the narrator says the kid is depressed). Or maybe he is grammatically correct and means that he doesn't know how much good is inside him. Since he works for the others, we can suspect he was made with a lot of good.

Robot has a fondness for the 13th century B.C. This may allude to the story of the fourteen young men and women who were fed to the Minotaur until Theseus arrived. In other words, he may have a fondness for stories about the sacrifice of young people, which he seems to be a victim as well.

Robot says he is programmed to tell stories and waits to be told that he can, which the narrator seems to accept by saying the magic words that allow Robot to talk about a human man from a single-man scout ship (Robot compares these ships to sperm) who serves a woman who would only accept his company if he did all the work. So the man agrees. She stays young, which he doesn't mind since he gets to look at her. However, she leaves him as soon as another "fool" or scout-ship comes along.

When Robot finishes, the kids make Robot go out and get marijuana for them. The narrator says he thought about giving Robot his coat, but waits too long. They all fall sleep while they wait for Robot's return. Robot, then, is doing exactly what his story said. Perhaps he knows or does not yet know. He says he served "an ugly woman" from the 33rd century, only to serve these "ugly" people from (presumably) the present or near future. The narrator seems to have kindness lurking within him but doesn't act on it.

"Against the Lafayette Escadrille": This story seem fairly simple. A (then) present-day man builds a WWI airplane replica, flies, and falls for a woman from the American Civil War, having seen her in a hot-air balloon made out of dresses. He keeps taking the plane up to find her again but cannot.

Complicating the story is figuring out the story's timeline and the idea of "dope." When is he from? When is she from? Perhaps this would have been easier if read when the story came out. The story says that men from WWI walked around with canes, which people may have seen in the sixties and seventies, so it may have been contemporary. However, the narrator says he tried...
"to convey with my wave that none of the men of my command would ever be allowed to harm her; that we had at first thought that her craft might be a French or Italian observation balloon, but that for the future she need fear no gun in the service of the Kaiser's Flugzeugmeisterei." 
Suddenly, he is convinced his replica is the real thing and that he commands planes in a WWI Germany (despite having been in the U.S. earlier, or at least having ordered parts from around the U.S.). If he is hallucinating (and the title also suggests this--or maybe he hallucinated building a replica although that seems less likely), is she even really from the Civil War? If she were from the Civil War, could she learn all he was trying to say from a wave?

When we compare these two stories, side by side, it is hard not to read into the term dope. Here, the term refers to material used to tighten a plane's covering, making planes air-tight and weatherproof. The previous story ends on marijuana. The narrator here distinguishes between flammable and inflammable types of dope.

Also in both, we have protagonists unmoored from their time. They seem confused about when they belong. As Wolfe writes in the first story, "This... was to prevent his whenabouts... becoming known." Later, that same narrator interjects in the middle of the Robot's tale, "(I wondered if the 'grass' in the story was an unconscious reflection of the kids' obsession with marijuana; or if for Robot as for Whitman it represented the obliterations of time.)"

Apparently, the two ideas are tied together.

Curiously, the story appeared in an anthology called Space Dogfights, although it doesn't take place in space or have a dogfight in it. It also appeared in a major time-traveling anthology although there may or may not be any time-traveling in it.

"Loco Parentis": The final tale twists the idea of who is real, who fake. The parents wonder if the children they are rearing are apes or machines, but it turns out the parents may be the unreal ones. Or maybe both.

The title refers to the legal Latin phrase "In Loco Parentis" which refers to "in the place of a parent" where either an educational institution acts on the kid's behalf (positively or negatively) or a kid is raised by non-biological parents. "Loco" also means crazy, so crazy parents.

The crazy stuff regarding time here is how fast the kids grow. What sounds like a conversation about whom a kid can play with (pre-teen) switches to whom a kid can date (mid to late teens), and the kid strikes out on his own. The kid returns saying they aren't his parents and maybe they are the ones who are apes or machines. However, the story doesn't end there. The parents don't mourn but immediately coo over a new child who is eating a banana, suggesting that maybe all of them are a little crazy, a little animal, a little machine.

Time is distorted for the characters in all of the stories. I have tried to read the group title not as a dismissal of the stories but as blanket for all three stories and haven't yet come up with a satisfactory tool to do so.

What it does seem to capture as a group is the unmooring of a generation, not only from time, but also from who they are as people, from each other, and from previous generations. The stories may not be well served parted from each other.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Westworld (1973 movie)

The Western grew up with the film industry up until the mid 1970s. Some claim Robert Altman's 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller killed the Western. The long-running The Virginian did end that year. But the steady diet of Old West movies continued to appear. In 1973, the year Bonanza died (two years before the end of Gunsmoke), Michael Crichton's Westworld appeared.

Westworld opens with an advertisement for the Delos amusement park, Westworld. For a thousand dollars a day, you can visit an amusement park where you can live out various pasts (Old West, Rome, and Medieval Europe). An announcer interviews attendees as they disembark from a plane.

We are presented our protagonists, John Blane [James Brolin] who is a veteran of the park and Peter Martin [Richard Benjamin] who is giddy as a child at the prospect of shooting guns, drinking booze, barroom brawling, and visiting prostitutes.

Meanwhile, behind the computers and monitors, scientists and programmers adjust settings to ensure the vacationers are having a good time. However, glitches are appearing in the system, machines and robots malfunctioning in small ways. One scientist suggests it's like a contagion spreading through the system. (First hint at a computer virus?). John gets bit by a rattlesnake even though that isn't supposed to happen.

Commentary with Spoilers:
After a night of drinking and brawling John and Peter stumble out of the saloon, hungover, to encounter Yul Brenner's robot character, whom Peter has killed twice already. When John tries to kill the robot, he is shot and killed instead, and Peter flees. The robot, with recently heightened senses, pursues. After Peter ducks into the Delos laboratories and the robot follows, he uses acid to blind the robot. The robot apparently still has hearing and infrared sensors, but medieval torches confuse his detection of Peter, which Peter discovers and uses to his advantage.

Crichton spends a great deal of time developing the science behind the piece. Could the story have been developed without introducing the behind-the-scenes looks? Possibly. It is a story of science gone awry, but it is also a story of the triumph of science over its failures. This almost feels like overkill. But a few critical moments do require it: 1) The revelation of the robot virus (and that the robots have left human-operated computer control), 2) the revelation of how to maim the robot and 3) the denouement where Peter destroys the murdering cowboy bot.

According to Brian Tallerico at Vulture, Crichton is said to have thought the tale preached against corporate greed since the scientists choose to keep the simulations running despite evidence that things were falling apart. Maybe that appears, but more of the film develops the idea behind John Blane's comment, "It's authentic, the way it really was." Sort of. It's more of what the movies told us what the Old West was. Crichton himself said that he threw in the cliches--taunts and gun fights, dallies with prostitutes, prison escape, and a barroom fight. The cliches exist without the support of a narrative, which makes them stand out as bald Western cliches.

We have two ways to view these cliches: A) a critique of the Western genre, B) a critique of the idea we can visit the Old West through movies (or vacations to where famous events took place) as it was more dangerous than we imagine. It is hard to lean toward one interpretation or the other. Reinforcing option A is Yul Brenner, who reprises his Magnificent Seven character--at least down to the costume, if not the character. The Western hero from a classic Western becomes the villain in science fictional world. Meanwhile, reinforcing B, the movie ends with an voice-over echo about this being a vacation.

My main problem with the film is that it doesn't develop narratives for the vacationers. This probably keeps the film simple and from growing too long. Also, if it is a critique of the Western genre, the cliches would not stand out as starkly. The ending, too, is not as strong as it might have been. Perhaps this idea could have been supported elsewhere in the story to make it truly potent.

My hypothesis about what killed the popularity of the Old West: its survivors. People who might have been alive during the frontier days were aging and dying off. People probably felt a tangible if vicarious connection to the West through those who had lived it. But they would have been dying off. We have a connection to our parents and grandparents, but after that our interest dwindles.

For some, the Western still hasn't died. They might have known someone from that era, plus it was a childhood staple of their recommended daily allowance. They like the simple and clear morality, a tough land that repays hard work, the breaking and restoration of law and order.

For some, they still live in the West. They ranch, they farm, they hunt, they work the land, they ride horses and drive cattle. They still feel a kinship for America's past.

For others, who believe the Old West only represents exploitation, they've been cheering each death knell. However, the Western does keep rearing its head after each proclamation of its death.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Outerscope I (episodes 5-11)

Welcome to Sani-land, where scrub brushes, mops, sponges, soap, and scissors clean and polish all the time. They conclude the Outerscope kids dirty.

The scene begins promising enough: white stone and a surreal black and white tile path. They are surrounded by cleaning utensils--the scissors presenting the only menace, though--and herded toward the King and Queen of Sani-land. The King and Queen are duds, though. They flatten the estrangement into something banal. But maybe cleanliness is an issue that troubles kids when they feel they are clean. Moreover, there's the racial epithet of being dirty if not one of their kind. It does have resonance. However, they kill whatever ambiance it's built by singing, accompanied by shrill pipes. Edit that out.

When they exit Sani-land they have a brow-beating discussion that the viewer can guess. Cut? They do bring up the idea that space is like a dream, returning to the idea that their journey is not one of reality but of imagination.

Next we enter Technovek, a land of living machines (living?) with a Papavek, Mamavek, and Babyvek. They seem a bit arrogant about their intelligence while the kids seem to have prejudices/preconceptions to overcome. The kids get directions back home, but don't trust them, so they're going to go in the opposite direction. They are rather odd directions, requiring loops--maybe they're celestial slingshots, but if so, you can't simply reverse them.

The repetition was no doubt necessary for the episodic series since there may have been time between viewing episodes when they first appeared, but now it is tedious. There's a smidgen of charm in the "To be continued" and the recaps, but they are too frequent and exhausting to watch in one sitting. Plus, even within an episode there's unnecessary reinforcement of ideas--maybe in an effort to make sure each kid had something to say and pound home the lesson to be learned.

At this point, the show has something to offer, but it is labored perhaps under the limitations of its original format. When viewing individual episodes, they capture some of home-spun wonder that I recalled. But the repetition bogs it down. Can the show be edited into something worthwhile?

One might argue that it's a kid show, but does that mean it can't be done a little more artfully? Education does require repetition, but 1) the educational value is only in its education of cohesive social values among so many varieties of people, and 2) making it watchable will make people want to watch it once and maybe again.

Time to put this show on pause.






# 10

# 11

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Outerscope I (series continued and reviewed--episodes 2-4)

I have to admit that these need serious editing. One gets the feeling that the writers were either uncertain where the story was headed or they wanted to streeeetch out the moments they thought were wonderful. Still with careful splicing (jettisoning up to half) and perhaps even cheap CGI, this series could be cool.

Cynthia comes up with the bright idea of using yeast, (which raises dough, right? so why not a spaceship?) to lift their scrapyard craft. She questions whether this is imagination or reality they were dealing with. The older kids treat everything matter-of-fact. Still there are moments of steering in space with bicycle handle bars (with what rudder? against what medium?) or getting the ship off earth, for that matter, (ethanol won't cut it as it is 644 times more dense than air) that makes the reality of what they're doing an intriguing question. If it is eventually addressed, then maybe the series has some small heft.

Other intriguing aspects of the series--then and now--include 1) the fragility of their craft, so rickety, cobbled together with scrap boards, hope, and imagination and 2) the nagging desire of going home, if they ever can.

Why CGI? Part of the charm of these is the awful special effects, much as early Doctor Who episodes relied on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. But staring into space to see white blobby stars is not quite as enthralling as they seem to believe. Maybe it can be done on the cheap. You don't want to lose the obvious green-screen effect here.





Every now and again, I hunt down this old educational series that piqued my imagination: Outerscope. Kids--er, small puppets with largely frozen expressions juxtaposed against adult human hands that move with human grace--build a clubhouse out of scraps and go flying off to other worlds. The episodes came in tantalizing bits--tasty morsels but you'd never get any closure. Did they ever get to where they were going? Where did they escape? Will they ever get home? Was it as good as my memory said? Why did I like it?

In the past, I haunted Youtube and Amazon for the collected episodes with no success. It came up again, and this time I found the first episode, and yes, I enjoyed it as much as I did as a kid.

Nick Sagan and others have called it creepy. The puppets are somewhat lifelike, somewhat not, so maybe a little creepy, but you just have to use your imagination, suspend disbelief as you did when you were a child. Even then, I didn't believe they could survive in space with what little they had, but that they did anyway stimulated the gray cells.

Finally, here is the first episode, cued up for you:

I'll see if I can hunt others down.

Here are Nick Sagan's comments on the show:
"[M]ost disturbing of all: the "Outerscope" segments. "Outerscope" was a serialized puppet show about a multicultural group of kids who turn their clubhouse (or maybe just a bunch of old junk) into a rocketship and explore the universe with it. They meet aliens, have all kinds of adventures, and along the way they learn lessons about tolerance, friendship, etc. Not a bad premise for a kids' show. Just two problems with the idea. 
"First, the puppet children were incredible creepy. They had a certain "dead mannequin" quality, with weird, oversized hands. "Man hands" some might say. 
"Second problem: These segments are frightening just in their tone. Again, imagine you're six years old. You watch these dead-eyed big-handed (but otherwise likeable) puppet kids fly off into outer space and get lost. They try to get home, but each episode they just get further and further away. Everything goes wrong, one puppet kid sadly looks at the other and says, "I guess we're never going home." End of episode. Sleep tight, kids. 
"Vegetable Soup scared me silly when I saw it, and yet I couldn't turn away. Why did I keep watching it? And why do I remember it fondly today, nightmarishly weird though it was?"

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Weird Wishes: An Essay Series by Daniel Braum

Editor's Note: Dan and I have been writer buddies since we met at Clarion in 2002. He is a fine writer with a verve for strange imaginings. Our tastes converge on all of the writers he discusses here--Tim Powers, Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Ray Bradbury--but that does not prevent me from being critical. Here, for example, while Dan discusses setting, I suspect the success of these writers has just as much to do with an elusive quality of voice as setting. He is correct: These writers do pour themselves into their worlds... but also their words--the way they are told. What do you think? What accounts for the power of these tales? Character, plot, setting, or voice?

Weird Wishes

“Where we had thought to be all alone we shall be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell

Welcome to weird wishes. This is the first in a series of essays on strange tales, weird fiction, and supernatural fiction I’ve been putting together in connection with my second short story collection. The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic by Independent Legions Publishing.

This first essay is called “Night Marches and Weird Wishes- my journey into strange fiction.” I talk about my experiences creating the book, learning about weird fiction, and one of my favorite topics, setting.

The quote by Joseph Campbell comes to mind writing this and revisiting my “Night Time Logic” written over one year ago for Shane Keene’s Shotgun Logic blog. Here is the link

I wrote the stories in The Night Marchers and the essay in what I now think of as a "weird fiction vacuum.” At the time, I knew little about the history of and the authors comprising the weird fiction genre. This past year following the publication of both the book and the essay has been a delight of learning, exploring, and discovering so many new-to-me writers and stories.

Being a new comer to something long-established has proven to be both an overwhelming and exciting experience. There are so many essential and classic authors I have never read and so many I am just "discovering." The well is deep. And weird fiction is going strong. It has been said we are in a weird-fiction renaissance. Judging from the many exciting emerging authors and publishers and the quality and breadth of the work they are producing I find it hard to disagree.

So where I had thought I was all alone, writing the stories in The Night Marchers, little did I know I really “was with all the world”- or at least with writers, readers, artists, editors, publishers, and academics fueling a phenomenon. The exciting part of this journey of education and exploration is the learning and sharing. I have a lot of gratitude to the authors and professionals (such as my Cemetery Dance editor Norman Prentiss just to name one) who have shared their knowledge, passion, and experience without ego or judgement. After writing and publishing for over a decade and a half I was very grateful to serendipitously learn that there was a “place” in a bigger picture where my work fit in. While following my own writing path I was contributing to and part of a greater whole all along.

Another exciting part of this experience was that my second short story collection The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions, July 2017) came out quickly on the heels of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance, May 2016). All of The Wish Mechanics stories were written from 2002 to 2016 at the same time and right along with the stories comprising The Night MarchersThe Wish Mechanics was a book that revealed itself when Norman Prentiss and I were choosing the table of contents for The Night Marchers. I quickly realized I was working with at least two books of material. The core of The Wish Mechanics came together when I saw thematic and other similarities in the stories I had ruled out for The Night Marchers. While these stories were ruled out for the simple reason that they didn't feel right for a Cemetery Dance release; when I thought about them more carefully I noticed that the stories had what we might commonly think of as the Science Fiction and Fantasy elements in the forefront.

Both books contain stories that operate on night time logic and stories of supernatural and literary horror. The Wish Mechanics departs into different terrain than The Night Marchers with stories that steer into areas often reserved for or thought of as science fiction and fantasy. An example of this kind of story is my short story "Sumo 21." (This story is slated for a future project and does not appear in either book) You can read listen to it here at for free at Escape Pod.

While it was originally published in a science fiction and fantasy publication the story also has elements that can be said to be hallmarks of weird fiction and cosmic horror. I mention "Sumo 21" as it illustrates a kind of story found in The Wish Mechanics without spoiling any of those found in the book. Instead of listing the table of contents of The Wish Mechanics  and the different kinds of stories I’ll preview the topics of the forthcoming essays I am working on, the topics of which give a good idea of the terrain the stories in the book traverse:

  • How does weird fiction intersect and interact with other genres? A look at weird fiction through the lens of noir, magic realism, science fiction, fantasy and horror. When does genre transcend genre?

  • The shape of fear and wonder. What are common expectations and structures for a horror story? An examination of stories that subvert and play with expectations.
  • Alternate worlds. A history and analysis of stories where characters cross from one “world” to another.

  • Fairy tales and modern myths. A history of the fairy tale and mythological story. What are these stories made of? How do they use and transcend genre?

  • The ghost story. Why do we love them and why do they work? What are the outer limits, if any, on what constitutes one?

  • The weird monster. A case study. Vampires. Can a classic monster be “weird”? Why do we love or hate them? A history of depictions, tropes, and transformation of the vampire. 

  • The weird monster. Cryptids: A case study. An examination of the fact and fiction of crytpozoology. An examination of the use of crytpids as monsters in supernatural and weird fiction.

  • Music as magic. Magic as transformation. A history and analysis of stories where music is essential to or is the speculative element.

It makes a certain kind of sense to me that the subject of this first essay is setting because setting is often the starting point of my creative process of writing a short story.

While I’m not sure why I often start with setting, I could write tons exploring the subject.  What is much clearer to me are the authors and stories that inspired me early on, those who inspire me now, and how I perceive their use of setting. Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Robert Aickman, Ernest Hemmingway, Lee Thomas, Sarah Langan, James Tiptree Jr., and Ray Bradbury come to mind.

I’ve written and published over forty short stories and spent years studying and thinking about dramatic structure. As time passes it becomes harder for me to perceive setting as a unique and separate element from the other essential elements of story. One way to “look at” story is to consider character, conflict, and setting. We’ve all seen countless iterations of this approach. Often the focus is on character and or conflict. ‘Conflict drives character’, ‘Conflict equals plot,’ ‘Drama consists of dynamic characters, obstacles, and change,’ are common discussions.

One of my approaches to story is to create with setting as an initial and essential part of the framework. The setting-centric stories I have read, for lack of a better term, deliver a special verisimilitude that creates the magical and immersive experience I crave as a reader and are what I am interested in writing. I notice stories that fail to deliver a character and conflict grounded in and connected to a setting cause stories to fail or fall short in my opinion. Stories that excite me and transport me often have a character and conflict born from setting. I’ll present a few stories to illustrate and explore this notion.

“Because Our Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee’s deep catalog of work features settings ranging from fantastic worlds born of her imagination to beautiful evocations of earthly locations. Her short story “Because Our Skins Are Finer” first published in the Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983 and reprinted her Arkham House collection Dreams of Dark and Light in 1986 features a setting that was far away and exotic to my teen-aged self when I first encountered it in a suburban library in the United States.

One of the things setting can do is provide a “kind of” access to places a reader has not encountered. This reading-as-a-way-to-experience-the-far-away-and-the-wider-world was very likely in play and a large part of the appeal to me when I first read it. Now as an adult and as a student (and want-to-be-teacher) of fiction this aspect operates as a gateway or a first layer analysis of setting and story.

Although the story’s setting is a real world one and the “monster” is one closely associated with that place in folklore and fiction, I knew of neither when I first read it. To me the setting was as wild and inventive as her secondary world work and as far as I knew, a fictional place. Have a look at the opening paragraph:

“In the early winter, when the seas are strong, the gray seals come ashore among the islands. Their coats are like the dull silver in the cold sunlight, and for these coats of theirs men kill them. It has always been so, one way and another. There were knives and clubs, now there are the guns, too. A man with his own gun and his own boat does well from the seals, and such a man was Huss Hullas. A grim and taciturn fellow he was, with no kin, and no kindness, living alone in his sea-gray croft on the sea rim of Dula under the dark old hill. Huss Hullas had killed in his time maybe three hundred seals, and then, between one day and the next, he would not go sealing anymore, not for money and surely not for love.”

This paragraph and the story that follows is an excellent illustration of the notion of a character and a conflict born from setting. Both the character and conflict are almost inextricable from the setting we are given in this paragraph. I imagine the story fails or becomes very different if attempted in a different place. I have heard Tanith Lee’s creative process was very organic and her stories are born from instinct or almost channeled as opposed to a “pre-planned” or “thought-out” or analytical approach. Intent and method matter little when the result is successful. I mention her organic approach to place it in contrast to the analytical eye with which I am dissecting the story and the notion of setting. Whatever her approach, the resulting story illustrates the kind of setting-centric story I am exploring.  My initial reaction to the story was visceral. What has stayed with me for all the years since is the visceral connection and belief in the emotional reality. Without knowing the name of the setting or whether it was real or not Tanith Lee (and the setting she chose) achieved something special and rare. It moved me. It became a real part of my personal landscape. I feel the setting and Tanith Lee’s use of it was why the other aspects and the story as a whole remained with me. Perhaps it could be said setting is the element and or catalyst as to why the story succeeds in delivering verisimilitude and a lasting emotional connection.

As a reader I yearn for these kinds of stories with settings inhabited by such characters and their conflicts. As a writer while setting inspires me and comes to me organically I often take an analytical approach in choosing which character(s) and conflict(s) to portray.

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard

While I knew the next story to discuss in regard to setting would be “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard I wasn’t consciously thinking that the protagonists of both stories are repentant hunters. But they are.

I encountered The Jaguar Hunter at literally the same time I encountered Because Our Skins are Finer. One day I brought home the Arkham House edition of the Jaguar Hunter collection along with Dreams of Dark and Light from my local library.

Lucius Shepard’s prose style defies convention with elegant, long and flowing sentences that often described tropical locations. While I will always connect the element of setting with Lucius Shepard’s sentences, contained in them are masterful depictions of his characters and the conflicts defining them.

Consider the opening paragraph of “The Jaguar Hunter”:

“It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, the appliance dealer, that brought Esteban Caxx to town for the first time in almost a year. By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Incarnacion. Puerto Morada, with its fruit company imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music; was a place he avoided like the plague: indeed, from his home atop the mountain whose slopes formed the northernmost enclosure of Bahia Onda, the rusted tin roofs ringing the bay resembled a dried crust of blood such as might appear upon the lips of a dying man.”

The story is another excellent example of characters closely tied to their setting with unique troubles and conflicts specifically arising from it. The story not only provides that first layer / gateway experience I previously mentioned and a character and conflict born of setting, but also a conflict that deepens as the story moves deeper into the setting.

The editor’s introduction in the F&SF magazine original appearance of the story relays that Puerto Morada, Hondoras is a real place and the story was born from a conversation with a real jaguar hunter the author met. The story certainly delivers on what I call the first layer / gateway by functioning to bring the reader (at least the American reader) to a far away place many may have never been or might never go.

The initially presented conflicts in “The Jaguar Hunter” are Estaban’s external conflict of having to return the appliance and his internal conflict of wishing to avoid returning to hunting. These are certainly very closely tied to where the story is taking place.

After he is forced to go off to “hunt” the jaguar the setting moves from Esteban’s home village to the Honduran jungle and the ruins of an abandoned fruit company farm slated for development. These settings not only add resonant subtext, what is at stake for Esteban is heightened. Both conflicts progress with the setting. Esteban’s life and liberty are in jeopardy but also the very nature of what is means for him to exist. Shepard’s setting choices frame, define, and heighten the conflicts. The way Esteban’s choices have the potential to change the setting and the way his choices are defined by the setting is masterful, satisfying, and unique to the story.

A discussion of what one thinks happens to Esteban and what one thinks may or may not be happening transcends the analysis of setting and lends itself to a discussion of fabulism and weird fiction. The Jaguar Hunter originally appeared in the magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which primarily presents fantasy stories. It also appeared in Lucius’ first collection alongside stories of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Having hallmarks and elements of each of those kinds of stories it could have easily been presented in a publication of any of those genres.

"The Jaguar Hunter" in my opinion, can also be thought of as a fabulist and or a weird fiction story. Rather than repeat my full discussion of the Swords by Robert Aickman I again direct you to the above link to my Night Time Logic essay where I discuss it more fully.

One of the hallmarks of the Swords and perhaps too of weird fiction is that the stories have a speculative element or supernatural encounter that is not “defined”.

The Swords is one of the best or at least my favorite illustration of this notion. In the story the narrator has encounters with a woman who appears to be immune to physical injury. No reason is given as to how or why the woman is this way. We can imagine reasons corresponding to hallmarks of the various genres mentioned above. For example we could say the woman is “undead”, or the woman is protected by a magic spell, or that the woman is not a woman but a robot. None of these “explanations” is given or even alluded to but I offer them to show that doing so could color or push the story into being closer to horror, fantasy, or science fiction respectively. This lack of explanation lends itself to the story fitting in to a weird fiction classification.

In the Jaguar Hunter, like the Swords, the speculative element is also not overtly explained or defined. The setting and the context of the story steers this reader towards a metaphorical interpretation of the ending, a hauntingly beautiful passage of prose, and thus the story. Metaphorical or not, it is easy to categorize the Jaguar Hunter a work of magic realism.

There is night time logic in play in “The Jaguar Hunter.” What is happening and what happens is felt but not explained. The intentional lack of an explanation prevents the story from fitting neatly into a trope or genre and is a hallmark of weird fiction. The mixing of genres while never landing on merely ones shows how the story could be said to transcend into the realm of literary fabulisim. Whatever story elements are in play or whatever classification or school we might use to analyze the story the end result in my opinion is a work of art that is hard to forget and has the rare effect of touching and creating an emotional reality.

It is hard for me to conceive of these three stories being successful or at least the same in different settings. Even in the seemingly mundane setting of the Swords, the believable way England is depicted is the necessary grounding that allows us to both believe in the characters and the reality of the world presented. Because of setting we are able to readily suspend disbelief when presented with the supernatural and unexplained encounter which is the catalyst to the emotional impact of the story. Tim Powers work also expertly presents the reader with deceptively simple, masterfully rendered real world settings that also serve as groundings for the fantastic and unique supernatural events his characters encounter.

There are so many other examples of unique and effective uses of setting I could explore. Hemmingway’s prose, (perhaps the opposite of Shepard’s in style with its shorter sentences) also delivers crystalline depictions of setting. Even though Hemmingway’s far-away places are not populated with the supernatural and unexplained Aickman, Lee, and Shepard’s settings are and thus no need to ground us in reality, his settings offer the anchor to the emotional places his characters go.

Another noteworthy setting is delivered in the opening line of William Gibsons’s classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. In the near future world Gibson creates and presents, our own world is recognizable in it and our own human conflicts are explored.   

Other noteworthy real-world settings can be found in the work of authors Lee Thomas and Sarah Langan. Both authors masterfully incorporate a sense of place in their stories and I feel the places they present define the struggles of their characters.

New Orleans is a setting that recurs in Lee Thomas’s novels. In Thomas’s Dust of Wonderland and Down on Your Knees, New Orleans itself is so expertly depicted it could be said to be a character. Both novels are not only masterful works of character and imagination they are excellent examples of the kind of setting driven stories I am illustrating here.

Sarah Langan’s expertly depicted settings of places we know provide the grounding for the familiar characters she portrays and their struggles with threats born of this world and beyond.  A setting that stands out even among the high bar of her work is the “haunted house” in her modern masterpiece novel Audrey’s Door. The genre transcending novel is one of the finest novels I have read, period; but I mention it here because as it works so well in an analysis of setting in weird and literary fiction.

The settings presented in Audrey’s Door are instantly recognizable as an America we know. Yet  they operate much in the same way setting in “The Jaguar Hunter” do by defining and deepening the conflicts of the protagonist, Audrey. As Audrey moves from one setting to another the conflicts deepen and expand Audrey’s internal and external conflicts. Audrey’s antagonists and challenges are all born from the setting. Like “The Jaguar Hunter,” the setting in Audrey’s Door could be said to shift from something strange yet definable to something undefinable or possibly metaphorical. Both “The Jaguar Hunter” and Audrey’s Door conclude in ways that defy convention and easy explanation. Both through use of their uniquely chosen settings create magnificent resonance that delivers something vital that lives beyond the pages.

As I write this essay I am reading Brabury’s Death is a Lonely Business. Bradbury’s prose which depicts a Venice that has come and gone is not only lovely, controlled, and evocative it adds subtext and layers to the noir style and the protagonist’s conflicts. 

It is hard to imagine the real-world settings of my short stories, “The Night Marchers,” “The Ghost Dance,” and “The Sphinx of Cropsey Avenue” in other places other than the chosen settings. The stories “The Canopy Crawlers” and “The Wish Mechanics” from The Wish Mechanics both contain fantastic worlds (barely recognizable as our own) with settings that I hope deliver characters and conflicts essential to and born of setting.

My forthcoming and recently released stories, “Goodnight Kookuburra” (the Gold Coast, Australia), “Cloudland Earthbound” (Brisbane, Australia) and “Palankar” (Quintanno Roo, Mexico) are among the most setting intensive of my work to date. I hope through them you might find gateways to far-away places and perhaps also understandings. 

Thank you for coming along for this. Forthcoming shortly will be a companion post with discussion questions about setting for The Wish Mechanics for your discussion and or book group to use.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review with Commentary: Never Stop on the Motorway by Jeffrey Archer

Never Stop on the Motorwayby Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's Press
General Fiction (Adult)
Diana, successful business woman and single parent, feels pressure on multiple fronts. She still feels the sting of the year-old divorce. Yet she chooses to remain single, partially because the single choices left much to be desired. And the men tend to think of her promiscuous after a single mistake:
"[E]very other man on the premises either smirks behind your back or treats your thigh as an extension of the arm on his chair."
 Driving her Audi suburban and jamming out to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." She does have a good friend, Daniel, who has been married for twelve years with three children, she being the godmother. It is their family she is driving out to visit in the country.

After she accidentally hits a cat and mourns its passing, headlights gleam in her rearview mirror. She tries to let him pass. She slows down. She speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour, hoping to get pulled over by the cops, but he won't stop tailgating. His bumper won't leave hers, no matter what she chooses to do.

The story leaves one surprise for the end. This pulse-pounder will leave fingernail impressions in the couch. The price for this story is reasonable. If you're into thrillers, you'll want this one. If there's any critique, it's that there feels like we need one more story beat after the surprise--not that it's needed.


Okay, stop reading until you buy and read this for yourself. Commentary with spoilers below for those who like to discuss stories.

Link to Kindle version (available July 4)
Commentary with Spoilers
 You have read the story, yes? It's only a dollar.

Unless there's a nuance I'm missing, the title "Never Stop on the Motorway" suggests this is a thriller, nothing more and nothing less. However, a quarter of the opening text or so deals with the problems women have with men. Yet she goes to a man for help. This may irk some feminists, so I was pondering what more could be meant.

If anything is meant to be said here on the topic of feminism, it may be that men can be allies, not necessarily in the background. And some men only seem to be the problem (you'll have to read the story to know what I'm referring to.

That is an "if"--whether author wanted anything more than to thrill. Nothing wrong with stories that only aim to entertain.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ivory by Mike Resnick

This was up for the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll Awards.

Elephant tusks get gambled away in an alien game. The last member of the tribe is seeking it. He has employed in order to find it. This novel tracks those movements over the centuries of its displacement.
This is a book I rather love and I have a hard time accounting for it. It's a minor SF masterwork--that illustrious tier when you have read SF classics like Dune and Foundation, etc. and are scratching your head about what to read next. This has nothing to do with awards. This outshines some winners although a few award-losers might might outshine this one. But not many.

Like the movie Red Violin, the story follows the history of an object through time except Resnick's predates the movie by a decade. The risk of such connected stories is that they are merely connected stories. What a book strives to do is become more than the sum of its parts. This achieves that.

This amounts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Blade Runner -- analysis and commentary

Note: Work will slow down my posts here. I hope to do one a week, if possible.

The Dilemma
A friend watched Blade Runner while distracted, she admitted, but didn't appreciate it. I looked for a simple webpage to point her to, but nothing obvious cropped up although Wikipedia quotes it as showing up on multiple Best lists (mostly belated as a cult classic). Worse,  Siskel and Ebert panned the movie when it first came out:

They picked the worst scene of the movie to highlight, which allowed them to say it was cliche but with great effects and cinematography. So I decided to tackle the movie myself.

Note that there are multiple versions. Yes, I will ruin the movie. But you have probably already seen it. If not, go see it and compare notes. If you have questions the remain unanswered, you are supposed to ask and see if the work supports them. Yes, you may need to re-watch the film.

The Set-Up
What are Blade Runners? "Blade runners are people assigned to assassinate 'replicants.' "

You have to realize what this film was doing. The old noir movies had a small resurgence. This was an SF version of that. Is that a cliche or an homage? The change of setting, I think, is enough to make it original. Plus, how many other SF movies were noir up to this time? Cliche, on rare occasions, but most of it dealt with the lives of artificial people destined to die in four years. Was that a cliche at the time?

Luckily, few listened to the lazy critics and watched the movie, anyway.

This is an SF mystery. It's easy to miss out on critical details if distracted. Especially, early on, missed details will confuse you. 

The mystery is something of a macguffin for the thriller and speculative aspects, but it asks the viewer to buy into the detective scenario because it will play off mystery expectations and surprise viewers with a different perspective.

It opens with an effective mood-setting scene. It creates a tone of dark futurity, alternating bright and dark. The music does not work as well today as it would have then since back then the sound was fresh, electronic, futuristic although some of it is nearly as effective as it would have been--usually the sexy sax.

Next is a scene that at first glance seems to be an interview with an unintelligent man, but the man reacts with murder. So the stakes are higher than we thought, Rewatching the scene afterwards (yes, you should rewatch it), you realize the man is trying to evade detection through misdirection.

Deckard is taken in to hunt down killer androids who have escaped, learning they have only four years to live since they might become fully human. Deckard doesn't want the job, but their best guy was shot (not dead, after all). Fairly classic scene. 

Deckard interviews Tyrell and his beautiful assistant. With difficulty, he identifies her as a replicant. Along the way, she plants seeds of doubt about who she is and what he does. She becomes a love interest.

Analysis with Spoilers
Basically, the subtext here is that the replicants are effectively becoming human, indistinguishable. They are being killed to prevent that. Deckard buys into his job at first but begins to question it.... even before the movie starts.

The main romance scene left much to be desired (the worst bit of the film). Maybe the point of that scene is that she is too emotionally young (less than four years old and only beginning to feel emotions) and needs to be taught how to love, but the smaller shots/reactions were more effective. There are voice-over clips that spell things out, but I think the narrative does a decent job. That photo of her make-believe childhood, in fact, is what the director uses to show us how he is falling for her as he keeps returning to it. 

We aren't in her POV much, so it is difficult to say why she falls for him, but her vulnerability and her ability to cut him where it counts is what draws him to her. Plus, she saved his life. One can only presume that she is interested in his returning to her. Here is a man who knows who she is--a type he has killed in the past--and not only accepts her, but also finds her fascinating and wants to run off with her.

Batty, as one might guess from his name, is erratic. He establishes himself as such. His whole chase scene with Deckard is a game of cat-and-mouse. Where did the dove come from? The dove came from the rooftop. It is used more as a symbol, but it adds to his strange character. Every time we see him, his behavior is off, so for him to grab a dove should not surprise us any more than the rest of his behavior. In fact, all of these replicants are a little off. Attacking someone via somersaults? The most normal was the snake gal. 

Batty knows he is dying. He drives a nail into his palm as it is clenching up. The dove shows physically and mentally that he has had a change of heart although we don't know that. His speech tells us that he wants Deckard to feel what they feel. If he succeeds and kills Deckard, what does that accomplish? Maybe Deckard's replicant girlfriend has suspected Deckard's heart is good, but I'm not sure if Batty's seen that. Maybe it's a risk he's willing to take. If Deckard can pass on the knowledge, maybe he change the lives of future replicants.

Clearly, Batty is a Christ symbol and one of the best I've seen. The nail in the palm. The dove. His dying instead of Deckard, sparing Deckard's life even though he deserves death.

The unicorn dream is clearly symbolic. I would have to watch again to decide on a more exact significance. The final origami was a unicorn. That may be what she is to him--an impossible fantasy but one worthwhile. But is that your interpretation? That's you're job as a viewer. You have to interrogate the art/text.

It's a good movie with minor flaws. I'm not crazy about that love scene or the Batty's final monologue which everyone quotes, but the imagery is stunning and evocative. The themes and symbols were effective. It's a good SF romp with heart. 

Watch it again.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Dragon Flight" -- from the novel by Anne McCaffrey

Lessa is champing at the bit. She is supposed to be Weyrwoman, which is supposed to mean something, but she's kept uninformed and occupied with busywork. She wants to be out flying her dragon with the other riders. Instead, she's memorizing ballads.

She does get to soar, through the in-between, and learns things about herself she never knew.

This is the section connecting the two award-winning novellas, including "Weyr Search" and "Dragonrider". It is the stitching holding these two tales together. It has wonder of its own, but the stitching bears some of the more interesting parts. This section also matches the title, lending the section additional weight.

The section opens with poetry or verse. Lessa, the narrator, is required to memorize and write them perfectly. She calls them ballads, but ballads have a specific structure, which these do not follow. The form requires an ABCB rhyme, with iambic rhyme and alternating four and three feet. Perhaps these are rough translations from the far future. Or maybe the idea of what a ballad is has changed in the far future.

Here's a sample:
Seas boil and mountains move,
Sands heat, dragons prove,
Red Star passes.
Stones pile and fires burn,
Green withers, arm Pern.
Guard all passes.
The lines are taut with strong enough imagery. It even surprises with the changing of "passes" from verb to noun. Separate from the narrative, the verse--while good--are not especially remarkable. But McCaffrey does infuse these with a mythic power. In one of my first workshop classes, a young woman imitated the use of these verses mixed with narrative. Even should a young poet manage strong lines, it is only when Lessa ponders their purpose that they gain particular significance. Just picking at the lines seems to lend verse more gravity.

Should one want a more mythic quality, one might study the old masters like Ovid or Homer in their invocation of Gods and try to extrapolate that into a new context. Most writers, however, will probably not that interested in poetry, so McCaffrey's method should suit writers well enough.


If you've tasted McCaffrey's style before, you already know what I'm about to say and don't care, or you have turned your nose up at her prose and are baffled I am taking her seriously as an artist. As a bestselling author, McCaffrey clearly has plenty of readers where this isn't a problem, but the work tends to explain emotions and motivations, for example:
"Manora regarded Lessa warily. Lessa smiled at her reassuringly."
 Some readers want to be told how to react, some do not.


Much of the novel is about Lessa's striving for her place in the world, which is typical for most young people. But here the context can be viewed through a feminist lens: a young woman jockeying  for position among the other, older men. She has cards up her sleeve that she is waiting to play.

The large speculative treat is the "between" time-traveling. For award-winning stories that first appeared in Analog, the absurdity of time-traveling dragons must have been a consternation to voters. Despite the novellas garnering attention, the novel received no recognition until years later.

And yet the bizarre idea works with readers. Why? One might suspect that it is well integrated into the narrative. It utilizes earlier ideas and brings things that might seemed like chance and made them sound suddenly more probable (if you are willing to suspend disbelief).

Monday, May 22, 2017

William Stafford

Rumored to have written 22,000 poems, William Stafford won a National Book Award and for thirty or forty years won the hearts of poetry readers across America. You can see his style of simple lyrics full of wisdom bubbling through the boiling cauldron of a particular era in our country's poets.

His "Way of Writing" was associative. Allowing himself plenty of time without distractions, he would get up early to write (a habit from being a conscientious objector during WWII and working in camps in the States before they put him to work) and he would write whatever came--sensory, visual stimuli; words. This seemed to be critical to his process which he called receptivity. He'd let that suggest something else. From there he felt free to use reason/intentionality/eloquence.

In writing "Ask Me", he states that in both the writing and revision, he was following a feeling. [Turner's 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process]

Curiously, his influence as a poet has waned. It's hard to pinpoint when, but sometime after his death, the space he occupied in retrospective anthologies (even ones that expanded) decreased to match the relatively minor poets. Why? Is it the seeming simplicity? Or a desire not to see "The Way It Is" or "accepting what comes"?

If it's his plainspoken simplicity, possibly it has outworn its welcome for a time and may circle back around again.

Here are five of my favorite Stafford poems. Stew on them until they release their savor to you.

  1. "Traveling through the Dark" -- heartbreaking signature poem, emblematic of his perspective: "The Way It Is"
  2. "At the Bomb Testing Site"
  3. "A Story That Could Be True"
  4. "Waiting in Line" (at the end of file)
  5. "A Certain Bend" (The whole poem is there, but it isn't properly lineated. Definitely, look up the original. From the first issue of Missouri Review. 

Great lines from "Waiting in Line":
the nation of the young, like jungle birds
that scream as they pass, or gyrate on playgrounds,
their frenzied bodies jittering with the disease
of youth. Knowledge can cure them. But
not all at once. It will take time. 
A poetry writing book pointed out the attitude toward the young in the first two lines. But zeroing in on that misses out on the larger picture since it is a poem about the continuity. See the title again. Genius. Beautiful, funny and moving.

Hundreds more poems:
Poetry Magazine (their lengthy biography)
poet's website

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Your job is to find what the world is trying to be."
--"Vocation" by William Stafford

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Had I known what kind of book this was, I might not have bought it. But then again, I might have. It is a strange hybrid on poetry, writing poetry, myth (fairy tales--not in the pejorative sense, but I'm sure some would like to apply that as well), self-help, and pop psychology. Clearly, Bly saw a deep connection between all of these things, and part of the appeal is how strongly integrated he views them. He takes the entire field of poetry (especially Wallace Stevens) to task for not using these ideas as he has. Most writers consider their field of study as pointless. See my review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless, so it is gulp of cool water in so vast a desert to come upon Bly's drinking trough.

Note: I do not tend to write glowing reviews. I try to steer away readers who would dislike such a book. Most books, like humans, are flawed and sometimes those flaws are part of the appeal. I hate to state this over and over for every review, though.

I also bought the audiobook that followed after this edition. It is always curious to read (or hear) how a writer revises his work after second and third thoughts. Bly is uncannily honest and states in the audio that his work has truth and lies, but he doesn't know which is which.

There is a great deal of useful information in here, and a little that rings less useful. The overview: Bly asks that people find balance in their writing and their lives. We have a tendency to blame our failures on others, but Bly states we should take ownership, pull out the aspects of our personality that we've hidden away, and develop our lives fully.

First, a definition, if possible: The shadow is the darker side of ourselves, which we need to embrace. The shadow is not evil, Bly said. Following Bly's definitions requires paradigm-shifting, not to mention accepting squishy definitions.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Problems in the Ark. This details the author's own experiences in finding his shadow and dealing with it in his poetry. Later, he points out that some of the things he hated in others (Alexander Pope, businessmen) he had in himself, and he had to accept this before he could appreciate such men. Paradoxically, he mentions politicians he also hated (or at least he suggested he did), so perhaps this is a never-ending process.
  2. The Long Bag We Drag behind Us. Society tells us to hide certain aspects of ourselves. These aspects (the feminine, the masculine, the witch, the giant, the shadow, among others) we hide in a bag and drag it around with us.
  3. Five Stages in Exiling, Hunting and Retrieving the Shadow. We start at birth and, say, hand our witch to our mothers (who expresses it for us) and later hand it to our wives. The witch is what allows us to get what we want. We need to retrieve this by asking for these missing parts back.
  4. Honoring the Shadow. This is an interview with William Booth, the editor, who gets Bly to expand on ideas he mentions only in passing earlier, such as eating one's shadow, etc.
  5. Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll. Bly believes the personality is also a part of the poet and needs to be examined as part of a poet's oeuvre. Stevens, Bly says, brought out the shadow in his poetry, but never lived it out in his own life, so the gifts of the shadow were wasted on Stevens and this shows up in Stevens' late poems.
The positives of the book outweigh the negatives. The main positive is asking people to face themselves, instead of shifting responsibility on others. This could also be a negative since people often create or contribute to a problem, but at some point, we must realize the person who may have done damage doesn't care, and we must work through issues for ourselves. One can read an abundance of poetry where that is its primary failing. It keeps stumbling over the flaws of others as if that were one's only failing in life: other people.

This is where Bly's methodology steps in and tells you to ask for your missing parts, the aspects of yourself you gave away. I keep imagining how this might play out in real life: the puzzlement on the other person's face. 
"Hey, give me my witch back." 
"You want your what? 
"My witch!"
"Oh. Okay. If you lost your witch doll, I'm sorry, but I don't have it."
Still, it is a physical statement, a stance that makes the metaphor real, which is both good and bad. The good is that you are telling yourself that you are changing. The bad is that it is a metaphor:
"Projection without personal contact is dangerous. Thousands, even millions of American men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. If a million men do that, and leave it there, it's likely she will die. She died."
It may be within the realm of possibility that that is why she died, but it seems doubtful. Unless she were part of a hive mind, she probably had her own issues. One of the measures that some poetry readers use to decide the quality of a poet is their personal mythology. It seems likely that Bly's is unique, so maybe he'll remain within the canon for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, Bly does judge Stevens by a measure that maybe Stevens had not considered or might have rejected as part of his poetics. All humans are problematic, so to judge one because he does not follow your aesthetic is dubious at best. If we had a time-traveling recorder to mark our every misstatement, we would all be exposed as cruel. This is where David Orr's "pointless" perspective on poetry gains legitimacy.

No matter. A Little Book on the Human Shadow has plenty to recommend it. The audiobook is similar, covering overlapping territories, but it goes a little further into fairy tales and skips much of the later discussion found in sections four and five of the book. I do recommend both but with caveats, We should be examining our various aspects of personality we may be leaving out.

What book doesn't require caveats? Maybe that is the  measure of a book that takes risks. Flaws are, after all, where the personality shines through.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 18. "Arena"

As the officers visit Commodore Travers on Cestus III, Travers request tactical people as he has an interesting problem. When they beam down they find the colony outpost destroyed. After they find life a mile away, they are immediately under attack.

Analysis with spoilers:
Kirk believes the messages he'd received from the Commodore were faked. Red shirt dies. Meanwhile, Enterprise is under attack. If they lower shields to beam up officers, they would be vulnerable to attack, so Kirk orders shields up and retreats.

Kirk dashes and tumbles to an artillery depot. When Sulu's attacks against alien vessel are ineffectual, Kirk advises them warp away. Spock believes, when the aliens are moving, he must join Kirk. They fire a type of grenade that causes aliens to beam away and flee. Kirk decides to search for survivors. Enterprise returns.

Survivor explains ruthlessness of the aliens in battle even though the colonists tried to surrender. He also states that they never sent the Enterprise any messages. Kirk concludes that the Enterprise was lured to be destroyed in order invade their space. The Enterprise pursues.

Spock and Kirk debate over the need for retaliation. Kirk is decided that they must be destroyed. They pass a system that stops them both. The Metrons have stopped both. Federation ship captain must fight the Gorn ship captain. The losing captain's ship will also be destroyed.

The scenario matches the common saying where kings, presidents, and tyrants should fight the wars.

The battle here differs from Brown's. There is no barrier. The Gorn is a lizard (as opposed to a tendriled roller) and stronger if slower than Kirk. Kirk believes he is smarter, but the Gorn listens in as Kirk records his plans. Kirk hunts for weapons while the Gorn builds them. Kirk drops a boulder and thinks he has the Gorn, but it rises. Kirk flees into a trap. Kirk escapes but is exhausted.

The Metrons tell the Enterprise that Kirk is done for and to prepare to die. Nonetheless, Kirk dashes down hill. Meanwhile, the Enterprise watches on screen and suddenly, they understand the Gorn might have been defending their own space against the human invaders.

Meanwhile, Kirk invents gunpowder as the Gorn approaches. Kirk succeeds but decides against killing the Gorn. The Metrons free both parties without killing. Enterprise zapped back toward home.

  1. Spock: "Doctor, you are sensualist."
    McCoy: "You bet your pointed ears I am."
  2. McCoy: "We appeal to you in the name of civilization. Put a stop to this."
    Metron: "Your violent intent and actions demonstrate you are not civilized."
  3. Kirk: "We're a most promising species as predators go."

    1. Red shirt zapped.
    2. Not only is this episode based on Fredric Brown's "Arena", it also alludes to Murray Leinster's "First Contact" as a kind of framing device with slightly different outcomes (Enterprise instantly transported back into familiar space as opposed to swapping ships.
    3. Sustained Warp speed 7 is dangerous.