Harry Potter and the Racist Subtext

african mask“We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” – Leo Quetawke, Head Councilman in charge of law and order for the Zuni people

Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to understand for those of us who belong to the majority culture. We see the world as one unified whole. We measure the sun by Greenwich Mean Time, the seasons by the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. For us, an African mask in a shop is a decoration, divorced of cultural significance. We congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment and modernity because we can recognize its beauty.

This state of affairs does not make us bad people. It does not make us responsible for colonialism or slavery, any more than African American or Indigenous American genes make their owners victims or losers. On the contrary, it presents us with an opportunity to rise above our past, to forge a new global fellowship built on trust and open communication. As with any educational pursuit, this requires hard work. Continue reading

What comprises the ‘perfect’ photograph?

Despite decades of taking pictures, I don’t know if I’ve seen (let alone taken) a perfect photograph. After all, perfection is a rarely achieved goal. How often is perfection attained in any human undertaking? In music? In art? In literature? In making a cup of coffee at Starbucks?

All these enterprises have metrics or dimensions in which competence is required. In photography, for example, a good shooter needs to demonstrate appropriate exposure, retention of shadow and highlight detail, composition, processing, etc. But there’s more, of course. Considerations involving texture, form, use of line and space, shapes, and tonalities abound.
Continue reading

Horror

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a Halloween book review…

It’s Shelley – and  ideas – that scare us…

Since I’ve been skylarking, having left the original 2013 reading list in the dust long ago (except for the Christmas selections) and now having left the extended reading list behind, too, it seemed like a good idea, given that Halloween was approaching, to choose a book that fit the holiday. So I pulled my copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the book shelf. Couldn’t go wrong with the antecedent of all mad scientist stories as a choice for the spooky holiday, right?

As is the case with some other books on this list (Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the Austen novels Mansfield Park and Emma), I have read Frankenstein before – at least twice that I remember – and I think more times. I read the novel while in undergraduate school just because I wanted to and then read it in graduate school as part of a course on the Romantics. I believe I even taught it once in a freshman intro to lit sort of class – pretty sure I did, in fact. So there’s another time….

So I came to this reading with rather a healthy fund of knowledge about both the book and about its critical interpretations. To paraphrase my beloved Twain, however, I didn’t let my education get in the way of my learning this reading. So, on to the book… Continue reading

Happy Father’s Day: "The Day Daddy Died"

Today is Father’s Day, and S&R would like to wish a happy one to America’s dads.

At the same time, and in the contrary spirit that often typifies what we do around here, I’d like to be the one who acknowledges that our relationships with our fathers are often less than we’d hope for. Frankly, some dads are complete bastards, and in many cases they’re probably at least a complex mixed bag. And why not – being a parent is hard, I’m told. This basic reality makes the guys who get it right even more worthy of our love and respect.

It’s no worse than fair to say that my own father lived his life out between Mixed Bagville and the untamed Bastardlands, and truth be told I have a hard time remembering him as more good than bad. Continue reading

WordsDay: It’s World Poetry Day 2013

CATEGORY: WordsDayMarch 21 is the UN’s World Poetry Day, and we here at S&R invite our readers to celebrate the event along with us. Hit the comment thread and offer up a bit of verse – something you admire, something you wrote, whatever.

I’ll go first, and I’ll do a bit of both. In my latest (as yet unpublished) book, there is an homage to my hero, William Butler Yeats – an homage that also manages to be painfully autobiographical in a way. So here is my poem, “William and Maud,” and the Yeats poem it’s riffing on, as I imagine the conversation they had there by the sea on the cliffs of Howth, as she spurned his proposal of marriage (for the first time of four). Yeats first.

THE WHITE BIRDS

WOULD that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awakened in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

Now my dramatization.

William and Maud

            I am haunted by numberless islands... – WB Yeats

Walking by the shore at dusk, air 
leaden with a faith in words.

William looks up, says
Maud, the sky is full of dragonflies.

She stares beyond the sea. 

            That's nice, Bill. But I've a kingdom to burn.
            Your bugs will be dead by morning.

Words are a piper, he says. When we die,
our ghosts will haunt the waves and
young men will lift a pint to 
wandering beauty.

            We're inside-out, says Maud.
            I want to drown Dublin in 
            English blood and you,
            so much like a woman with 
            your poetry and your mysteries.

I will summon ancient warriors to your heel.
Then you will love me.

Maud stares beyond the rim of the sea.

            Summon me powder and horses, Bill.

His study quiet as dust, 
a candle's nub
races the dark to dawn.
William sits, vanquished by the 
sacred rose and the guns of love.

Happy Poetry Day. Your turn.

_____

“William and Maud” originally appeared in Pemmican in June, 2011.

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.

Changing science fiction, changing the world: Scholars & Rogues honors William Gibson

I have been known to say that William Gibson is arguably the most important author of the past 30 years. That’s a mouthful of an assertion, especially since we’re talking about a genre writer, I know. But even if I’m wrong, I’m not off by much. The man who more or less invented Cyberpunk, then abandoned it as quickly as he defined it, did more than simply alter the direction of science fiction, he literally helped shape the computing and Internet landscape as we know it today. That’s pretty big doings for a guy who had never so much as played with a computer before he wrote his first novel.

This story we’ve heard before, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version for those late to the party. Gibson’s Neuromancer (the first novel to ever win the SF triple crown – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards) introduced us to cyberspace, a “consensual hallucination” in which humans used computers to navigate around the global online network. He imagined it as an immense, three-dimensional virtual space, and as his “Cyberspace Trilogy” (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) unfolded, we also encountered killer viruses, psychic online projections of humans whose flesh was being kept technically alive in protein baths out in meatspace, and even artificial life forms that had evolved from advanced artificial intelligences created by powerful corporate interests. Continue reading

The incompleteness of the soul: an insider's non-review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star

I’ve been thinking about Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, the third novel from my friend and fellow scrogue Jim Booth. I finished reading it a few days ago, but for me it’s been a slightly disjointed experience because I’ve seen most of it in its pieces before: chapters like “Fins” and “The Balcony Scene” have been previously published as standalone short stories and there are sections (the “Rock Star Handbook”) that Jim originally developed as an offering for an SMS entertainment company in which I was a  partner. So I’ve been familiar for years with the component elements, but this was my first encounter with the unified book in context.

After several days of reflection, I find myself musing on things that many readers and reviewers might not have twigged on. Continue reading

ars poetica: Reflecting on what exactly poetry is (after completing my latest book)

As I Facebooked last night:

After more than three years of writing, editing, revising, and of course enduring the emotional agony that engenders so many of my best ideas, I have finally arrived at what I’m choosing to call a 1.0 version of my new book, tentatively entitled The Butterfly Machine.

Now, like any business-savvy poet, I’m on to the business of auctioning off movie rights and booking venues for the impending world tour.

[aherm] [cough] [ahem] Continue reading

The Cool of a Generation: S&R honors Maurice Sendak

by Deb Caponera

If there could be any one person responsible for the “cool” of my generation, and well, all those to follow, it would be Maurice Sendak. But his influence goes far beyond what hip, creative things he inspired in us 40-somethings with his array of stories and pictures. He wasn’t just a children’s writer; in fact, he despised being categorized that way.

Straight-talking, wild-eyed and honest, Maurice gave us “kids” a taste of truth, of beauty, of pain, and of love. He gave us permission to be ourselves, however uncomfortable that was, and a strength that most of our parents discounted or denied us, and he never looked back.

For that alone, we adored him. Continue reading

Mark Twain and public discourse

The prevailing argument among our brilliant crew of writers here  at S&R lately over our public discourses v. those of our opponents goes something like this: some of us want to take the high road in public discussion of the issues; some of us want to go into the same attack dog mode that our opponents use; and some of us, as Sam Smith so eloquently notes in his post on the matter:

… some of us watch the debate with a good measure of conflict in our souls. We think about it, we test the implications, we agonize over it, all because we appreciate the complexities of politics and culture and we understand the human, emotional and spiritual costs as well as we do the collective, physical, economic ones.

Today Scholars & Rogues honors our 50th masthead scrogue, Samuel L. Clemens of Hannibal, MO, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain – arguably (though I don’t think there can be much argument) America’s greatest writer. Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

S&R Poetry: "One Fifth of Humanity," by Lee Stern

One fifth of humanity was marching into Portugal.
It was bringing with it
large barrels of its family’s familiar salt.
It tried to place one of the barrels
at one end
of a seesaw that was no longer capable of being fixed.
I knew, because I was at the other end of the seesaw.
I was asking the wind why it didn’t want my signature included.
I was passing out chocolate to anyone who could speak. Continue reading

Mary Shelley LIVES! (Romantics, Luddites, runaway technology, science fiction and the persistence of the Frankenstein Complex)

Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming. – Dr. Ian Malcolm

Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their close friend Lord Byron “watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories.” Thomas Pynchon says that by that December Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her famous novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

It was the challenge of writing ghost stories to amuse each other that set Mary upon the idea of a different kind of horror story – one not based in the supernatural, but in science.

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. Continue reading

Hog Killing – a Story About Fathers and Sons

Rockingham County, North Carolina

November 1962

“Go call your daddy and Uncle Kenneth,” Papa says, taking his big thermometer from the scalding trough.  “This water’s near hot enough.  We need to get to killing these hogs.”

He gestures toward the pen some thirty feet away.  The hogs grunt and start away as if they understand him.

“Yes sir.”  I rise from my crouch.  I have been tending the fire, making the water hot enough for scalding the hair off the hogs after they are slaughtered.  I trot up the hill to the house and stick my head in the back door.

“Water hot?” asks my uncle.  I nod.  He gets to his feet and pulls on his jacket.  Daddy puts down his coffee mug and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Continue reading

So lonesome I could fly: 30-Day Song Challenge, the Sequel, day 20 – a song that could easily have been written about your life

I’ve always felt strongly attuned to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous short story, “Ethan Brand.” The title character forsakes his life to search the world for the unpardonable sin. He finds it. It ends badly for him. The nature of the sin?

He remembered with what tenderness, with what love and sympathy for mankind, and what pity for human guilt and woe, he had first begun to contemplate those ideas which afterwards became the inspiration of his life; with what reverence he had then looked into the heart of man, viewing it as a temple originally divine, and, however desecrated, still to be held sacred by a brother; Continue reading

Out of this world

The good folks over at the British Library, bless their hearts, are having a substantial exhibit that starts today on science fiction—Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it. This looks great, and it has barely opened. As part of the show, there will be, as is usually the case with any British Library show, a series of events, ranging from talks by interested parties and scholars, to films, to musical events —including George Clinton.

The talks look excellent, and if this evening’s was any indication of how these will go, I expect to have a really good time attending some of them and providing updates. This evening’s session, with the same title as the exhibit but the subtitle “Why Science fiction speaks to us all,” had a stellar line-up: Erik Davis, China Miéville, Adam Roberts, and Tricia Sullivan, all moderated by Sam Leith, the former literary editor of The Telegraph. Continue reading