12-17-09:World Fantasy Convention Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
Genre fiction creates its own extended families. This is more than community, and more, I think than simple friendship. There's a sense of watching out for one another, mixed, in the best cases with a superb sense of professionalism. Writers have no crutches. In the end, we can all read the results of their work. Jeff VanderMeer is the sort of professional who has managed to create his own huge, weird family of collaborators. Here's what he had to say about family, extended family and the import of genre fiction to his life; as well as his import to genre fiction.
Jeff, could you talk about your upbringing and how it plays into your work as a writer of fantasy fiction?
I grew up in the Fiji Islands, where my parents worked as members of the Peace Corps, and I wanted to be a writer from the age of eight. Traveling as a family, including my younger sister, Elizabeth, we spent six months returning to the United States, exploring twenty countries along the way. Experiences like seeing a trance dance in Bali, getting lost in Rome, hallucinating hummingbirds while on oxygen in Cusco, seeing Planet of the Apes with (if I remember correctly) Chinese dubbing and French subtitles, reading Indian comic versions of Hindu/Buddhist stories, and getting bitten by a monkey in Calcutta certainly didn’t predispose me to a realist’s view of the world. And not having one place to call home meant that I think I turned to fantasy as a way to reconcile my various memories of childhood. The Ambergris Cycle in particular contains all kinds of mosaic fragments of my life. The travel, though, was just another aspect of my parents’ wanting to expose us to other cultures and perspectives. By the time we got back to the states, for example, it was very weird to enter the U.S. school system and see minority-majority dynamics at play. In Fiji, we were a minority in the school system, but in no way a marginalized minority. I had no real sense of the other and took it for granted that black kids and white kids played together and learned together, and that cliques in school weren’t determined by race. This wasn’t the case back in the U.S., unfortunately, and probably the biggest cultural shock—much bigger than anything that surprised me during our travels.
Could you talk about creating the city of Ambergris, and how the elements of the fantastic influenced your Ambergris Cycle; does fantasy fiction suggest to you alternate forms of expression?
No, it does not suggest alternate forms of expression—whether a story has a portal to another place in it or just someone walking through an ordinary door into a kitchen has no bearing on classification as far as I’m concerned. The true point is that all fiction has some connection to the real world or it becomes inward-turning and pointless. I saw fantasy fiction, if I thought about it consciously at all, as a way of engaging the real world, but with a necessary distance—in a way similar to a writer needing distance from personal events in his or her life to write about them.
Also, there’s a difference between being someone who writes fantasy and someone who is a fabulist. You can be a fantasy writer and come out of a realistic tradition. I tend toward a worldview that’s naturally surrealistic, and thus I’m more of a fabulist; I don’t need my fiction to support the illusion of “reality”. Ironically, this means I have to spend a lot of time on the details in my stories, to make the reader suspend disbelief. But it’s also a fallacy to think every writer only writes in a fabulist or realistic mode. I like to move back and forth between types of fiction, and to do whatever is required to make a particular story or novel work.
What fantasy allows in the Ambergris Cycle—leaving aside the connectivity of recurring characters—is for the city of Ambergris itself to provide the anchor. The imaginary place provides continuity, and allows me much more freedom in how I approach style and voice than, perhaps, a real-world city.
As you say, the city of Ambergris has in fact become a character in your work. What drew you back to explore it again in Finch? What did you want to do with the character of Ambergris this time around?
Back in 1998, I’d planned out the rough parameters of the Ambergris Cycle, which always included a novel like Finch, in that the third novel was going to be a detective novel of some kind. In early drafts, the detective was a newcomer to the city, but I abandoned that because it was too similar to the approach of some of the stories in City of Saints. Also, between 2001 and 2006, when I began the novel in earnest, the whole political landscape changed because of 9-11. In 2004, I had the idea to set Finch one hundred years after the other two novels. In 2005, I knew that Ambergris was an occupied city, and that Finch was a reluctant detective. From there, it was just a matter of wrenching my mind out of the old Ambergris and into the new. One thing Finch does as a result is give readers more of a street levelview, in terse, visceral prose, of Ambergris.
Finch is as much a noir as it is a fantasy novel. Talk about using one genre to explore your creation in another genre.
Finch is a true mutation: it combines elements of noir fiction, thrillers, spy stories, war stories, and other forms with the fantastical element. What this does is provide an immediate atmosphere of menace and stress. Finch is a man who is trapped on all sides—forced to solve murders that are very strange. If he solves the case, the rebels will likely kill him. If he doesn’t, his gray cap masters will kill him. And it also mirrors events in our real world while allowing me enough distance to distort and change them. I have been writing about detectives on and off for some time in short stories—I even wrote an early novel in which a detective finds a dead human-sized white rabbit with a pocket watch in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. But this is the culmination of that process of exploration.
John Finch is a man the reader can imagine as having a life in this world ... why did he end up in Ambergris?
I’ve never written about kings and queens and the upper classes in my Ambergris fiction. They’ve always been artists, store owners, priests, and other people who might be considered middle class. Finch is no different from the other characters I’ve written about, except that I see him as an unambiguously decent man whose moral compass can never be broken, even as he finds himself in compromised positions, even as he has to take drastic actions. The ambiguity in Ambergris that came from the goodness or non-goodness of prior characters—the arrogance of Martin Lake, the obsessions of Duncan Shriek, the shading of the truth by Janice Shriek—comes instead from the situations Finch finds himself in. Fantasy fiction that neglects characters that are never going to be The Chosen One neglects a chance for an added layering of reality. And when you say you can imagine him having a life in our world, that’s exactly the point.
Is this the last we'll see of Ambergris? Will there ever be a "last of Ambergris"?
If Ambergris ever returns it will be, for all practical purposes, unrecognizable in the context of the three novels of the Ambergris Cycle. Inasmuch as Ambergris echoes the real world and infiltrates the real world by being in some senses a mirror or reflection...who knows?
You're noted for creating and participating in a variety of movements, for example the New Weird. How do these groups of writers and their manifestos, speeches, anthologies, magazines, conventions and works inform you as a writer?
The only movement I’ve createdis the Romantic Underground, developed in tongue-in-cheek fashion when Jack Dann, who had read some throw-away line about it on the internet, invited me to write an essay on the subject for the Nebula Awards anthology and I thought Sure, it doesn’t exist, but why the heck not create it,followed by an evil laugh. The resulting piece skewered the whole idea of literary movements. As for something like New Weird, at the time of its creation I found it too vague a term. But after seeing how it had been of use to European fantasy editors and how a new generation of writers and readers have also referenced it, I’ve changed my mind somewhat on that point. It’s also useful in an era when the term urban fantasyhas changed so much to differentiate urban fantasy from urban fantasy, so to speak. When asked by Jacob Weisman at Tachyon to edit a New Weird anthology, Ann and I found it interesting to explore the idea in this later context. So, I guess in summary: I find movements most fascinating from the point of view of an anthology editor, much less so from the point of view as a writer, in part because I could never self-identify with any one group given that I write in a lot of different modes. The closest I could come to that would be to identify with the Surrealists or the Decadents, and even that’s too limiting. Take Steampunk, for instance—much more interesting as a subculture and aesthetic than as a movement. As a reader, I still engage each writer and each writer’s individual work with no preconception or label.
What do you see as the core concepts at the heart of science fiction, fantasy and horror? Do you see a hard differentiation or a gradation from one to the other?
I think thematically rather than in terms of genre. It’s much more interesting to look at two thematically similar works, whether or not both are genre, than to compare/contrast works because of a similar fantastical element. You can use elements of anything to support any theme you want. In terms of labeling, add horror to fantasy and it becomes dark fantasy.The best space opera is often the equivalent of combining science fiction and dark fantasy—the hard science aspects support the most baroque and outrageously surreal scenarios possible in a science fiction novel (que: Banks or Reynolds, for example).
You have a particular love of and talent for incorporating horror into your fantasy fiction. You've created some great monsters and critters – what were your favorites as an early reader, and what are those that now inspire you?
I wasn’t really into monster movies. I was much more interested in the elements of transformation. For example, one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever seen—which led to the creation of the flesh dogs in my Veniss Underground stories—was in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Jeff Goldblum and Donald Sutherland. One of the characters encounters a dog with a human face. That chilled me. Similarly both the story and movie versions of The Thing. And that, of course, brings me to Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, which are about body horror and body transformation. I can’t say I was ever fascinated by werewolves, zombies, vampires, and the like. These more unusual hybrids, though, creeped me out, and I think pertain to really interesting issues of identity and of what is truly alien. Nowadays, it’s easy to scare me but hard to disturb me, if that makes any sense. I can’t remember the last book I read that truly made me uneasy. Because that’s really what we’re talking about here, in terms of monsters. The most terrifying monster is the one that we internalize or become. I also have always been fascinated by the invisible monsters around us—bacteria and spores and other things that are constantly transforming us at the micro level, and which we don’t even notice. There’s also an unbelievable beauty to such things, even when they’re grotesque. It’s the confluence of what we think as monstrous and what we find strangely beautiful that interests me.
What is it that brings you to write a story — in any genre?
On the whole, it’s because some character suggests him or herself, and an interesting world and set of other characters springs up around that person. Usually, some kind of charged or symbolic image is associated with the character, and the character has some kind of problem or dilemma. I have a deeply visual sense of a story in my mind’s eye. A layering effect occurs then where I just think about the implications of the initial spark, before I write anything down. I must have at least a vague sense of the ending before I start physically writing or I never finish the story or novel. This coincides with having a deep need to write—if I don’t write fiction for several weeks, I get antsy, fidgety, possibly even paranoid and slightly depressed. I get some kind of energy or charge from the physical act of writing. So it’s deeply personal in that sense. I’m aware of my readership when I write in the sense that I want to entertain, horrify, amuse, astound myself as a reader, but I would write even if I’d never been published. Other contexts for fiction...sometimes I need to write a nightmare out of my head. For example, the novella that won the World Fantasy Award, The Transformation of Martin Lake—I wrote part of it so I would stop dreaming of someone cutting open my hand in visceral fashion. Writing the story stopped the nightmare. Predecessor,in Conjunctions this year, is almost scene-for-scene a nightmare I had. A few times, in cases where someone has approached me about writing fiction for a particular context, the technical challenge of doing something outside of what I normally do has driven me to write a story.
Could you tell us a little about your writing process — from first draft to final revision — in both long and short forms?
I’m not sure if it’s possible because it changes so much from story to story and novel to novel. Each work suggests its own process, and beyond the particulars of, when in the middle of it, spending a good part of my life writing, the rest is mutable. I’ve given up times of day, types of paper or pens, a particular place, and all the rest of that. Some stories require very little revision, and others I’ve gone through fifteen or sixteen revisions, changed the voice, changed the point of view, and all the rest. On novels, I will outline less or more depending on how much I feel I need to discover while writing. On some novels, I will only outline after I’ve finished writing—reverse outlining allows me to see the structure and to determine if any ribs are missing, if there’s a second tail, that sort of thing. Sometimes an entire novel or story will accrete on a series of notecards—fragments of scenes, dialogue, etc.—and I’ll put the notecards in story order and have a kind of mosaic pre-first draft from which to create a first draft. Sometimes, as on the novel I’m writing now, I use an outline as a method of improv, so the structure of the outline has each chapter as a day and a different place (it’s a road novel), and the characters involved, and a basic situation. Then, when I actually write it, it’s literally like a director allowing actors to improvise on set. The point is, I’ve given myself some structure, but still allowed for discovery and inspiration in each scene. In almost all cases, I will write in longhand first, then type the text into a computer file, and then print that out and do a third draft in longhand, and then retype that into the computer. At each stage, the text changes, often radically. The change in format allows me to see it with fresh eyes and enter the fictive dream of the story again—almost like watching a movie over and getting lost in it again.
Could you tell us about your writing day?
>I can be an inconsistent writer in terms of sitting down to write. The most normal scenario is that I go down to the local coffee shop and write for three or four hours in longhand. But if I’m heavily into a project and focused in on it and nothing else, that time at the coffee shop will be followed by even more intense writing sessions on the computer, followed then by printing out pages and making major edits in the evenings. I’ve been known to write thirty thousand words in a few days and then spend a few months getting those words to be the right ones. I might go three months without writing anything, just thinking about fiction, thinking about the story or novel, and then do nothing but for another three or four months.
What are the most important things outside of writing that contribute to your writing?
My wife Ann’s support in the sense of her belief in my writing and her help in reading it and commenting on it. Her patience with me in terms of knowing that there are going to be times when I’m not really present because I’m obsessed with a project. Having stability is important. Although I use negative things that happen as catalysts to fiction writing, a way of getting it out, I need a stable, routine daily routine. Having good friends who always tell it like they see it and don’t just tell me what I want to hear. I would also say that feeling like I’m part of a larger community of writers and readers is also important. I think it’s crucial to pay it back—something that one of my early supporters, Michael Moorcock, exemplifies—and I’ve tried to do that as much as I am able.
Since you started writing in the 1980s, we've seen all of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy become parts of mainstream culture — and yet there is still a very strong sense of what is genre and what is not.
I see that as an unfortunate bit of tribalism on both sides. It’s peculiar to me, since I started out writing poetry and submitting to mainstream literary journals, early on edited both a literary journal and a fantasy magazine, and have never really understood the territorialism. For this reason, I tend not to join writing groups or organizations on either side of the divide. I prefer to deal with individuals and not to acknowledge this kind of baggage, from either genre or from the mainstream, except to call bullshit when particularly egregious examples of tribalism crop up on either side. I think I try to stay away from it in part because I don’t have time for it. It saps energy for no good reason, engages one in the same old conversations over and over again. It also can affect how you view a book, which is unfair to the writer. I think the genre community is supportive of new writers, generous and giving, and I love the people in it very much—just as I love my friends who are outside of that community—but I will also always feel apart from it in some ways, even as I try to give back to it what it has given to me. This position has certainly cost me in terms of engaging in the kind of politics that allow you to become a genre insider, but on the other hand I think I have more freedom of movement, which is much more important to me. I’m also beholden to no one and can say what I think, which gets me in trouble sometimes but is an important part of being a proactive member of a community.
Fantasy, by definition, includes elements of the fantastic that cordon it off, so to speak from realistic literary fiction. When you include these elements in your fiction, or use them as a premise for creating an entire world, how do you see the resulting work interacting with or reflecting our everyday world?
I don’t actually agree with this definition of fantasy. The Ambergris Cycle contains very little fantastical in it, per se. It’s in fact fantasy without a fantasy element, for the most part. I prefer to see fantasy as a mode of experiencing the world and writing about it. It’s at its most effective when it’s a natural expression of a writer’s view of our world. The writers who say, with a kind of surprise, I thought I was writing something realistic but everyone says it’s strange. An element of the fantastic can be used equally by a writer with a realist’s perspective and a non-realist’s perspective. You can have fantasy that’s as logical as the hardest SF and you can have fantasy that operates by something close to dream logic. But, as with any kind of fiction, if you don’t bring your personal experience and your close observations of the world to bear, then what you produce winds up seeming second or third hand. It’s easy to forget in part because fantasy and SF have so entered the pop culture that we too easily think in terms of plot and of destination, but to my mind a writer who isn’t a close observer of human nature, of physical mannerisms, of details of the physical world is more or less giving us in two dimensions what should be rendered in three. But to answer your question—any work of fiction has to interact with the real world in some way or it becomes caricature or burlesque or an intellectual exercise.
Has the spectacular success of young adult fantasy serial fiction had an impact on your fiction in particular? Could you talk about how it is changed the genre itself?
It’s more or less impossible to have a discussion about this because if you imply that YA may have had both good and bad effects, someone usually jumps down your throat. I’d just say (1) anything that helps create more readers is a wonderful thing, (2) YA is by now such a hodge-podge of different kinds of things that it no longer reflects marketing to a particular audience but more of a successful brand identity that allows editors and publishers more maneuverability and market penetration than an adult fiction label, especially for genre works, and (3) it’s good inasmuch as YA is allowing many weird and wonderful things to see print that might not have otherwise and bad inasmuch as may be making it harder to sell work that could never, ever be marketed as YA (even as adult in content some YA is...).
Young adult fiction is increasingly read by adults as well as the intended, or at least, included audience of adolescents. Science fiction and fantasy have often been characterized as adolescent fiction; is this of use to you as a writer? Do you find such a characterization helpful, hurtful, or irrelevant –and why?
Again, I realize someone is going to slam me for saying this, but...I’m not really fond of teenage protagonists, and much of YA is from the viewpoint of teenagers, despite exceptions. I don’t find teenage points of view that interesting as a reader. (It’s folly to say we don’t grow as people throughout our lifetimes, that we don’t add layers of experience and nuance; we are not the same at 40 as we are at 17, nor the same at 60 as at 40.) When I say I don’t read much YA, it’s for this reason and this reason only. It’s the same as if I said, I don’t read much Romance, because I don’t like romance stories or I don’t read many Westerns because I don’t like cowboys. Every reader has a set of likes and dislikes, and it’s impossible to expect readers to like every category equally—this is an entirely acceptable form of prejudice. (I usually don’t write from teenager perspectives, either.) Do I know that there is stuff in YA I would like if I sought it out? Yes, but there’s more than enough in the adult fiction category for me to read for twenty lifetimes. There’s also something too safe about YA as a category. When I was a teenager, I loved going to the adult section of the library because I was supposed to go to the juvenile section. I wouldn’t have gone to a section marketed to me, because the whole point was to do something that seemed slightly dangerous or forbidden. Indeed, my stepdaughter Erin almost never checked out YA—headed right for the adult section. That said, I make it a point to highlight YA works for my regular feature/reviewing gigs because I know I have a blind spot and don’t want to restrict access to readers because of my own hang-ups.
One of the many hats you've worn is as an editor of anthologies. Talk about creating anthologies versus writing fiction; does one offer a respite from the other?
I’ve been writing since I was eight or nine. But I started editing magazines and anthologies, and running an indie publishing company, in my teens because, well, isn’t that what writers do? It seemed to me that this was part of the writing life, and that it also was about being part of the wider community of writers. And I found I had the skill sets to make it work. I also love the book as physical artifact, and all the elements that go into creating a book—choosing paper stock, cover stock, giving a designer and artist guidelines to work from, reading the slush pile. These are different pleasures than writing, and in some ways they take you out of yourself and into the world. You have to communicate with other people, work with other people. There’s a sense of craftsmanship and a physicality to book production. There’s a sense of logic and order when you’re deciding on the contents of an anthology. These pleasures may be less personal, but they’re no less exciting or interesting. I also found that I needed long stretches between novels to recover whatever I’d spent in creating the last one. And sometimes the anthology projects, like the fake disease guide, wind up almost being like writing fiction anyway, since I’m creating fictional connective tissue for continuity. There are other reasons as well—I founded the Ministry of Whimsy because at the time there was nothing like Small Beer Press or some of the other publishers that today offer up material that’s not exactly like what the commercial houses offer. So the point was to offer access to readers for writers who wouldn’t otherwise have it. One of our biggest successes, Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, had been rejected by 150 publishers, and wound up being the first indie press book to ever win the Philip K. Dick Award. So these kinds of opportunities excited me because they quite literally upset the established order of things, and gave a voice to those who might not otherwise have one.
How has life as a married man with Ann changed your writing life?
Who knew I was marrying a Hugo Award winner? We’ve been together over eighteen years, so getting married in 2001 didn’t really change anything. It was overdue, frankly, although I’m such a curmudgeon that Ann is truly long-suffering. But we love our life together, and the adventures we’ve had and that are still to come. I was lucky to meet my life partner early on, and to have had her by my side ever since—and to have met someone who challenges me and who grounds me and who I can collaborate with creatively. One of the best times we’ve had recently is working on The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, which is Ann’s first co-written, as opposed to edited, book.
Could you look back over your career and tell us how you feel about your body of work as whole?
I’ve never written something I didn’t believe in at the time, and never put in less than one hundred percent on all of my books. I’ve had extraordinary control over the cover design and cover art used for my books, even from large publishers. I’ve always been able to realize my creative vision to the fullest extent possible—and I’ve worked with such talented editors, from Liz Gorinsky and Juliet Ulman to Victoria Blake and Jacob Weisman/Jill Roberts, Peter Lavery, and many others, that I feel ridiculously blessed. These people have helped make my work better. I’ve also had so many opportunities to travel and meet interesting people because of my work, and I’ve had the chance to see cult books like City of Saints published by large companies like Pan McMillan and Bantam and be successful. I’ve been able to serve as a conduit to publication for a number of writers, which I find very fulfilling, and a way of paying back Michael Moorcock and others for their kindnesses to me. Both creatively and career-wise, I’ve accomplished pretty much everything I wanted to by this point, at the ripe old age of 41. It’s been tough at times, and I’ve had reversals, but on the whole I’m happy on all counts. Now, of course, it’s into the second half of my life and I have new things I want to do creatively, and new career goals. In general, I don’t like to repeat myself.
The publishing industry is meeting the same challenges the music industry and musicians met some fifteen years ago. What do you think writers and publishers can do to ensure that readership keeps growing and the industry remains a viable source of income for writers?
There are really only four things we know about the future of the books industry, and thus about the future of writers: (1) pulp is being at least partially replaced by the electronic, (2) individual home-grown content providers are supplanting the established professional hierarchy, (3) authors will have more control over their public persona/profile (and therefore carry more risk), and (4) that we cannot really predict what will happen in the next five minutes let alone the next five years. In this environment, certain qualities will serve writers well: the vision to see five or six moves ahead; the adaptability to stop on a dime and reverse direction as necessary; the mental toughness to take risks while maintaining a safety net; being brutally honest about yourself and your work; and the centeredness not to panic in times of uncertainty. But the most important thing will always be: create something unique and from the heart. Put another way—tend to these things, develop these attributes, and whatever happens you’ll be satisfied you did the best you could, and that you didn’t do anything to torque your integrity out of shape.
You've written an unusual book of advice for writers called Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. What makes it different and why did you think what you had to say was important?
One thing about my career—I’ve worn all sorts of hats, and seen the industry from all kinds of perspectives. In addition to straddling a position between genres, I’ve also straddled the divide between the pre-Internet world and Web 2.0. I’ve also been a working writer, both part-time and full-time, and this has given me added perspective on what constitutes a sustainable career and sustainable creativity. Booklife is unique in that it incorporates discussion of the effects of new media into exploration of traditional creativity/career topics. I also try to show the connection between artistic success and such practical things as setting realistic long- and short-term goals for both your career and your writing that reflect your true, best desires and do not conflict—that, in fact, feed off of one another. The biggest problem facing most writers today is that they are operating on a tactical, not a strategic, basis. They get on Facebook or Twitter and they mistake the tool for a strategy, and they wind up chasing their tails. In fact, the most successful writers of the future may be the ones that don’t allow such fragmentation to occur—who are able to take the long view career-wise, and stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to blog entry, Twitter line, or a Facebook status message change. Along with that, there tends to be a bleed between your Public and Private Booklife that can ultimately damage the depth and ambition in your writing. So, Booklife both sets out the options in this new world we live in, and delineates the dangers versus rewards of certain actions. It also talks about things like how to jumpstart creativity.
And finally, tell us about how this year's World Fantasy Convention slots into your work as a writer, and how this convention fits into the larger frame of genre fiction, and indeed, just what is publishable.
Winning the World Fantasy Award for The Transformation of Martin Lake back in 2000 sparked my career and gave me validation that what I was doing wasn’t for nothing. To that point, I’d had a lot of trouble getting my longer work published, and that win was the start of a decade’s worth of success. I’ll always be personally grateful to the World Fantasy Convention for that. But in a larger sense, World Fantasy has come to mean family for me. We meet old and new friends at World Fantasy, and we get more of a sense of community than any other convention we attend. I genuinely love not just the creativity of the people who attend this convention, but the people themselves (even the cranks and curmudgeons, because I’m one of them). Coming to World Fantasy is, in a way, like coming home. So it’s truly one of the great honors of my life to be a guest of honor here.
12-16-09:Philip K. Dick is Ubiquitous : Why 'Ubik' is the One
Try it. Hide under a rock. Put a cardboard box over that rock. Have the rock in the box delivered to a desert oasis, your choice; central California, central Arabia, it doesn't matter. Sooner or later you'll need to feel the sun on your face. And seconds after that, you'll find something, somewhere by Philip K. Dick, based on the work of Philip K. Dick, compared to the work of Philip K. Dick, based on toys taken from a movie based on the work of Philip K. Dick.
Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you have somehow avoided the work of Philip K. Dick. You've lived in a cultural oasis, protected from the last thirty of so years of American popular culture. Coming out of your eggshell, out of your plastic-wrapped giant Foreverware storage container, someone has told you about this author. His name is Philip K. Dick, and though he was something of a nobody for most of his life, shortly after he died, a movie sort-of based on one of his novels led to a string of adaptations and a discovery that this obscure science fiction writer, once thought to be something of a hack, really was rather talented.
But there was a problem, because the circumstances of his life were such that he authored far too many novels to read. The stack suggested reading in front of you is ginormous, reaching to the sky. You know, that to come to some accommodation with this sorry, blighted planet, you need to bone up on Philip K. Dick. But there are other things you want to do as well, and you have time for one novel by this guy. Make sure that novel is 'Ubik' (Vintage / Random House ; December 1991 ; $14). Here's why.
In the first place, thus far, it's no been adapted into film. Dick's work has not fared well in film since an initial success with 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' which, filmed as 'Blade Runner,' was changed in many ways for the worse, but at least seems like a quality work. Everything else is unmitigated shite. Avoid them all, and leave 'Blade Runner' until after you've read 'Ubik.' So you can avoid the movie (more about that later), but read the book. And you should.
The first thing you'll notice, here in the early 21st century, is that for all that Philip K Dick is seen, and rightly so, as something of a pessimist so far as humanity is concerned, he is, so far as our technology and development are concerned, a fantastic optimist. 'Ubik' is set in 1992, when we've struck out across the solar system, have a city on the moon, and when the use of psi powers is common, accepted and a rather important source of commerce. Get ready to meet a past that exceeds any of our expectations for even the mid-level future. We'd be lucky to see the world and technology of 'Ubik' by 2092.
The story is not simple, but I'll give you the basic setup. Joe Chip is a middle-class schmoe deeply in debt. He works for Runciter Corporation, which specializes in blocking psi powers, and he and his team are sent with his boss, Glen Runciter, to the moon. Runciter is killed in an explosion and put into "half life" where is brain keeps ticking — or is he? Perhaps it was Joe Chip who died, or perhaps the resident time-psychic rolled back reality. Life is indeed but a dream.
The novel plays out in a series of increasingly surreal scenes set in something like a Depression-era America, but it's one that is shot through with messages from a future that is now our past. Dick plays with the nature of reality like a kitten with a ball of yarn, tearing it apart and yet leaving it together. Your head will spin and when you come out of the book you're not likely to know whether you’re asleep or awake.
So far as Philip K. Dick novels go, 'Ubik' shows him at the height of his imaginative powers and with his themes in their most accessible, if somewhat inscrutable, form. And that inscrutability is part of the reason you want to read both Philip K. Dick and this particular novel,. You'll find at the heart of this book a middle-class American with a lot of problems that would have been familiar to anyone in America over the last hundred or so years. Dick's science-fictional use of the fantastic – psi powers, half-life, space travel, time travel — get at the unease of those in America for whom nothing is certain, nothing is nailed down. Every penny you spend, every dollar you hold is an illusion.
For bonus points, you can pick up 'Ubik: The Screenplay' (Subterranean Press ; August 25, 2008 ; $35), which is the author's own (thankfully) un-filmed adaptation of his novel. You can not only read the book, you can read the movie as well. Say a prayer for Phlip K. Dick, then proceed slowly. Look at 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch' and 'Martian Time-Slip.' Allow yourself to wonder about what might have happened in a world where this guy got the chance to spend some time writing his novels. Perhaps you are dreaming. Perhaps he did have the time to do so, and you, dear reader, are just a character, pondering the reality on the other side of the page.
12-15-09:Jim Nisbet Takes You on a 'Windward Passage' : Catching Up
Well, it's official. In the next decade, the world will finally be weird enough to make Jim Nisbet accessible to the masses. It's taken a while, but you can no-doubt thank a labyrinthine conspiracy of rogue scientists, bizarre faith-healers, lonely and sort-of inept gumshoes, beautiful but tweaked women and unseen, god-like powers that have their own best interests in mind for this literary gift. That's good news for readers. For the world at large, perhaps, not so much.
I'm sure drugs, philosophy, alcohol and violence also enter into this equation. Nisbet has been writing about this world, the world as she really is for almost thirty years now. And though he gets good reviews, there's always a sort of raised eyebrow to the whole affair. Because even though Nisbet doesn't come from or in some senses inhabit the ghetto of genre fiction, he is truly, deeply weird. The deal is that he is as weird as the world. And for some readers, that's a quality to cherish.
As a result, Nisbet's publishing record has been confined mostly to the independent press, in particular the wonderful Dennis McMillan editions. McMillan is as iconoclastic as Nisbet, and like recognizing like, he's published Nisbet titles that include 'The Price of the Ticket' and 'The Syracuse Codex.' These are gorgeous and in-your-face strange books, books that will twist your pointy little head round and make you feel like you're dreaming even though you're wide awake. It's as if Nisbet inhabited and wrote from a world right next to ours, only weirder.
But next year is going to change all that, because, apparently, reality has caught up with Jim Nisbet, so that Overlook Press and Penguin Putnam will his next novel, 'Windward Passage' (Overlook / Peter Mayer Publications / Penguin Putnam ; April, 2010 ; $25.95). In a page that could be taken from a Nisbet novel, that end is only the beginning. Apparently, we're going to get a complete set of Nisbet's works rolled out in the months to follow, in trade paperback editions. But then, what was once a mix of literary fiction, mystery and science fiction will seem like the stuff of mimetic reality. I suppose the really scary question is, "What is Jim Nisbet seeing now?" Not sure I want to know. If there is an actual analogue of H. P. Loveraft's mad Arabian author Abdul Alhazred in this world, it's probably Nisbet. The man is connected to deep reality in a profoundly disturbing manner, and he's able to channel that into fiction that seems like tomorrow's headlines. If he ever authors a sort of religious, visionary work, its readers will likely summon shoggoths and the Elder Ones into this world.
So 'Windward Passage' is set in a nightmarish near future that is all too likely to become our present while our noses are to the grindstone making enough money to survive. "Her name was Melanie Hecatomb, she was seventeen years old, and she'd lived all her life on the 74th floor of the Transbay Tower in downtown San Francisco." Californians are waiting for binds tio be Chineesiated; squirt patches help keep your emotions in control and there's a New Sexuality to make sure you’re ill at ease. So, yes, while the copy on the ARC describes this world as "science fiction," readers can clearly see that we're talking about, well, yesterday afternoon.
I suspect that Nisbet is going to see a lot of comparison to a certain once-cult science fiction writer who is now having his dinner napkin notes adapted major motion pictures. (They turn out about as well as you’d expect, and in fact, they seem like something the author himself might imagine.) This release and the back-catalogue roll-out happen next year. You have this little interlude to seek out the Dennis McMillan editions of Nisbet's work, which are already scarcer than the hen's teeth that are likely to be a plot point in a Nisbet novel.
I will say that Nisbet, like reality, is not for everyone. Even when our consensus, mediated reality has caught up with Nisbet, his books have the sort of "naked lunch" effect that William Burroughs used to describe the hyper state of perception once experiences under the influence of narcotics. But you ignore Nisbet at your own peril. Because he really does know what's going on and why. He's lived in your future for some thirty years. He's still looking back. Readers would do well to look forward.
12-14-09:A Review of 'Under the Dome' by Stephen King : Under the Tome
It is an imposing book-brick. And I don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out. I don’t have the time, to be honest, or else I might. Now, I like King's work, but he's pretty prolific and, well, it's not exactly like he's unknown. So what induced me to read every page of 'Under the Dome' (Scribner's / Penguin-Putnam ; November 10, 2009 ; $35)? All 1,074 of them?
Periodically, I fall ill. I get what I call, "the Stephen King flu." Here is the symptom: you pretty much have enough energy to do one thing; sit around and read the new Stephen King novel until you are done. Sure you may eat, and work, and whatever you needs must do, but after that, there's just one thing — finishing that damn Stephen King novel. And what you have in 'Under the Dome' is a prime vector for the Stephen King flu.
You can read my review of Stephen King's 'Under the Dome' here. But beyond what I thought of it as a novel, there are a couple of other interesting considerations. First, I think that it is nice that at least one novelist is "big" enough to offer a novel that does not get completely spoiled by enthusiastic dust-jacket copy. There's nothing on the DJ of 'Under the Dome' beyond that hyper-real illustration. It's a picture that literally is worth a thousand words and apparently replaces about that many.
Secondly, there's the linked price / special edition question. It is fun to see the various online and brick'n'mortar outlets knock themselves out trying to under-price one another. But as readers should know, there's a "Collector's set" or some-such thing — you can't call 25,000 copies "limited" “ on sale for $75 bucks. You don't get a signature, but you do get some cards and illustrations of the characters. I'll say that actually, I'm glad I didn't get this, because the characters themselves came to me via the reading experience. I think that seeing them illustrated first might have detracted from that experience. As a bit of collector goo-goo, you know, I just don’t know how it will pan out. If you manage to hand down an untouched set to your great grand-kids, they might be appreciative. And if you want something to go goo-goo gaa-gaa over while you spend a time in Chester's Mill, then, I guess there you go. The real question is how much are you paying. If you're paying $9 bucks instead of $53, well that's a 400%+ increase; whereas if you're paying $35 instead of $75, it's not such a big deal. Well, it all evens out, I suppose and you can do the math. I got just the book, and here's my review of it.
New to the Agony Column
03-04-14: Commentary : Michio Kaku Foresees 'The Future of the Mind' : Form Follows Function