Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Tiny Bit Political: Economic Reform and Mining

A Tiny Bit Political: Economic Reform and Mining

I saw some great acts at the Perth Writers' Festival over the weekend and it's fast becoming one of my favourite events on the yearly calendar. I bought the following books: The Australian Movement by George Megalogenis (I read all his work - the beauty is that he adds cultural elements to his political/economic analysis), Making Trouble by Robert Manne, Prime Cut by Alan Carter and The Waterboys by Peter Docker.


I don't intend to turn this blog into a political one. But I'll make an exception here - after all, it relates to a more politically natured panel at the festival.

I ventured an audience question to Peter Cleary and Robert Manne, and although I'm not usually prone to nerves, my voice trembled. I said to them that often in Australia there is a lack of economic reform in times of prosperity which affects us a decade later. Basically implying that Menzies' lack of reform did not aid Whitlam; Hawke and Keating aided Howard; and the Howard of later years and the recent Labor government have not done a lot either. So despite our relatively blissful times on a current global scale, we are not ensuring that the next decade will be as equally stable. Rudd certainly tried but the mining magnates bullied and bamboozled him, as did Gillard and Swan (I still can't fathom why he didn't wait for a new term before taking on a behemoth like the mining industry). I told Cleary that I agreed with his praising of the Norwegian model (in which the tax on petroleum mining is very high ,and the federal government also has a sizable stake all the mining companies too). And, after what must have appeared a diatribe in the making, I finally asked Cleary: How do you battle the corporate campaigners? We saw what happened to Rudd. How do you change the nation's psyche regarding the issue?

Manne answered on Cleary's behalf and I felt a childish buzz when he said it is a question that we all should be asking. Later on outside, Robert saw me and came over to reiterate that it was an excellent question (chuffed like a kid once again) and Cleary agreed and eagerly provided his own answer. (I won't quote either of them on the issue in case they are taken out of context).

The fact of the matter is that there are other solutions and we could (and should) be doing more in terms of economic reform, especially with regards to mining. It was both a pleasure and humbling experience to be able to later 'chew the fat' with two writers whose opinions and works I admire.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Recent Reads: 'Specimen Days' by Michael Cunningham and 'Claw of the Conciliator'

Recent Reads: Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe and Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham 

On Claw of the Conciliator' by Gene Wolfe

There was just enough intrigue in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer to entice me to return to its sequel, Claw of the Conciliator. Although Wolfe is deserved of his many plaudits I do not believe t he is the 'James Joyce' of speculative fiction as many critics claim; although from what I have read of his short fiction he may be more deserving of the title in that particular genre. Reading Claw of the Conciliator was déjà vu. Once more, I found myself liking but not mesmerised by Wolfe. He is simultaneously both brilliant and frustrating. The antiquated future successfully melds the genres of fantasy and sci-fi; Severian's sexual exploits and prowess, however, border on being of a debased nature (although they always hint at something deeper).

Wolfe at times seems to be taken by flights of fancy in terms of plot and his obsession with depth of meaning means coherency is often lost. His need for this many-layered depth can weigh the reader down and this is Wolfe's greatest flaw in the long form.

After hearing Gary K. Wolfe (whose views I admire and respect) on the Coode St Podcast comment on Wolfe's subtleties and layers, I initially thought that Gary had hit the bullseye. But after further contemplating Gene Wolfe's novel I have altered my opinion. Layers: yes. Subtleties: no. There are layers upon layers in Claw of the Conciliator but the metaphors, although occasionally indecipherable, do not feel subtle at all. 

For instance, the green man from the future jars. This loud metaphor works though in this case as he  represents a future whereby mankind photosynthesises like plants. And thanks to an article in Cosmos about a sea slug shown to me by a mate, Phil English (a Cosmos contributing writer), in which a unique slug eats one sole meal of algae in its infancy then actually photosynthesises from then on, Wolfe’s vision may one day be realised. And the colour of the slug - surprise, surprise - is green too.

Anecdotal scientific digressions aside, there is nothing subtle about many of Wolfe's metaphors. There is nothing subtle about drinking matte; there is nothing subtle about a detailed scripted play (layered with meaning) appearing in the middle of a novel;there is nothing subtle about a monstrous river deity appearing out of the blue (although that particular metaphor was lost on me). The list could go on.

What I basically feel about Wolfe is that he has purposefully crafted a novel with layered meaning in a world that blends medieval, the classics and a decaying future. But he is not subtle. His metaphors, although they often require cryptic solutions (which is stimulating for an astute reader) are anything but subtle. They, like the river monster, surge up at you signalling or rather screaming at you to look for something deeper and perhaps this is where Wolfe, despite his brilliance, disappoints.

On Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days is composed of three neat novellas, which all contain a twist at the end.  In all three there is Lucas (Lucas, Luke and Luke), a small boy, with a weak body and oversized orange-shaped head; and Simon (whose character varies from a deceased brother; to a wealthy collector and seller of antiques; to an android searching for his soul); and Catherine (a street-smart impoverished girl; to Cat, a lit-loving African American detective; to Catareen, a Nadian - a species of alien that forms the persecuted class on Earth).

The three novellas are interlinked via Walter Whitman's poetry, which actually services the stories without jarring as much as I had anticipated, and a unique bowl (I will leave the later for the lit critics to analyse). The linked stories move from New York past, to the contemporary city, before culminating in the New York of the future (although this final piece is largely based outside of the Big Apple).

Cunningham's prose is lyrical and effective for the most part. Although there were a couple of questionable bits of writing that stood out where Cunningham strives to be too clever and falls short. No guessing as to which adverb stands out below:

"Perhaps he had gotten up during the night and moved them, somnambulistically. No. They were nowhere."

And although Cunningham is an astute user of repetition - he uses it to considerable effect throughout Specimen Days - the following felt like a poor man's version of Cormac McArthy's The Road: 

"The horse whinnied insistently. It needed to be fed. He went and fed the horse."

Overall however, Cunningham illustrates with these novellas that he is not a one-trick pony in that he successfully delivers three stories with vastly different voices. And to Cunningham's credit, all three have their own beautiful and steady rhythm. All three, like most ambitious works, also have their flaws. The ghostly-gothic In the Machine seems to climax and resolve too quickly after a slow-simmering build up of tension. The Children's Crusade falls into noir clichés and its attempt to change the African-American stereotype is too deliberate and calculated that it may further polarise readers (Cat, an African-American bomb-squad detective, is a literature major who everyone thinks is white on the phone). And Like Beauty relies on the canons of yesteryear science fiction, with chases, exotic alien prowess and alas, info-dumps.

Yet Specimen Days is certainly worth a look at for both writers and readers. Cunningham wins the reader over with his prose in general but he also embraces our most endearing quality, that of compassion. And in this sense, Cunningham has something meaningful to say. The recurring theme is illustrated in all three pieces via sacrifice of some sort.

All three stories contain their hero, and Cunningham here is a hero too in courageously exploring three genres (historical ghost story, detective thriller and sci-fi) to deliver a fine 'novel' or three 'loosely linked-novellas'. Regardless of what the form is labelled, I am glad that I read it and I am now eager to read another of his other novels, Flesh and Blood.

PS And a big 'thank you' to Deborah Hunn for recommending Specimen Days some time ago.

Monday, February 6, 2012

24 recommended short stories from my 2011 reading

24 'standout' short stories from my 2011 reading

In 2011, I read 96 short stories, many of them longer short stories and novelettes. Initially, I wanted to provide a list of all the stories I had read. After a little reflection, however, I thought that a blog post would be more useful if it were just a list of the standouts. Feel free to query as some stories are more 'literary' and others 'genre'. If you want to discover where a story can be found (anthology or journal title), just ask away.

The Bloody Chamber' Angela Carter

'Waiting' Will Self

'Puss in Boots' Angela Carter

'The Bordello in Faerie' Michael Swanwick

'The Company of Wolves' Angela Carter

'Riding the Gigantosaur' Michael Swanwick

'The Lady of the House of Love' Angela Carter

'Reward Offered' Jon Bauer

'The Erl King' Angela Carter

'The Werewolf' Angela Carter

'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' Angela Carter

'Four-Letter Words' Ryan O'Neil

'Lollies' David McLaren

'Girls and Boys Come Out to Play' Michael Swanwick

'Harry' Emma Schwarz

'The Tiger's Bride' Angela Carter

'The Monkey Treatment' George RR Martin

'Outback' Ruby J. Murray

'Mother Grasshopper' Michael Swanwick

'Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O' Michael Swanwick

'Dirty Little War' Michael Swanwick

'North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy' Michael Swanwick

'Whaling the Multiverse' Mark Lee Pearson

'It's the Cheroot' Marion Halligan

Saturday, February 4, 2012

'Tales of Old Earth' by Michael Swanwick

Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick.

Michael Swanwick is one of the more adventurous writers in the already imaginative field of speculative fiction. He is generally an economical storyteller and on occasion I felt myself craving more flesh and a slower pace, but that is not to dismiss an excellent collection. There is not much that Swanwick shies away from, which makes the childish cover misleading, especially considering the sex scene (including vivid and creative foreplay), which takes up much of the story in 'Midnight Express'.

Swanwick meddles with time past (as the title suggests) as well as the present and future, and there are also all those alternative realities too.

Although 'Scherzo the Dinosaur' and 'The Very Pulse of a Time Machine' are much lauded Hugo Award Winners they are not the highlight stories in this eclectic collection. 'Riding the Gigantosaur', 'Microcosmic Dog', 'Mother Grasshopper', 'North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy' and 'The RaggleTaggle Gyspsy-O' are all fabulous tales.

The first of the before mentioned, 'Riding the Gigantosaur', places the reader into the Cretaceous period with a comical story that completely captures the imagination, whereby a wealthy wheeler and dealer learns some humility as a gigantosaur (do not ask but read the story). 'Mother Grasshopper' deals with the ideas of time, life and death; all set on a planet that is a massive grasshopper, which could be metaphorically perceived as the pest, that we as humans are represented as in this morose tale. 'North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy' entails a train of passengers travelling to Hell and successfully explores issues of morality and liberation with Swanwick's ever vibrant and colourful characters. It is also a tale you can sink your reading teeth into at 22 pages. 'Microcosmic Dog' cleverly examines reality when Ellen Gillespie (with a name like that I imagine that Swanwick is an avid jazz fan) has a talking dog left in her luxurious New York apartment. From then on things are not as always as they have seemed. 'The Raggle Taggle Gyspy-O' is a time travelling adventure, full of romance and heroism, in which the idea unravels that memories are required for immortality. Once again, an early felatio scene made me briefly wonder why any Swanwick anthology would be marketed in this fashion - although sales to a wider audience is the blindingly obvious answer.

 'In Concert' humorously and uniquely parallels the Communist movement with the rock music movement when the aged lead rocker, Lenin, pounds out lyrics like, 'You have nothing to lose but your chains.' Other strong stories include: 'Wild Minds', 'Radiant Doors' and 'The Changeling's Tale'.

Tales of Old Earth is layered with meaning and that is the beauty of Swanwick's short fiction: he can encourage a reader to reflect but he never loses their attention. And Swanwick at his worst -  in this collection I would say it is the Nebula Award winning, 'Ancient Engines' (the android tale tasted like a sedated version of PK Dick)- is still far better than many other writers in the field. Taking a leap into Michael Swanwick's bizarre world is something that will be ingrained in readers' minds long after they have finished reading.