Happy 450th, Mr Shakespeare

by wjw on April 24, 2014

William_Shakespeare_1609Today is the day we traditionally celebrate the birth of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere,” as he was referred to in his baptismal records.  It may not be his actual birthday, but what the hell: Let’s celebrate anyway!

There’s a kind of bad literary scholarship that we might refer to as “spot-the-influence,” in which the critic observes in the text a reference to, say, The Golden Bowl, and then pronounces, “This book was written under the influence of Henry James,” or “This book is a response to Henry James,” or, worse, “This book is a sad-ass imitation of the Master, Henry James.”

Anyone who’s actually written a long piece of fiction knows that the matter of literary influence is a good deal more complicated than that.  For my own part, my day-to-day writing is primarily influenced by whoever I was reading on that particular day.  If I reference Henry James, it’s because James was on the menu du jour, not because I have in mind some elaborate pastiche of The Aspern Papers.  

(This matter of transient literary influence is the reason why, when I’m doing my final draft, I try to make sure I’m reading a really, really good stylist.  Who is often but not always Nabokov.  [I now look forward to a critic drawing out all the elaborate parallels between Angel Station and Pnin.])

(And now that I think of it, didn’t Nabokov already parody that type of critic in Pale Fire?)

Long-term influence is another matter.  There are a select few writers who stay with you, and there are other writers who influence you because they helped form fiction itself.  It could be argued that every writer today is influenced by Henry James whether he’s read James or not.

But if you’re looking for the primary influence on my work, you need look no further than the gent at the upper right.  I started devouring Shakespeare in grade school, and much of my undergraduate career was devoted to the Elizabethans in general and Shakespeare in particular.  I’m at home in the Elizabethan idiom, and I believe I’ve mentioned that parts of one novel were translated from Elizabethan into modern English.  I’ve read Shakespeare, I’ve written about Shakespeare, and I’ve acted Shakespeare.  (I was freakin’ Prince Hal, I’ll have you know.)

Shakespeare will teach you how character will illuminate action, and action illuminate character.  He’ll teach you how to dramatize characters’ thoughts, how to break your story into acts so that everything doesn’t happen at once, how to relieve the heavy drama with comedy, how to pace the story, how to create vivid minor characters, how to focus a really big story on just a few characters so that it’s manageable.  How to work philosophy and introspection into narrative, how to make prose poetic and how to make poetry carry story, how to give wonderful human moments to villains so that they’re not one-dimensional.  How to use neologisms (Shakespeare coined 1700 words, apparently).  How to introduce fantastic elements into narrative.  How to load backstory into narrative.  How character and action and narrative are basically all the same thing.  (And he’ll teach you how to create a list like this and make it interesting.)

Hell, how to do historical fiction.  Because I think he invented all that with the history plays.

I steal from Shakepeare all the time.   I rip off his plots.  I make free use of his characters.  (“This scene is all, like, Othello meets Richard II on the Seacoast of Bohemia.”)  Sometimes I’ll paraphrase his best lines.  And of course, like every other English speaker, I use those 1700 neologisms and those distinctive phrases.

And like Shakespeare, I try to just get on with it.  (“It’s a business, write your quota, you can fix it later.”  ”Introspection is for guys without deadlines.”  ”If you don’t put the words on paper, your genius won’t be visible to anyone, least of all you.”  [In fact I think those are all quotes from Coriolanus, no?] )

Whenever I’m in some kind of jam, the tune to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” begins to buzz in the back of my head.

So here’s to young Gulielmus.  May you live another 450 years!

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Dinosaurs

by wjw on April 18, 2014

DinosaursSmallerFor the last couple days I’ve been watching a new water well being drilled on my property, so I’ve had to hang around and throw circuit breakers, and otherwise make sure the house didn’t burn down.  The result is that my self-publishing efforts got a boost, mainly because there was nothing else to do but work.  Two stories in two days!  Rah!

I’m pleased to announce that the house now has sweet water for the first time in, well, ever, and that my Hugo-nominated novelette “Dinosaurs” is now available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords, and it will be available in other forums shortly.  It’s only $0.99.  Spend like the wind!

I don’t remember anything about the genesis of this story, except that it shares a fear of senility that is visible in a lot of my stories from this period.  Zimmerman in Knight Moves, Roon in Hardwired, Telamon in “Surfacing,” and Drill in “Dinosaurs,” all suffer from a kind of senescence, a retreat into a pampered mental infancy in which every desire is fulfilled and every problem is taken care of, often by a surrogate parent.  (In “Dinosaurs,” the surrogate is even named Surrogate.)

This may be autobiographical, albeit at some remove.  At one point in my life I watched an aneurism turn my father from a vital, active man into a semi-invalid with no particular purpose in life, and whose needs were taken care of with perfect efficiency by his devoted spouse.  He was far from senile, but he was wandering through existence without quite knowing who he was anymore, and that situation produced in me more than its fair share of terror.

I was not afraid of mere senility, but of senile systems: governmental or societal systems that had lost their reason for being, but which still wielded power without quite remembering what it was for.  In “Dinosaurs,” the entire human race has grown so vast and over-specialized that any actual reason for its existence seems to have been lost.

The story was first sold to L. Ron Hubbard, of all people.  He had just announced a science fiction magazine, and was paying top rates.  I figured if such venerable figures as Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, and Roger Zelazny could be a part of Elron’s various publishing enterprises, then so could I.

The check arrived on the very day the news announced that Hubbard had died.  ”Better cash the check quick,” I said to myself, and did.  Somewhat to my surprise, the check cleared.

Unfortunately that meant that Hubbard’s publishing company still had the rights to the story, even though the magazine was canceled shortly after Hubbard’s death.  So it was two or three years later that “Dinosaurs” actually appeared in Asimov’s, was nominated for a Hugo, and lost to Ursula K. LeGuin.

“Dinosaurs” has been one of my most reprinted stories, and is probably my most popular story in Eastern Europe.  After all, if they don’t know what it is to be conquered by a vast, powerful, alien, and senile political system, who does?

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Surfacing Surfaces Again

by wjw on April 17, 2014

SurfacingsmallerMy Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella “Surfacing” is now available for your love on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.  It will appear on other sites in the next few days, and is a mere $2.99.  You have my permission to spend freely.

The book is set in the same future as my novel Knight Moves, though you don’t need to have read the novel in order to enjoy the story.  In fact “Surfacing” is basically an attempt to do Knight Moves all over again.

I thought I had failed with the novel.  I was wrong, but I didn’t know that at the time

Based on the completely false notion that I’d somehow let myself down with Knight MovesI decided on a do-over, at a more compact length.  I set the story in the Knight Moves universe some hundreds of years later, and wrote a story that shares the major concerns of the novel: love, communication, obsession, life, death, immortality, and a nigh-hopeless quest to unravel one of nature’s more imponderable mysteries.

I should point out that “Surfacing” doesn’t actually cover the exact same ground as the novel.  It has different characters and a different plot.  It just explores similar concerns.

I wrote the story in a furious white-hot blaze, then stalled on the ending.  I remember workshopping the incomplete story with Terry Boren and Laura Mixon, and they couldn’t figure out an ending, either.

So I put the story aside for about six months, and then went back to it.  And when I looked at it, I realized that I’d already written the ending I wanted.  I just hadn’t realized it.

Some people still find the ending incomplete.  I get that.  I faced a choice where the finale was concerned.  One possible ending would be: “Anthony and Philana resolve to solve their problems together, and after years of therapy and one fuck of a long lawsuit against Telemon, finally achieve something like happiness.”  Which would have turned my tidy novella into an epic the size of Anna Karenina, and would have been pretty damn dull, besides.  (I find that accounts of therapy are of interest only to the therapized: the rest of us have been there, already.)

What I decided to write instead of the long, dull ending was a triumphant scene filled with ringing trumpets and hope, that would imply that Anthony and Philana were on the right track, and would solve their problems in time.

A couple of things “informed,” as we say, the narrative.  The first was this long essay I wrote a good ten years earlier, when I was living in Boston.  I knew nobody there, and I had no job and no money, and so I ended up sitting around in a coffee shop writing long, desperate letters to everyone I knew.  And one day I— having run out of friends to pity me— found myself writing a long essay on whale speech, which I actually knew nothing about.  I hypothesized, however, that the black watery realm would tend to break down the barriers between the self and the environment, and result in a grammar in which subject and object were one.

(This already exists in the grammar of the Navajos.  ”I’m going to the store,” can’t be said in Navajo, what you end up saying is “The store and I are in a condition of moving toward one another.”  Because you and the store inhabit the same universe, and it’s all part of the same circle, and everything’s connected.)

All of which was said in much greater detail in my essay.

Another element of the story is that Philana’s condition— which I won’t describe BECAUSE SPOILERS— is a metaphor for mental illness.  I’d been around some people who, even if they might not fit the diagnostic description of multiple personality disorder, nevertheless seemed to have more than one person clumping around in their heads.  In one case, I went to bed with a very nice, loving lady, and next day woke up with a complete stranger.  (And no, it wasn’t that she just needed her morning coffee.)

Anyway, this and other experiences had me thinking about MPD, and all that led later to Aristoi.  

So anyway: “Surfacing.”  Whale speech, aliens, desperate love, Nebula and Hugo nominations, and the sense that I was on the right track.

Read, ye people, and enjoy.

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Walk This Way

by wjw on April 15, 2014

The art collective Kreativiteket has created a Silly Walk Zone in the border village of Ørje, Norway.

I was tempted to begin this post with “Following in the silly footsteps of Monty Python . . . ” but something restrained me.

This is from the country that gave us Lillyhammer.  What’s going on up there?

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Crashing Carriers

by wjw on April 11, 2014

I saw the new Captain America movie the other night.  Which I liked just fine, it’s one of the best of the Marvel film adaptations, and it avoided several obvious pitfalls (like forcing Cap and Black Widow into a romance).

I don’t feel the need to analyze it.  There are plenty of analyses elsewhere, and I doubt I’d add anything to the conversation.

What I want to talk about is S.H.I.E.L.D.  Specifically the Helicarrier, which is this giant flying aircraft carrier that serves as its headquarters.

I believe I still possess my original copy of Strange Tales #135, which contains the first S.H.I.E.L.D. story and the introduction of the Helicarrier, and reading it even as a little kid, I went “Huh?”  Because even as a child, I understood the reasons why, even if you had the technology to build a Helicarrier, you really wouldn’t want one.

Firstly, a giant flying aircraft carrier sort of attracts the eye.  A super-secret spy organization you maybe want to put in an anonymous office building, but probably not in a giant floating structure that can be spied on by anybody with a pair of cheap binoculars.

Secondly: REALLY BIG TARGET.  Sort of too big to miss, really.  And you know the bad guys are going to shoot at it.  Because, y’know, they’re BAD GUYS, and they have super-science an’ stuff, and they blow things up on a monthly basis.

And thirdly: What happens when it falls down?  Because it will fall down.  Because the bad guys will blow it up, because they have super-science an’ stuff, and this is the Marvel universe, where things blow up all the time.  And if it falls down, you’d better hope it falls down in Antarctica or somewhere, because otherwise it will land on the people that S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to protect.

Which was made obvious enough in the Avengers movie, you’d think, when Loki’s zombie agents disabled the helicarrier and almost brought it crashing down on New York City.

(And the Wikipedia entry on the Helicarrier fleet shows that they are regularly crashed, scuttled, or hijacked.  Yet when the S.H.I.E.L.D. budget-crunchers get to work, and have to decide whether to hire 10,000 new agents or build a replacement helicarrier, they always go for the freakin’ big target in the sky.)

So anyway, in The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. doubles down— triples down, really— on the helicarrier concept, and builds three of them to, well, sort of rule the world, or at any rate kill any bad guy on the planet they want, without the necessity of a trial.  (And these are the good guys, remember.  Who also operate from a megalomaniac tower in D.C. that’s shaped like a three-legged swastika, which you’d think might be a clue as to what’s actually going on in your organization, don’t you think, Director Fury?!?  I mean, the way this thing looms over Washington, you’d think the architect’s previous project had been the Barad-dûr.)

So now we’ve got three of the beasts, which of course get blowed up and rain thousands of tons of flaming debris over the District of Columbia, doubtless mashing many national monuments in the process.  (Not like this is a spoiler or anything.)

Kudos, anyway, to the writers for noticing that an intelligence organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly the biggest threat to human liberty in the Marvel universe, even counting alien invaders and rampaging Norse gods.

But they’re stuck with legacy structures like the Helicarrier and the Triskelion, great big megalomaniacal symbols of omnipotence that are in reality little but missile magnets.  The actual future is orders of magnitude smaller.

The world doesn’t belong to Giant-Man, it belongs to Ant Man.  The guy with the headset filled with electronics.  The tiny, ubiquitous little character who can be anywhere, overhear anyone, listen to your conversations while inside your phone.   You don’t need a giant budget-killer like the helicarrier— or the F35— you just need some drones, and a headset, and some chips.

And then you’re Hydra for real.

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CounterIntuitive

April 8, 2014

Recently I’ve encountered two counterintuitive, if not outright heretical, arguments about history and culture. The first belongs to New Mexico’s own Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill, both biologists, who have marshaled evidence to support their theory that culture, including political culture, is a function of the disease pathogens infesting your particular neighborhood.  If you have […]

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Rolling Deep

April 6, 2014

More proof, if one were needed, that reality is taking Deep State as a template. USAID— a branch of government that normally gives humanitarian aid— tried to undermine the Cuban government by setting up an social media project funded by the US government, but routed through third parties in Spain, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.   They intended […]

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Mr. Poe Requests the Honor of Your Presence . . .

April 2, 2014

. . . at a great big ol’ war. Which is all by way of saying that my novella “No Spot of Ground,” featuring the Civil War adventures of Edgar Allan Poe, is now available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.  It will appear on other forums presently. And it’s only $1.99!  Less […]

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Enter the Dark Pool

April 1, 2014

Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball and other fine works about money (and who owns it and how it moves), has a new bestseller in Flash Boys, about a few brave souls who discovered that the U.S. stock market was rigged, and who decided to do something about it. What did they do?  They started their […]

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Taos Toolbox: the News is Good

April 1, 2014

Recent news from graduates of Taos Toolbox has been pretty darn good, if I say so myself. Graduate Fran Wilde has a story, “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” in the April/May ASIMOV’S.  She’s also sold three books to Tor, one of which was workshopped by the Toolbox gang. Graduate Gail Strickland has sold the […]

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