Entries in Science Fiction (28)


NYRSF: Delany and Jemisin Read Sturgeon

The NY Review of Science Fiction hosted a tribute to Theodore Sturgeon last night, down in Soho. It was a delightful evening, introduced by Jim Freund (as per usual) with Sturgeon's daughter Noël giving background on the late author and the pieces featured. She also discussed a thirteen-volume series of all Sturgeon's published short stories, published by North Atlantic Books. Samuel R. Delany and Nora K. Jemisin were our two illustrious readers for the evening.

Samuel Delany read Sturgeon's piece "The Clinic", a wonderful story that begins as a strange case of amnesia related in the first person by a non-native speaker of English. The language of the piece is allusive and strange, revealing much about the character through words and pacing. It soon becomes clear that this is a story more about disability and difference than amnesia, a sensitive piece about beings displaced, finding a new home elsewhere.

In the Q&A that followed, it came out that Delany chose the piece himself; it was not one that Noël had originally selected because it was slightly on the longer side. But it's one that Delany found moving and real; it made him weep to read.  It was an example of Sturgeon's conscience, and Delany said he loved the language of it. It was language that made one stop and focus.

N.K. Jemisin read "Bianca's Hands", a difficult, poignant, wrenching piece about a young man who becomes obsessed with and marries a profoundly mentally handicapped woman, finding in her final release. The piece is woven thorough with extraordinary descriptions of the woman's hands, beings with lives of their own. I don't recall who it was who said the piece was in the horror genre, but that seems right.

Noël said that Sturgeon had written the piece in (going on memory here) 1939 but that it wasn't published until the late 40s. One person to whom he'd sent the piece refused to have anything to do with it, finding it repellent. And one can see why, given the undercurrents of violence and death that permeate the obsession at its center.

One of the most interesting discussions of the meeting came in the Q&A, when Jemisin said she found the piece to be about eros and thanatos, but without love. She felt that the veiled sexual violence inherent in the male protagonist's overtures were not loving, but something rather more sinister. Delany however had a different take. He felt that the protagonist's inability to get his own way (he was originally rebuffed by the woman's hands, that violently wrenched him away, injuring his wrist) and his willingness to wait patiently, showed that although he may have arrived with desire, he had learned to love. It took him nineteen days to do so rather than ten years, which points to this being a work of horror rather than something more mainstream, but nevertheless it was not simply an example of an erotic urge gone awry.

Jemisin also said in the Q&A that she valued the piece because it showed how a beginning author had to avoid hanging back with the narrative. How one had to be willing to go fully into the most wrenching, deepest emotion, and how that was difficult to learn how to do. I agree with her. The temptation in writing, particularly for someone starting out, is to tone things down and aim for respectability rather than emotional depth. That goes particularly for a cerebral genre like SF.

I plead guilty.

At any rate the readings were fantastic and a fitting tribute to Sturgeon's life and work.


Highlights of MoCCA Fest 2011

Here are a few books that I picked up and enjoyed at MoCCA Fest 2011, my first. The show was crowded both days, particularly on Saturday, with lots of twenty-somethings, lots of great artwork and lots of twenty-somethings doing great artwork. It was particularly worthwhile to be able to meet the artists of these and other works, all so amazingly talented.

I haven't quite dug through to the bottom of the pile yet so there will probably be another installment in a few days.

First, a couple of books that debuted at the festival:

Joseph Lambert's highly anticipated first book, I Will Bite You, doesn't disappoint. Beautifully drawn and told, dreamlike stories of childhood fantasy, but intended for adults. Grim and deep, their virtual wordlessness gives them, if anything, even more primal impact. I remember reading that one of them, "Turtle Keep it Steady", was a school assignment to retell the story of the tortoise and the hare. It's brilliantly crazy.

John Martz's Heaven All Day is another beautifully drawn story, quietly wordless, of an inventor living in a future world surrounded by sentient robots. The simple black-and-white outline style and atmospheric blue washes remind me a bit of Daniel Clowes's style, though more pared down and cartoony. Martz has a real ability to tell a story clearly.

Heaven All Day was the only SF graphic novel (really a graphic short-story) that intrigued me at the event, though I tried to keep my eye out for more. As it happens, I missed one that I'll mention below.

The rest of the books were not 2011 debuts, but nevertheless based on their interest and the fact that the authors were at the event, I picked them up and enjoyed them.

Pascal Girard's Bigfoot tells a more conventional teenage narrative of conflicted and thwarted loves, all with the background of social networking sites and the embarrassment they can cause. The bigfoot of the title is a photo that the protagonist's uncle took with his cellphone and uploaded onto the web.

Again, the story is well told and the drawings clear and well done, the colors bright and the printing impeccable from Drawn & Quarterly press. But for all its 48 page length it feels more like a short story, an interesting nibble more than a full meal.

I picked up Karl Steven's The Lodger due to the artist's technical gifts. He's an amazing draftsman, with technique that reminds me of Andrew Wyeth or Alex Ross: hyper-realistic and detailed interiors, more photographic than comic or cartoony. The volume also includes several portraits and landscapes that intersperse with the narrative. There are only a few slipups -- his drawings of squirrels at the window do not convince, for instance.

Unfortunately the story is not up to the same standards as the drawing. It's an autobiographical year-in-the-life of the young artist, but it's without any narrative center or drive. It feels like he took it upon himself to draw scenes as they happened, then put them all together into a book. That's to say, it needs further editing, and perhaps better material. I think if Stevens can get a more compelling narrative to work with, he'll do great.

Paul Hornschemeier's Let Us Be Perfectly Clear is an odd grab-bag of short stories in varying styles that remind me of Clowes and more particularly of Chris Ware. Gorgeously drawn with meticulous printing by Fantagraphics Books, the thing looks stunning. The stories themselves, though, are less successful. They lack the emotional and narrative punch of Ware or Clowes at their best. It's as though the author thought of them as light and humorous but was conflicted about whether or not to introduce actual humor. The result tends to be stories that are neither funny nor sad, and that feel more confusing and allusive than fully worked out.

The artwork, however, stands on its own. For that, the book's worth a read.

Ken Dahl's Monsters is a hurricane of a book, blisteringly honest and direct about (what I have to assume are) the author's own experiences with a sexually transmitted disease. It sounds like a singularly unpromising premise for a book, and frankly I had doubts on seeing the cover. But just to flip it open is to see Dahl's narrative and artistic gifts. The book is fascinating from its first page, and it doesn't flag. The drawings are a study in clarity and honesty, showing in all its raw detail the social and emotional life of the unfortunate, imperfect protagonist.

This is a monster of a book. I hope that, subject matter notwithstanding, this gets the profile it deserves. My worry is that it'll get pigeonholed as something only for STD sufferers or the like. Don't believe it. This is a universal story.

And one that got away:


I have to thank Timothy Callahan and his recent blog post for alerting me to one book (pamphlet?) I overlooked: Ian Bertram's 1001. Readers of my site will know I'm particularly interested in SF, and there was little SF at MoCCA Fest that really convinced. A glance at Bertram's style and a read of Callahan's take makes me very intrigued. I hope to get a copy of 1001 soon, and to be able to give it a look.

(Callahan also lauds Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano's Liar's Kiss. I have a copy and hope to mention it, and a few others, in a future post).



Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan series is one of the pinnacles of SF in comics. Written between 1997 and 2002 it outlines the story of Spider Jerusalem, gonzo, muckraking journalist; profane, angry and at the same time endearing for his fervent if slightly off-kilter moral crusades.

Jerusalem's world is a cyberpunkish near-dystopia. It's along the lines of Blade Runner but in a significantly lighter, more ironic and humorous vein. It's a world riven by political, religious and social corruption, and the depth and interest of the series comes from its thinly veiled commentary on these contemporary issues.

Jerusalem takes it upon himself to investigate the chicanery and expose it in his columns. Though he comes across as a sort of superhero character, he's more in the mold of a film noir private dick than someone who can leap tall buildings. His role is to investigate and enlighten, all the while mired in a seemingly bottomless cynicism about the world that he must overcome just to get out of bed.

He's accompanied by his assistants, Channon Yarrow and Yelena Rossini, women who are every bit as screwed up and profane as Jerusalem himself, and a two-faced cat with a bad smoking habit.

I can't fall in love with a comic when I don't like the artwork, and the artwork in Transmetropolitan is some of the best I've seen in comics. Each panel overflows with detail, and each rewards losing yourself within its small world. The series would be half of what it is without Robertson's pen.

For anyone with an interest in SF, this is one series not to miss. But you have to be in the mood for a gonzo, over the top protagonist, a la Basil Fawlty at his worst, and some over the top narrative. It's available in ten slim volumes from Vertigo.


Shaun Tan's Oscar-Winning Short

And here's another by Tan. His 2011-Oscar-winning short film is available on the internet, with French subtitles for some reason. Fifteen minutes long and worth every second. It has a dystopian feel, sort of 1984 or Brave New World, but with a much more benign voice.

Hat tip to SF Signal


The Spirit Goes SF, Online for Free

One of the early, groundbreaking 'superhero' comics was Will Eisner's The Spirit, a vigilante crime fighter in the mold of Batman, though without the cape and tights. I've had Eisner and his prodigious drawing and storytelling abilities on the mind ever since seeing Eisner's New York at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. (It'll be up until June 30).

There's an upload available on the web of a selection from The Spirit where he ventures to the moon with a group of convicts. The story is relatively thin but interesting in its depiction of space travel and lunar investigation. It's also gorgeously drawn, in Eisner's flowing style.

A young Jules Feiffer usually worked on The Spirit as well. So that's two legendary comics for the price of--

well, for free.

See the pages at Golden Age Comic Book Stories.


SF vs. Literary

From Tom Gauld for the Guardian.

Hat tip to Bruce Sterling.


Chelsea Art Walk II

Back in November I did a writeup of an art walk in Chelsea, NY that highlighted some artwork that might be of interest to those with a SFnal outlook. Well, having been back on a blue-skied winter's day today, I've found a couple more that might be intriguing.

Donovan InstallationDonovan DrawingFirst is a wonderful show at the Pace Gallery by Tara Donovan, an artist who's working here exclusively in nickel headed steel pins on white polystyrene board. The images she produces are reminiscent of crystalline patterns, galaxies, or globular clusters, shimmering silver. They have to be seen up close, because along with the beautiful surface patterns, she also works with a delightful density of heights, building up bulges, hillocks and little forests of pins. They are works in which to lose oneself.

Another interesting show is an installation titled "O" by London-based video artist Hiraki Sawa, at the James Cohan Gallery. It's also the gallery for Bill Viola, which isn't a surprise because Sawa's metaphysically intriguing, digitally manipulated images are reminiscent of Viola.Sawa "O" This is a show about time and the metaphor of the circle or spinning image. He imposes video of a toy ferris wheel, the moon, and flying (migrating?) birds on interior or exterior landscapes. Meanwhile smaller video images of spinning objects like a top, a bell and a lightbulb dot the darkened space. Sawa has also added an atmospheric musical drone to the piece, that plays here and there on small, spinning speakers.

Sawa also has a series of large, precise, gorgeously drafted pencil drawings of different phases of the moon, to go with the videos.

A third piece is the glorious "Recitative" by Jennifer Bartlett at Pace. It's a quasi-minimalist piece, something of an update to her earlier masterpiece "Rhapsody". (Which is also available in book form). Like that work, it's all about color, form and rhythm, though without any representational qualities. It has an expansiveness that suggests a universe of possibility. Unfortunately the show closes today, and also unfortunately it's a piece that is so huge as to be virtually impossible to show photographically. It stretches around three walls of an enormous interior gallery space. I include three images of it, to give the flavor. (Click for larger images).

Bartlett: Recitative (beginning)Bartlett: Recitative (middle)Bartlett: Recitative (end)Last I heard the piece remained unsold. I expect the only potential buyers would be either very wealthy patrons with enormous interior spaces or more likely museums. I only hope it ends up at a good home.


SF? Where's the SF?

I'm subscribed to a few of the more prominent SF-related podcasts and websites. Not to name names but there seems to me a dearth of actual SFnal content going around recently. So much of what ought to be SF-related ends up being straight fantasy or horror instead. I've got nothing against those genres, but doesn't it seem as though there ought to be some room for actual SF?

Just wondering ...


X'ed Out: Tintin for Adults?

Charles Burns's new SFnal graphic novel X'ed Out is an unabashed paean to Hergé's Adventures of Tintin; the cover refers to Tintin's Shooting Star, and there are visual quotes and cues to other Tintin volumes on practically every page. The drawing style is reminiscent of woodcut or Hergé's limpid ligne claire as well.

There are significant differences, though. Perhaps most critically, Burns's pacing is deliberate, lacking the strong narrative drive one finds in Hergé. Pages don't end with cliffhangers, and there are a lot of quiet or empty frames that Burns uses to shade atmosphere or psychology in ways Hergé probably could not have afforded to do. There are also more adult themes, blood and nudity -- even young women -- that one would never expect to find in Tintin. This is clearly not intended to be a children's book, though it celebrates them.

The story, of a man named Doug who seems to have lost his memory in some kind of accident, pulls you in at the beginning. An intriguing vignette of a story involving Doug and two of his girlfriends makes up its heart, bookended by dreamlike sequences in a SFnal world filled with strange aliens.

As to its length: this is perhaps the book's greatest flaw. It appears to have been designed to look on the shelf like Tintin in more than its cover art. The book's size and page length also resembles Tintin. However the story develops slowly and confusedly enough that one is left feeling a bit abandoned at its end. This is less the first book of a series than the first chapter of a book, and that's a problem. While beautifully drawn and presented, and clearly promising, it's a work of dream and atmosphere that gives little hint as to what it will become. One is left less with a feeling of narrative drive at its end, less with a need to pick up the next volume, than with a feeling of confusion and uncertainty as to what this all is and where it's going.

Is it a book about Doug's relationships and his odd dreamworld? Or is something deeper going on? Then there are other threads that are barely suggestions, such as Doug's odd relationship with his parents. It's a book thick with suggestion and lacking in clear resolve. One expects further volumes will clarify and deepen. Given that the back cover promises this as "the first volume of an epic masterpiece" that we are looking at something more than a two or three book series. If so, any review this early in the game may well miss forest for trees.


Morgan on Genre

Writer and editor Cheryl Morgan has a fine post up at Salon Futura analyzing the notion of 'genre', something I've dealt with here in the past:  "What is Genre Anyway?"

Genre is less a self-imposed writerly straightjacket than it is an outside-imposed marketing bin in which to toss works that are in some way similar. It's a form of branding that allows potential readers to know what kind of thing they're likely to find when they open the pages. (This is a notion that Morgan finds in William Gibson and Gary Wolfe).

Interestingly, this week's SF Signal podcast deals with a similar issue: "Can You Judge a Book By Its Cover?" The participants note that many books which fit comfortably into the SF genre are sometimes given non-typical cover art if the publisher believes that they might have crossover appeal.

Presumably we're in this situation because there is a certain segment of the public that would really like some of the material that falls under SF, but that they would be otherwise unwilling to read it because they have an aversion to the genre itself due to a misunderstanding of what one finds in it.

Morgan also notes, correctly I think, that though Ed Docx dismissed 'genre' as "a constrained form of writing", it's firstly not at all clear that constraint is a bad thing (think of a sonnet, constrained if anything is), and secondly if SF is constrained, it's not at all clear what that constraint amounts to. Perhaps SF is a form of literature that muses about scientific topics in some sense, or about some imagined scientific or technological change. But if so the 'constraint' is almost absurdly thin.

More's the point, when a writer looks to begin a new work, I submit that she does not typically look first to the constraints to see what cannot be written, but rather to what she is interested in writing. If it's a piece about some new scientific discovery, then her publisher will brand it SF, unless of course they take it to be of more general interest in which case they may well simply call it "fiction", as is my copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, as plainly a work of SF as anything I've seen.

Are there formulaic writers of SF? Certainly, just as there are formulaic writers, artists, producers of every kind. And even the best have been known to fall into their own ruts of formula from time to time. Are all of Shakespeare's plays or Haydn's concertos really of the same quality?

My supposition with people like Docx and the general disdain for genre in certain literary circles is that "literary" is often used simply as a term of praise. That is, a work labeled 'genre' or 'SF' is taken to be labeled as merely genre or merely SF. And then, presumably, fiction that is in the realist or (forgive me) "literary" genre is simply termed fiction unless it is good enough to qualify as literature.

That's fine so far as it goes, but it's liable to confusion. It gives us two rather conflicting uses of the term "literary". One picks out a genre of modern, generally realist fiction, interested in smaller focus stories of contemporary life. And another picks out a group of what might be considered 'great works' of fiction. (And which might include SF as well, such as by Atwood, Orwell, Bradbury, Huxley, and so on; not to mention high fantasy like the Bible or the Odyssey). An unstated corollary is that in some sense it's all -- or only -- the smaller focus, contemporary realist stories that have the right to the label 'literature', but if so that's unwarranted.

Genre is a way to market written works so that people can find what they like. There's no mystery to this. People's likes tend to fall in categories. And though no single system will perfectly fit them all, some system is better than none. So long as we don't take it too seriously.