book review: flight from neveryon

Reading a Samuel R. Delany book is something I do very slowly. I’ve learned it’s necessary to really think about what’s on the page to appreciate his work. I don’t know if I got that when I first read Dhalgren a decade ago, but I’ve got it down now.

Flight From Nevèrÿon is Delany’s third and final sword & sorcery book. There are three parts to the book. The first is about a young smuggler who collects stories of Gorgik the Liberator. He has a sexual encounter with a man who might be Gorgik’s companion. He meets more people who might be Gorgik or know Gorgik and all of them disappoint as new versions of stories get recreated in the smuggler’s mind. It’s very much a story about shifting perception. Then there’s the Mummer’s Tale, which is also about making up stories and performing them and the ways the subjects of those stories are represented.

But the big thing about this book is the story of Nevèrÿon mixed with the story of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s and the story of creating this story. There’s a plague in Nevèrÿon and a plague in New York and no one knows what is happening. The numbered sections fragment everything into this multifaceted beast of a story that seems like it could have no possible ending. It’s very different from most sword & sorcery.

I’d have to think much more carefully about it to be able to do the book justice in my own analysis/response, but for now I’ll just say it does reward slow reading. If you have the time, it’s a great book about power and sex and story.

book review: among others

Jo Walton’s book Among Others is a librarian’s dream book. It’s about a 15-year-old Welsh girl in a terrible English boarding school in 1979. But Mor loves science fiction. The book is about reading science fiction and fantasy and the power that these stories have. And holy shit does she read. The book is full of commentary on Zelazny and Delany and Tolkien and who might have actually seen elves and known something about how magic really was.

Because Mor’s mother is a witch. At least, she’s alluded to as being a witch. And her twin sister died trying to stop their witchy mother from doing witchy things. But Mor is not an entirely reliable narrator in this story about magic that can always be explained by coincidence.

The librarians in the book are heroes. They help Mor meet other bookish people and place countless interlibrary loans for her. It’s the kind of book that makes me happy when I fill out those forms for my library members.

I believe it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards, but a lot of that has to be because of its near complete immersion in classic science fiction which would be near to the hearts of those prize-selectors. But still. A very good book about books.

book review: the complete lockpick pornography

The Complete Lockpick Pornography is two of Joey Comeau’s short novels (Lockpick Pornography and We All Got It Coming) put together in an attractive pink binding that belies all the violence inside.

The first story is about a guy who tries to overthrow hetero-normative society by stealing from straight people. We first meet him smashing a sex partner’s boyfriend’s TV and then stealing a new one to make up for it. He gets involved with a queer team who come up with a plan to break into elementary schools and leave books about gay grandfathers inside. And through all of this the narrator is calling a stranger in the suburbs and asking her questions to try and destabilize her life. Everyone is hurt and angry and trying to make the world better. There’s lots of sex and people trying to negotiate complicated relationships. It’s kind of like a lighter (and non-science-fictional) Samuel R. Delany story.

We All Got It Coming is a much gentler story about two guys in a relationship. The narrator gets pushed down the stairs at his shit job and he quits and tries to find something new to do with himself. He wants to raise hell and be awesome, but the world isn’t going to make it easy. This one is more about responding to violence and being weak and wanting to be otherwise.

They aren’t direct sequels, but I think reading the two stories right after each other works really well. The violence in We All Got It Coming is handled very differently from Lockpick Pornography – it’s much less of a way to blow off steam and maybe think about a little and more something that completely destabilizes a person. Putting the two together gives good perspective on the idea of violence being omnipresent and how control of that violence empowers and disempowers people.

Joey Comeau writes excellently spiky language to get caught in your brain. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.

book review: the diary of anaïs nin (vol 1. 1931-1934)

After years of searching (not exhaustively) used bookshops I found a copy of the first volume of The Diary of Anaïs Nin for $3.50 Northampton, MA in April. I was quite pleased. I refrained from reading it while I was in the States or back home so I had a reason to bring it with me to Australia so my girlfriend could also read it when she arrives.

I read the diary slowly and I’m glad I did. It would have felt disrespectful somehow to blow through it, when Anaïs so clearly poured so much into the diary. It’s about a few years of her life in France and features Henry Miller, a couple of psychotherapists, her estranged father and endless ruminations about art and how life should be lived.

I write about little things because the big ones are like abysses.

There’s so much in here about being an artist, about the pull to live and to write about life. There are people who embody those pulls, and because it’s a diary you’re pulled along with Anaïs as her opinions of them change without seeming predestination. She refers to the diary, to writing in it as her opium, and she sets down lies and sees so clearly.

The thing the diary didn’t answer was where her money came from. This is something I’ve been thinking about more since reading Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, where he was very critical of fiction that didn’t acknowledge the economic realities of human existence. She has a beautiful home and by the end of the book she’s paying to have Tropic of Cancer printed, but you don’t get a sense of how that happens. There are other realities she’s much more interested in than how to pay for her dinner (or her psychoanalysis). It’s outside the dream.

If I delved into the history of the diary’s publication I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this is a heavily-edited version. It’s not as sexual as you might expect, though still filled with feeling. She was kind of an amazing woman.

book review: atlantis: three tales

Atlantis: Three Tales is a non-SF book by Samuel R. Delany, and one of the reasons I don’t go looking for Delany books systematically. I didn’t know it existed when I found it in a used-book store in Seattle in February.

It contains three stories. “Atlantis: Model 1924” is about a young black boy who comes to New York City in 1924 to live with his brother. Delany does some interesting parallel text things to represent memory and its strangeness. Sam crosses the Brooklyn Bridge where he maybe watches a man drown after pissing into the river and talks to a queer guy who invites him to his apartment in Brooklyn. “Eric, Gwen and D.H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling” is about art and feeling and profanity. There’s an impressive cussing milkman in this one, and stuff about boys introducing boys to sex. “Citre et Trans” is about a queer young writer travelling in Greece who gets raped by a couple of sailors and his relationships with a bunch of expatriates, and a dog.

The thing that affected me most about the last story is how the rape was violent but more importantly, complicated. It wasn’t “These terrible sailors raped this writer” it was very complicated, even with the blood and the theft and the downplaying of the situation afterwards. It was the kind of story that sticks with you. Yeah. Delany’s really good even once he left science fiction behind.

book review: about writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany is the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Bar none. If you care about the art of writing and not just “how to get published” this is the book I would recommend without reservation.

The key pieces of advice from the book are fairly pedestrian when laid out: “Don’t overwrite; don’t let your writing become thin or superficial; don’t indulge clichés,” but there’s much more. He talks about what writers should read, and about how story is just false memory, and how the best stories are economic (stories that don’t acknowledge how the protagonists are paying their rent tend to be less satisfying because how we afford things is integral to our experience of life).

Delany discusses about the formation of a literary canon, and about how science fiction, pornography and experimental writing exist as para-literature, but also gets into punctuation and the use of tenses to convey different moods and feelings. He discusses dramatic structure in a way that is incredibly simple, so simple it’s not formulaic. He talks about the poetry of language and what talent is and how it’s different from being able to use the tools of writing. He talks about how to construct a scene by observation, that that’s the writer’s real job, to observe better than everyone else and remember and write it down (which prompted this tweet from my research methods class yesterday).

There’s a lot to this book. I’ve used it already to improve a piece of fiction I’m working on and I will continue to use it since this is about as close as I’ll get to learning from the man himself.

book review: home is the hangman

I got this Roger Zelazny short novel/long story, Home is the Hangman at a used bookstore, basically because the other half of the book was a Samuel R. Delany short novel/long story I wasn’t sure I’d read (it turns out I had). Home is the Hangman was basically a Blade Runner-esque plot. A detective is tracking down the people this maybe-artificial intelligence might be on its way to kill after going kind of weird as a worker up on Europa. It was a quick read, and a decent little tale. Nothing tremendously crazy happens to overturn your idea of what it’s going to be. It’s just a straightforward sf-noir-ish story.