A quote:

She kinstill hear the song beyonder, but she dizzn’t surey fit’s the when she thawtit was. Detune streems differrant and pseudo the words, doshy slushpects that she’s not herein’ thereal worlds at all. She’s proverbly trancestating the inudibelle and dustant leerics into her roam lingwish, the seam way she daz with reveriething.

It’s anuntellagibble jabberish, off course, nonposed of comsense sillyballs and nutterly devader meanink, though she fonds that she injoyce the squirling museek avid.

Lucy’s dancing in the language,
Shares a marble sandwich
With a Mr. Finnegan from several headstones down
And no more how’s-your-father now.
She’s a cockeyed optimist
Who can’t resist
This final white parade.

She fonds she inJOYCE the squirling museek avid.

I absolutely love this form of wordplay, especially when it tries to be more than form, and playing and adding layers of meaning. Making a line of text multidimensional. It’s only 40 pages. I wish it was longer. My only worry is that it is not used to its full potential, but that’s what I expect specifically from Bottom’s Dream.

And yet, I’m baffled that some readers would skip this delight. She was too intent (witch)hunting for and trying her best to take offense about imaginary transmisogynistic jokes. She eventually filed the book under the “racism, sexism and transphobia” categories.

Why people who fight against prejudices have such an hard time laying down theirs?

I’ve been waiting these two since *checks own blog* well, at least since March. Today they’re both in my hands since Dalkey Archive seems to have an habit of shipping way earlier than release date. It’s also been trickier to get oversea books at a reasonable price but I managed it this time as well, so I’m happy.

This blog post is all about appearances over substance, so it should be meant to be filled with images but, since I’ve jet to join the modern age, I’m still unable to produce pictures of my own and so had to scour the internet, or more specifically twitter to get them. That also required dodging lots of explicit gay porn as apparently “dreaming” of “bottoming” is that kind of thing.

Let’s have those sexy sizes listed here. Starting from the small one, “Jerusalem” by Alan Moore. This one is a standarly shaped hardcover, I like the cover but not much the art, but at least when you look at it it’s big in a standard kind of way, not too daunting if you’re used to big books. Actual interior size is still impressive, though. It falls short of early claims of 1 million words plus, but it’s right on track to qualify for the 600k one. In fact, since it’s available in ebook format as well, I could count precisely and I have a still mind-boggling 615k. I think I’ve yet to read or even own a book this big, my personal previous maximum of books read from beginning to end have been Infinite Jest and Parallel Stories, both around the 550k mark.

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I’ve also kept an eye on reviews and this is what I’ve deduced: the book is fairly well received overall, lots of complaints about it being “overwritten” but it’s exactly the norm when paid reviewers have to write an article in record time to maximize exposure. My biggest worry was that the book wasn’t going to be very readable and be instead very esoteric, meaning that even if you put patience in reading it it would still defy comprehension (and enjoyment), making it just dull and frustrating. Instead it seems that even if it’s plenty experimental, weird and also challenging, it’s still within a certain accessibility. It’s is not a book that shoves you away for the sake of literary elitism, or obscurity for obscurity’s sake (and this might even unbelievably apply to the book below).

The more interesting:

The first is a series of walking tours of Northampton, echoing the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses,” undertaken by a number of various characters set in different time periods. This serves to introduce many of the ancestors of Mick and Alma Ward, other significant characters such as Marla the streetwalker and poet Ben Perrit, as well as many ghosts and angels. The history of Northampton is encoded in it’s topography and there are connections that can be drawn throughout the ages.

The middle section of the book chronicles the adventures of four-year-old Mick Warren in the afterlife during the brief time he was dead. He becomes involved with a group of kids who call themselves the Dead Dead Gang. Imagine the Little Rascals as written by a brilliant, philosophical madman with pretensions of explaining the metaphysical mechanisms of the entire universe.

Section three is by far the most challenging. While it appears disjointed at first each of these chapters not only moves the story forward but serves to tie together the many, many threads he has introduced. Mr. Moore writes from different points of view, exploring a variety of styles, some maddeningly experimental. One chapter is written in the form of an epic poem. Another is a crime noir detective story with the main character, who is not what he appears to be, investigating the connections between Northampton and William Blake. There is the script for a stage play which features the ghosts of several poets and thinkers, including Samuel Beckett, which is appropriate given the “Waiting For Godot”-like structure of the play and its meta-commentary on the entire book.

There are the chapters that appear to be overt paeans to Joyce. One is a stream of consciousness flow without punctuation, a la’ Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in “Ulysses.” Another is, without a doubt, the most difficult chapter to read and the one that is most likely to thwart those who try. Earlier in the novel Mr. Moore establishes the idea of the language of the angels: Words that sound like nonsense, but unfold within the mind of the listener to contain layers of meaning and metaphor. This entire chapter is an attempt to capture that experience, composed entirely of a made-up language. It is nonsense poetry spoken by Lucia Joyce (the daughter of James, who spent part of her life in an asylum), that gradually, as it is read, begins to reveal an internal logic and meaning.

I’ve had to decide between UK hardcover by Knockabout or the US Liverlight, in the end the local Amazon decided for me since the US version is still not available for some reason. It’s also available as three paperbacks inside a slipcase but I do my reading comfortably at home, so it’s hardcover for me.

VERY IMPORTANT: DO NOT BUY (if you can choose) the UK/Knockabout version of Jerusalem by Alan Moore, buy the US/Liveright. Page format is baaaad. The UK one is 100 pages shorter, 1174 versus 1262 of the American version, that means more text is crammed on a single page. But the worst aspect is that for some absurd reason they also decided to use huge white margins, so you have all the text into a tiny rectangle on the page, and that means it uses a super-tiny font that’s quite hard to read. The US version, looking at the scans on Amazon, seems to have completely fixed that. I REALLY do regret having bought this version to the point I’m considering sending it back so I can get the other one… (though the UK backcover has few more good quotes, whereas the American only has the funny last one)

And, since you are in a mostly fantasy themed blog, maybe you crave a map, here’s a map, taken from the mapper’s own website (and of course included inside the book flappy flaps).

If Jerusalem wanted to be the literary event of the month, if not the year, when it comes to overambitious, oversize book then it needs to reconsider that, as it is completely BLOWN AWAY by the landing of space-time bending Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt, translated by eminent-professor John E. Woods. This one brings the definition of big book back to medieval terms. You aren’t going to read this one in bed or while commuting, even if it would be fun seeing one trying…

This Bottom’s sizes are an impressive: 14×10.8 inches, 1496 pages, 13 pounds. I had already seen all the images I’m linking below, and yet I was still utterly awed when I finally saw the physical book. It’s just an absurd sight, as if one has the feeling that the proportions are all wrong. It simply stands apart from everything else I’ve seen. And then you open it. It’s a thing of beauty. When you hold it you truly realize that the premium price really isn’t premium at all.

(all images have been scoured from the internet, on twitter specifically. I don’t use the original source because they have the habit of disappearing. If you check my twitter I’ve retweeted them all)

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“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.

Since its publication in 1970 Zettel’s Traum/Bottom’s Dream has been regarded as Arno Schimdt’s magnum opus, as the definitive work of a titan of postwar German literature. Readers are now invited to explore its verbally provocative landscape in an English translation by John E. Woods.

Hype seems to have preceded both Jerusalem and Bottom’s Dream. If Jerusalem was given at 1+ million words and had to settle for mere 600k, I had Bottom’s Dream given either at 2+ million or 1+ million. No idea of the actual wordcount, or even how you decide how to COUNT those words. Because those words are typographically weird to even defy a wordcount. And some hype about translation too, since I had read the translator worked on it for more than twenty years. Instead there’s in the book a two page “afterword” by the translator himself, making fun a bit of the style of the book.

For the translator, however, there was really only one strategy available, the same one most readers will at least attempt: Start to finish – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Well, perhaps »speed« is the wrong word, it did take me some six years (spread over twelve) of labor, an arduous task to be sure – with sporadic moments of either elation or gloom, the latter due mostly to my sense of inadequacy to the task.

Wilma is right, it does take a »fool« to enter fully into this topsy-turvy linguistic world. And so I set on my fool’s cap, and sang and danced, took pratfalls and belly flops – and occasionally, taking a deep breath, I launched into the Neith-time sky to soar with the bats. The judgement as to whether or not I succeeded in capturing at least something of the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyments of the original (that being, after all, the nirvana of every translator), lies with you, the reader.

My fool’s cap has never left my head, I’m ready. Skimming through the pages is really a pleasure because of how playful the layout is. This is a puzzle more than a book. The language used itself is amazing and even if my only way to decode it right now is merely about flavor and form over any amount of meaning (as in answering: why did he write it that way?), I still delight at this (this quote actually removes some weird characters used that I don’t even know how to reproduce with this keyboard):

pag. 213
: – » – « -. (Alone with the kid in the ficket : cave!). – : »FirSt off hold all supercilia quiet : snaring with lids & snatching with slick lips aren’t alloweD here! – Prick ope your ears : When talk turns to Your cares, Y’ immuddytely b’have ‘sif Y’ had just gobbled up ev’ry evil kno’n since the Creation : surely You overestimaiD Your crim’nall abilities.« / (And still She had not raised her beFringl’d lids ?) /

Repeat for the remaining 1500 pages with a text column 50 lines long every page (well, it’s a slimmer one, thought it essentially never breaks, even when it spirals around).

I love it so much I wish I had two copies. One just to keep there and worship as an idol, another to treat badly and scribble all over it…

This is going to be really fun.

…And after writing all this I spotted this link. So perfectly timed for this blog post!

excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others.

We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.

(after reading that article fully, though, I have to say it’s not as ridiculous as that quote out of context would suggest)

Here I give my personal interpretation of an argument about Malazan that is again given a different explanation, as well ramble on general considerations about what happens to very big book series that are written across many years. It’s once again converted from a forum discussion.

“GOTMism” is a term being used when the plot in “Gardens of the Moon” is not completely coherent with the story told in the rest of the series. Often readers explain these problems as “retcons” and motivate them with the gap of years between the writing of the first book in the series and the rest. Including the idea Erikson improved as a writer. I was never totally persuaded by these explanations and over time I built my own explanation that seems to me more logical and complete. One aspect, for example, is that I read “This River Awakens”, written before GotM final version, and I found prose of a quality than in my opinion substantially exceed that of GotM. So the idea of Erikson “massively improved as a writer” didn’t go quite well with the fact his first book is so absolutely excellent. Yet you still can feel a significant improvement going from GotM to the following, Deadhouse Gates. The writing does improve. The other aspect of why the retcon idea isn’t exhaustive is that events weren’t simply incoherent with how the plot was explained later on, they remained incoherent even when examined in isolation. Some stuff in GotM doesn’t make a lot of sense even when you consider just GotM as a context. So it’s not just a case that can be written of as a “change of mind” on the part of the writer.

So my explanation is different, I think the Malazan series went through different stages, as it happens with oversize, ambitious projects, and you can see those effects directly in the books.

Here I try to mix a forum post where I wrote my interpretation and explanation of what usually appears as an inconsistency, leading to some overall considerations on how the whole series is written and is shaped, and how it evolved.

(a):
Tayschrenn: Can someone remind me what is was that he did in the battle of Pale, revealed in MoI, that showed that he wasn’t actually trying to kill Malazans/Bridgeburners as previously suspected?

(b):
It’s a retcon, really. I think the excuse was that he thought the tunnels were safe but it could be classified as a GotM-ism.

That’s too much a tangle of plot for a completely satisfying explanation, but not really a retcon. The thing “mostly” makes sense, but it’s still rough and poorly executed. Lots of those characters swap positions behind the scenes and their motivations aren’t well explained.

I think I was able to give it an overall sketchy explanation in the Tor re-read, and that explanation was later confirmed by Erikson. Though I don’t remember exactly how it worked.

Tayschrenn’s position changes with the arrival of the adjunct (soon after the siege), so you see the contradiction of the character because there was an actual change of tasks. The Bridgeburners DID plan to replace Laseen on the throne with Whiskeyjack, so initially it was true that Laseen was against them and gave Tayschrenn the order to continue the purge. Those purges (that were actually triggered by Paran, indirectly) were required by Laseen to seize control, since her rule was of course not legitimate and pretty much no one in the army was loyal to her. They were all loyal to the previous emperor. Only later Laseen realized she couldn’t fight against the whole empire, and had instead to try winning their favors. She’s very paranoid, but not a fool.

It’s then Dujek that later tries to convince Wiskeyjack that Tayschrenn is not an enemy. So he might have been half lying for pragmatic reasons, or maybe it was Tayschrenn that managed to convince Dujek (who himself didn’t know of the Bridgeburners plan to replace Laseen).


My logic is Kalam’s plan was to replace Laseen with Whiskeyjack. That’s why one of the pebble was supposed to open a portal and bring over both Quick Ben and Whiskeyjack. But at that point the Bridgeburners on Genabackis side were in a deep mess with the Crippled God and Kalam too was in deep trouble and had to use both the pebbles before reaching Laseen (and Laseen wasn’t even there because she tricked Kalam). So during both MoI and DG the situation evolved so much that the plan couldn’t happen anymore.

The only tiny hook for this explanation is the very last two pages of Gardens of the Moon (and the general theme of Dune-like “plans within plans within plans” that is QB’s mantra, essentially, being always one step ahead). Go back and reread them. That plan is never mentioned again because it was just between Quick Ben and Kalam (since Whiskeyjack would never agree to send a squad to kill Laseen and claim the throne, their idea was to do everything on their own and then just toss the throne in Whiskyjack’s lap so that he couldn’t turn down the offer at that point, the empire without a ruler would be such a mess that WJ’s honor would have tied him to the throne as a sense of responsibility), and because its conditions change so much during DG that basically it only remains implicit. We only know Kalam was there to kill Laseen, and then decided not to for the reasons explained in the book. It’s only logical, but not explicitly told, that the plan couldn’t stop there. They had to have an idea about who should replace Laseen on the throne, and WJ, with the crippled leg and everything, made the perfect candidate. He was ready to become a leader instead of just a soldier.


It’s kind of weak storytelling when such an important sub-plot that drives most of the story through one book is so poorly referenced (the whole plan is implicit). But it’s a symptom of how Erikson worked: he already had the story in his mind, so it makes sense to him when he writes, but sometime he has a poor sense of what important information he didn’t pass to the reader. Scenes (and motivations) he knows happened between characters but that never directly appear in the book. That’s the actual big problem of GOTM: Erikson knows the story so well because he had it all so long in his mind that he consequently has a very poor grasp of what is there and what is missing in the actual books. What he wrote about is only a part of what he knows, and while writing he often lost track of what would be the exclusive reader’s perception. GOTM is like 30% stuff that happens in the actual book and 70% behind the scenes that is only tangentially referenced or completely missing. The rest of the series instead is built more and more directly on the stuff in the actual books (original material), and less behind the scenes (the world and history they built before the idea of the book series happened).

This does affect the quality of the book and contributes to lots of perceived problems. Including problems with characterization as you have so many characters with their own pre-existing history and yet a very quick and partial presentation that bypasses almost completely their motivations and personality (what drives 90% of other books). There’s a very perceivable lack of context. That presentation is too sparse, too weak, ultimately leading to a sense of plot moving without a clear logic. Stuff that just happens for no reason, and no emotional impact because you can’t actually engage with it.

*BUT* I don’t think this happens as just a direct consequence of Erikson suddenly becoming a better writer. I think this happens because of structural reasons on how the books are written. GotM was a book conceived to be based on a pre-existing world with its already established rich history. It was not a world built FOR a book series, it was a world converted to one. GotM moved from being a game-world to a movie script and only in its last stage it transformed into a book. A world invented for other reasons, crammed into a book. That means Erikson had to select what scenes to write about, what leave as background, and how. Some stuff is in, most of it is left out. This context changes as the series progresses, from the second book onward Erikson follows a clear outline, but the bulk of the material he works with becomes increasingly original, created and controlled specifically for the book. If GotM is an “adaptation”, as it happens when a movie is converted to a novel, the rest of the series is work conceived specifically as a book series.

The first few books are based on such a tangle of plot and behind the scenes, that are instead explicit in Erikson’s mind since it’s the bulk he worked and played on for such a long time, and the result is that lots of stuff is poorly explained or not given enough importance even if it moves important plots. As the series progresses we see progressively less pre-existing material, and so there’s also progressively less reliance on stuff that happens behind the scenes and that Erikson gives for granted even if IT IS NOT.

And that’s why, while GotM suffers because of those reasons, it also has that unique flavor of “pre-existing history” and in medias res story that the rest of the series tends to lose. You gain something but you lose something too. The story you read in the following books is the bulk of what’s needed, of what does exist. There’s less a sense of a vaster world that lives on. And of course this happens for practical reasons. When Erikson started writing he had this big world already built and established, he only had to cherry pick what to write about. A majority of scenes already existing that only had to be “adapted” on the page. But as the series progresses he relies more on original material, ideas that go directly in the writing. With a fast release pacing for every book he obviously didn’t have time for off-the-book worldbuilding, so what you read in the books becomes almost the totality of the “canon” of this fictional world. It goes all in. If GotM is a slice of a big story/world existing in Erikson’s mind, from DG onward Erikson pours all of his creativity directly on the page, there’s not anymore as much stuff that is left out.

It’s interesting because while Erikson gives up to the idea of continuosly building a world off the page and settles for just the bland illusion of it, instead GRRM, being more of an obsessive perfectionist, never gives up. But at the same time, as already discussed, he had a growing sense of frustration wasting hours of work on world-building off the page, taking away actual work on the book writing itself. And his “solution” was instead of broadening the scope (book 4 onward) to include all that side-material right into the book series. And we know the results. If Malazan gives up on some of that complexity, ASOIAF instead embraces it, and chokes on it. If Malazan “converges”, ASOIAF explodes out and we can argue whether or not Martin will ever be able to draw it all back neatly enough.

No solution is actually “better” than the other, but you can see how one has to deal with the pragmatic troubles of building a really big series.

I’ve been sleeping 3/5 hours a day this week and yesterday I decided to reply on a forum to explain my interpretation of how the magic system in the Malazan world works, especially because it’s one of those aspects where my own frame of mind seems completely different from that of the average reader. And yet I’m not merely speculating because everything I say I see it grounded in those pages. I’ve only dug it out and made it more explicit. And no, making the Malazan magic system explicit doesn’t remove the beauty and mystery as it usually happens when you over analyze these things. It flourishes.

So, two things for me to notice. The first is that somehow the more I’m exhausted the more my brain seems to kick into higher gear. The second is that I wrote this mostly to pin down my own idea for myself and I didn’t expect anyone even to read it, especially on a forum that seems antagonistic to everything I write (my fault), instead I was surprised to see that my enthusiasm for this thing managed to cross over to some other users. Maybe to see the Malazan series in a slightly different light.

I have some comments to write even about the first page(s) of Fall of Light, because it’s another case where what I read in those lines is something that no one seems to have picked up. And yet that one is very obvious…

I would have said the reverse – that Warrens are a clunky DnD type magic system, and that Erikson is too obsessed with the minutiae of how it works to give any meaning to it – worsened by the fact that his explanations are pure gibberish.

The magic system in Malazan is anti-mechanical. It’s strictly the opposite of science. You won’t grasp it if you parse it in a traditional way like a system of fixed rules in a roleplaying game. To explain the core of it I’d have to talk about philosophical concepts like “dualism” and an anthropocentric conception of reality.

The thing is: Malazan “spawns” from Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant (it’s not inspired by it, being completely different, but it’s conceptually hanging from the same branch of the same tree). Thomas Covenant is like a pre-modern version of fantasy, coming from a certain romantic tradition. That means, in the fewest words possible: the fantasy world doesn’t *exist* as external, objective reality as we assume our own world, but it’s just a “projection” of an internal mental or soul state. A mental “landscape” that turns concrete. Tangible objects and creatures you see are not simply tangible objects, but symbols. As it happens within a dream. The fantasy world is essentially like The Matrix, an artificial construction that closes around you. The writer consciously traps himself within this system he himself created, then “seals” the dome with some horizon occlusion.

Malazan moves from there, if you frame it as post-modern. It has a metalinguistic frame, observing the observation. Observing the world as an artificial creation. It’s like Covenant’s world, but moved on, looking at that world not from the inside (as Covenant, trapped within) but from the outside, like a writer, writing, observing himself writing. The main plot is hidden, because it’s a “shadow” of the text. A lot of this is even amusing wordplay, just for “fun” (see Shadowthrone and Pust, or even Lady Envy, or Kruppe a little bit, being conscious of the “meta” and rolling with it, hovering just a tiny bit above rules without completely breaking them). The magic in Malazan doesn’t make sense traditionally because it’s not a traditional mechanic. It’s not “rules of physics with a fantasy bent”. Magic in Malazan is pure meaning. Wherever meaning coalesces, magic becomes real and tangible instead of just an abstraction. Even the sedimentation of a strong emotion of a small community can potentially give birth to a small god (like the Cthulhu thing in book 5). The same as in reality we are driven by powerful symbols and meanings, that give us identity and drive. That construct our lives, creating differentiations as a linguistic system (see constructivism or even some Wittgenstein). Malazan takes this concept and makes it into something tangible instead of purely conceptual.

So, the important aspect to understand magic in Malazan is to observe how it transformed and evolved in the world. You notice how there are “old” gods and new gods. And you notice how the old gods have proprieties that are simply deduced from the societies that produced those gods. Very simple example: if the populations were sedentary or migratory. Essentially: all the gods in Malazan “behave” functionally as real gods in our own world. They are projections of cultural “meaning”. And that’s what you observe in the evolution of society within the Malazan world, the more it becomes “civilized” the more the gods become blurred, more subtle, representing more complex concepts. Gods evolve along the society that gave them birth. That, if you want to stay concrete, means that the relationship between gods and worshipers is circular. Belief shapes gods, gods have influence on believers. They use and are being used (see what Heboric does to Fener). It’s always a system of meaning, and it again comes from a fantasy world that is built as an anthropomorphic creation. A body, that Erikson SHOVES in your face when he tells you magic begins with Krul, who’s a god, who created magic with his own body. Or even with Erikson’s version of “gaia” the earth: Burn. Or the Mhybe, that is the MOST important thing within all Malazan. A woman who becomes a world. It’s only through a body that meaning can be created (witness!). Krul creates differentiations within his body, going from chaos to law. To rules. To systems (or same as the Crippled God has to enter the Deck of Dragons system in order to “play” the game, where “playing the game” is yet another metalinguistic pun, since we’re talking of a card game based on tarots). Exactly like a cultural system, or the evolution of civilization. So, as in Thomas Covenant the “fantasy world” is a body. An anthropomorphic creation. A filter, a lens you use to observe human life, through human life, through the act of writing (and act of reading as a surrogate of it, or, like, parasitic, or like a bird perched on Erikson’s shoulder observing what he’s doing with the hope of understanding some of it).

Like a linguistic system the Malazan magic has a diachronic dimension that is even more important than synchronic aspects: it’s ever-evolving.

That again means this fantasy world is built as human-sized (even when it project human fears or human struggles, that look inhuman, it’s always circular. Same as even the most inhuman species are still kind of human representations anyway). Whereas our own would is (supposedly) built on science. Rules, math. Stuff that is alien to a human dimension, that you can only try to grasp, but that is qualitatively different. (see Heboric flying with the Jade statues in book 4, those statues represent something closer to our world) Something that David Foster Wallace also writes about and defines: “the widening gap between knowledge and experience”.

Or: post-modernity. Trying to come to terms with a world that makes no “sense” anymore.

Bakker writes the same stuff, but from a different angle. So it’s like if it’s complementary and opposite to Malazan.

This is the stuff I like. If you know more of this kind I’d love to hear about it. Sadly I really haven’t found anything that comes close… (well, Evangelion, Donnie Darko, Upstream Color, Battlestar Galactica and LOST, these do certain things on the same line with their mythology, but none do it as well and, MOST OF ALL: *coherently* as Malazan)

Once again on Jemisin-related stuff, giving me an occasion to touch on other things as well.

I have the impression that in the journey toward a more progressive society things are getting very messy, and I’m conflicted between a certain pessimism in observing a decadent society that can only topple on itself, and a very timid optimism about certain healing properties that still exist within society and sometimes seem to also be able to compensate the worst coming out of it.

A lot of this conflict for me is based on the canons that make certain judgements. What defines discrimination, how to recognize it, how to fight it, how to understand and deal with very different and contrasting points of view when things are more blurred. Do you come with absolute certainties or doubts?

I do stop and think. I try to challenge certain points of view, then see my attempts fail making a dent. There’s so much noise and vitriol that it’s impossible to deal with a complex issue.

I do feel I’m being accused directly. But before I turn defensive I once again stop and think. I have my own honesty toward myself, my critical thinking. It’s first and foremost between me and myself, but regardless of my conclusions someone else will look at me and judge me, and decided what I have thought and why. I might be blind to my own racism. I might be dishonest with myself.

What can I do? Should I try defend myself, or defending myself would be just a further proof of being guilty? Should I shut up and just accept I’m a “white male predator” because of my genre and color of skin, those traits written so deep in me that I won’t be able to deal with them or even recognize them?

I feel I can only surrender to these types of arguments, because they are arguments that admit no reply. Should I just submit? Or should I be hypocritically think I’m the exception? The exception to this:

That’s the segment of SFFdom that is generally bewildered by the whole discussion of diversity because Colorblindness™ and I Never Ask What The Gender Of The Writer Is Before I Buy A Book™ even though their personal bookshelves contain 90% white guys.

Yes, I do feel she’s speaking about me. I haven’t checked, but it’s very likely my bookshelf is 90% white guys. I also do claim I don’t care for gender or color of skin when I’m about to look into a book and decide whether to buy it or not. So it’s *me*. I recognize a description of me in those words, and since those words are meant to accuse of an hypocritical stance, then I feel I’m the one being accused of being an hypocrite.

Can I defend myself from that? Tell me what I can do and what I should do. Is there a prescribed reading list so I can begin walking toward the light? Maybe as I white male I can only hope to very partially cleanse my sin, and sins of my fathers? I will always be sullied?

A year or so ago there was some twitter hashtag used to tweet and retween “women in Sci-fi/Fantasy”, with the purpose of showing around those names. Create an awareness to tell potential readers there’s a good but hidden market. Jemisin calls it “the readership’s calls for diversity”. I participated, and it was easy to get 10 names that I thought were good writers people should look into. I still have the list I made (no particular order):
Janny Wurts – Dunnet – Caitlin Kiernan – Jacqueline Carey – JV Jones – Lois McMaster Bujold – N K Jemisin – Kate Elliott – Susanna Clarke – Valente – Robin Hobb – Nnedi Okorafor – Oktavia Butler – Diana Gabaldon – Rasheedah Phillips

The last name specifically is one that isn’t known at all, maybe even Jemisin doesn’t know about her. And it’s something I eventually wanted to bring here on the blog because it’s part of a “movement” called “Black Quantum Futurism” and it’s the very stuff that interests me. A black woman, in the genre, with a political argument, doing stuff that interests me closely. I stumbled on her work because of a very random twitter message from someone I follow, and it lead me to discover something really interesting. This too happened about a year ago.

Same as I did for Jemisin (see the post below where I quoted my forum message), even if I didn’t yet get to read the book(s) to write about at length here on the blog, I did everything I could to show around what I found. To tell people I found something really interesting, at least for me, included with links to Amazon to find the books:

So here’s what I have:
Recurrence Plot
BLACK QUANTUM FUTURISM

Stuff I randomly spotted on Twitter and instantly proceeded to order (it’s cheap anyway). It’s self-publish stuff, I think, but that increases the curiosity of finding something RARE very few people know and potentially great and also different from everything else out there. Entirely new perspectives. Pioneering!

The two are related, the first is a weird tale that almost looks Danielewsky, it should have a sequel in a couple of months, and boldly claims “Time Travel, Theory & Practice”. There are a few weird schemes and pictures inside, the quality is not good (print quality of the images) but I love looking at convoluted diagrams and tangles of plot and mythology. The second one is some kind of fanzine, just 70-80 pages in a small format, it’s basically the “manifesto” that feeds the first book. I’ll paste here a quote so you understand what we’re dealing with:

[…] The troubling reality of being Black in America. The troubling reality of memory and how it plays a role in our daily lives. What do we chose to remember and what are we trying to forget? What memories are forced upon us and what memories are we forced to forget? What effect do they have over our bodies and psyches? The double conscious that DuBois once prophetically spoke of has transformed into a metafractal of limitless shapes and symmetry within the collective conscious of Black people. What are the dimesions of trauma? Does it work like a satellite routing a collective misery (sadness) to a certain locale? Does its energy participate and reemerge in some other space? How does our trauma affect the cosmos?


Black Quantum Futurism (or BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that futures reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics, futurist traditions, and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Inside of the space where these three traditions intersect exists a creative plane that allows for the ability of African-descended people to see into, choose, or create the impending future.

BQF is a new experience of time consciousness that binds modern day physics, ancient African time consciousness, and conceptual notions of futurism. Through Black Quantum Futurism we can increase the “knowability” of the future and the past by treating both modes of time as formally equivalent. This practice develops foresight and hindsight by studying features of time, sources of change, rythms and patterns in larger social patterns, as well as patterns in our personal spheres of experience in order to map out our Black Quantum Futures. Time is change, and to see into the future is merely to anticipate what changes will occur, and what patterns will re-occur. BQF Creatives work to consciously subvert the strict chronological hierarchal characteristic of linear time.

One of the pages is titled: Swahili Conception of Time and Space

Here’s an image of the writer, with Africa-shaped earrings. She basically looks coming straight from The Matrix:
http://40.media.tumblr.com/e3cc295a7878d9a75aec6d9712476da9/tumblr_nmyhnnKMSJ1sugf2vo1_500.jpg

So, it’s Time Travel mythology employed as social activism. A delicious post-modern mix. It’s mythology laid on top of this discourse:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z0N3hsSvs8

Watch the video because it’s great. I still only just browsed through the two books since I just got them, so can’t really say if what’s in there is actually good. But the premises are more than worth the very small price. I feel like I’m hanging out with the cool people (I’m white and feel I don’t belong, but I still feel it’s cool).

And I also absolutely love this blur of practical mythology, crossing over between fiction and reality, and basically reinvent everything. Even when it’s a failure it’s still exceptional.

Do you see the tone I used? I was excited. Do you see I was trying to get people to participate, even if that call fell dead in the water and people shrug it off? There’s no agenda there. I found something that looks very interesting and so I wanted to share it. EVEN BETTER if it happens to be a black woman writing. (an aside: the movie “Chi-Raq” by Spike Lee is a masterpiece, watch it)

No, I don’t go and don’t accept to go out of my way to look *specifically* for something written by a woman of color. That’s something I respect as a choice, but it’s not my choice and if I made it I’d feel hypocritical. I won’t try to balance my reads to find an ideal ratio of male to woman. I follow my interests, if those interests cross a woman of color, even BETTER. I’m glad. But I really don’t want that to drive my choices.

My impression reading different forums, forums with no agenda beside people loving to discuss the stuff they are passionate about, is that Jemisin won because the book was GOOD. This is what I’m reading. I briefly went to Vox Day blog to read what was the narrative being spun over there, and I even chuckled a bit a this specific quote:

The winners were: black woman, black woman, Asian woman, white woman, none of whom are bestselling or even very well-known authors. This is reliably indicative of increasing irrelevance. It won’t be long before simply being a minority won’t be enough and authors will have to be gay, blind, and crippled just to be nominated.

It’s quite a straw man, but there’s a hint of truth in there. But the important aspect is that Vox Day (beside insulting Jemisin, which is plainly inexcusable no matter what) thinks Jemisin is a “token”. It means she won because of what she represents and not for the quality of her work.

But hey, wait. Because this is one of those rare occasions where she MIGHT have been a token but, call it a coincidence, this is one case where that’s simply NOT TRUE. What I see by reading the forums I usually read is that people with no agenda at all read the book and LOVED it. It’s even a first because in many other occasions the book that won the Hugo wasn’t that much of a favorite. There was more of a disconnect between Hugo voters and general public. Jemisin represents EXCEPTIONALITY for the Hugo, which is why I said the win was predictable (I did predict it, after all) but this time at least a good book ACTUALLY won. Because it wasn’t always the case.

So Vox Day’s thesis is *specifically* wrong this time. It’s this year specifically a case that a good novel won and I see readers celebrate it! It’s not something new because a *black woman* won the Hugo main prize this year, it’s new that a GOOD NOVEL WON based on its own merits instead of just the name on the cover, as it’s usually the case (see Gaiman, this year). The Hugo is all about certain circles, there’s no healthy contamination. It’s a bad prize exactly because it’s so self-referential (but all prizes are, and I really hope we could just get rid of all of them, honestly). This year was an EXCEPTION. A good one. If anything, it’s from this point onward that one should be skeptical, because Jemisin now has a name. She’s not anymore the underdog and won’t represent anymore that side. She has contacts, she is well respected. Beware making her into a totem and proof that the problem is now solved.

But what about me? Jemisin accuses me (indirectly). I wonder, are black women misrepresented because the field is male-dominated, so the market is mostly pointed at males and consequently less women are readers (in the genre) and so less likely to also become writers (though things are definitely changing)? Is it a kind of circular process, like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it the publisher that draws this line? In the articles about the recent Hugo victory I saw linked another article by some writer discouraging women to write science fiction, I only gave it a cursory glance but the thesis seems to be that women can’t write action. But what if there’s a little bit of truth there if you correct the otherwise silly angle? What if the thing is not so much that women *can’t* write action, but rather that their preferred styles and themes are more likely oriented elsewhere? Maybe there isn’t an absolute “equality”, and women do write differently and bring to the table a different angle. It’s DIVERSITY that we should TREASURE. And maybe denying that diversity won’t do good to the cause. Because we should bring it out as a quality, instead of hiding it (while still also being wary of turning it into a canon or prejudice). It is different? GOOD!

What I know is that it’s hard for me to find women writers, or black writers, or combinations of those, that write the stuff that might interest me. You know them? BRING THEM ON. I want to know all about them. Every reader who loves reading is constantly waiting for more great things, the struggle is to fish them out in the chaotic sea of publishing. If I haven’t bought and read more books written by women is because I wasn’t able to find them. But that also means you CAN accuse me of having narrow tastes. It might be that I’m far more open to a certain type of diversity, and what I read isn’t branching out enough, that’s a more legitimate accusation than telling me I’m a racist. And maybe Jemisin is the exception, in my case, because she IS writing themes that you wouldn’t as easily find in a novel written by a woman. But I also think that the accusation of not reading books that are diverse enough is so generalized that it will be hard to say where to draw the line. We would once again fall into prescribed reading insanity.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading articles about Jerusalem, by Alan Moore. And in one another big tome was mentioned: Ash: A Secret History. I’ve never heard of it and the more I read reviews and forums posts the more I wanted to have the book in my hands. It’s written by a woman, Mary Gentle. I really wonder why this book never crossed my path and I immediately ordered a copy. But then the UK edition that has all the story in one volume is out of print everywhere, and in the end I had to ordered a used copy through Amazon, so the author won’t see any of that money (but I did get the book and it’s in great condition, yay!).

How do I prove that genre and color of skin don’t stop me, but are actually a positive point, even if it will never be a *decisive* point for me? I have my interests, I have an hard time finding women of color that are excellent writers and that write stuff I’m interested about. My library reflects my interests, not my prejudices (and when I was younger I also dabbed in the “chick lit” genre, that certainly wasn’t a market meant for a male presence). And if I can help to rise awareness about certain writers, I try to do what I can. Recently there was a forum post asking for five favorite fantasy series, I listed just four, because they do something different from the norm, and in my personal third place, after Erikson and Bakker, I put Janny Wurts. She’s not just a writer I recommend, or just a female writer, she’s up there with the very best.

But my library is still very likely 90% white guys. I am still observably guilty.

And now I have to write about this too.

Books by N.K. Jemisin have been on my radar for a while, then last summer I read a very good review of The Fifth Season and what it said about the book was so interesting that I pre-ordered the book AND also ordered the omnibus of the previous trilogy. I read the first 30-50 pages of this one and liked it. Then, as it always happen, these go into an evergrowing pile of books to read, but I’ll go there sooner than later (relatively) because I’m really interested to read all of it.

Since then I read Jemisin blog and even hyped the book on twitter and forums because of certain things she wrote, because those certain things are *especially* what writers have to write to grab my attention.

I haven’t read it, but this is the one book coming out this year that is without a doubt MUST READ, my sixth sense says.

Jemisin first trilogy as one omnibus was released a few months ago, and I had it on my wishlist for a while, mostly because I remembered some of Larry “Blog of the fallen” reviews. And I finally bought that a month or so ago. Only read 50 or so pages, but it’s good. Good enough to see a writer that is on the right path with enough talent backing it up. I’m reading it with the awareness “it can only get better, and it will”, as an appetizer, because I know of this new trilogy coming out.

Then I read Neth review about this new trilogy, and especially Jemisin own words. There are a few things that can get my attention and make me click on “buy” button very quickly:


I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere.

Still, the Broken Earth trilogy is the, hmm, biggest thing I’ve ever written, and the scope of it is forcing me to do some things I’ve never done before.

It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someones going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.

And then I read that a part of the book is written in 2nd person, and for a reason.

So, the point is that a writer that was on my radar for a while kicked up the ambition another lever. I only wait for those kinds of things. Something that has ideas, has ambition, takes risks, goes off the beaten path, exploring. The general themes and scope of the book seem amazing, and the reviews I’ve read confirm it’s successful.

I could still read it and then be disappointed, but I doubt it.

I was then glad to see the book was nominated for the Hugo, a prize that really doesn’t say much to me and that I see as par-for-the-course of a certain establishment. But this time, instead, there was a good book. Because of those excellent premises. Even if I still haven’t personally read it, I’ve spent time reading *about* it, and in my experience that’s already enough to frame a book.

I didn’t even know the Hugo winners were going to be announced yesterday and I only found out when I scrolled my twitter. There were more than a few mentions and, since I’ve been following Jemisin too, there were her retweets as well.

I use twitter a great deal to read, but I sporadically write. This time my message was:

#HugoAward predictable as usual. But at least a good novel won. The Sandman, though, was meaningless drivel, a shadow of the former comics

I was quite sure she was going to win (check the date), for a number of reasons. And if you read comments on the forums you can see no one was really surprised she won. Quite often I can look at the list of nominations and guess who’s going to win, without having read their books. It just happens, the Hugo follows its rules. It’s a fact it’s predictable and you can frequently guess who’s going to win by just reading the nomination list. Is pointing this out controversial?

I wrote that comment on twitter, then tried to retweet the news, and my twitter client told me I couldn’t do that. I click on it and find out it was retweeted by Jemisin and I was now blocked to see her profile.

Within five minutes of having written that throwaway comment above, Jemisin decided to *block* my twitter account.

I mentioned this on the forums too and my post was quickly deleted (which annoys me). But IT IS kind of a big deal, and it’s NOT a personal kind of deal.

For me this is a very good sign of how the whole “Rabid Puppies” deal has produced a toxic community. When you poison the waters that poison spreads everywhere. It’s pervasive and indiscriminate. What happened there? I can only guess but there’s only one possibility, Jemisin saw my twitter message because I used that hashtag, interpreted my “predictable as usual” as an accusation the ballot was piloted (which was NOT my intention), so imagined I was one of the Puppies (and I’m really not, this should be very obvious too), and proceeded to block my account.

So there’s this new culture of SUSPICION that is bred from a community going toxic. I was caught in friendly fire.

It’s not a big deal that she blocked my account. I’m annoyed because I followed her for a reason. I want to read about updates, and not being able to see them on twitter is a problem, even if a small one. But it’s a big deal because it’s a sign of how these movements and counter-movements, of a fanbase taking sides to fight an entirely pointless war, is just the wrong way to deal with the whole thing. It just makes everything worse, for EVERYONE. And even if you happen to fight on the “good” side, this fight still brings the worst out of you.

Are you friend or foe? Show me your banner.

People align themselves to a group, to obtain sympathy, to be accepted, to reinforce a sense of identity, to close ranks. To establish social links. And we keep around ourselves only those like-minded, so that we never have to confront ourselves with a side we consider hostile. This is the automatic pilot of the human being. It sucks.

Congratulations. It seems in the heat of the moment you still had enough time to read my twitter message and block me for no reason at all.

P.S.
Since the blog sends trackbacks and she’s very obviously manually pruning them, it means she didn’t block me as a mistake, but did it deliberately. So I’m just left wondering what I did to earn this hostility.

Update:
I now notice that in the comments to Jemisin blog someone complained about a similar issue. It looks like me, but not me. I actually considered writing a message on her blog but decided it was better not.

Her reply:

I have a series of auto-blockers in place with currently over 100,000 people blocked. That’s been necessary given the amount of Gamergate- and white supremacist-related online harassment I experience. The auto-blockers also screen out people who could potentially be harassers — new accounts, those with fewer than 15 followers, some other factors. Trust me, it wasn’t personal.

If you tell me your Twitter handle, I can unblock you, as long as you don’t look like a Gger or bigot. :)

Though I wonder what ultimate AI the auto-blockers employ since my message above didn’t contain Jemisin name, nor the book title (nor my account is subject to those factors she lists).

I finished reading this after more than A YEAR, but that’s what happens when I read way too many books in parallel, drop them for a few months to pick them up later.

Here I only wanted to comment a particular aspect of how the series got a bit off the rails, accordingly to most(?) fans. For sure something went wrong since Martin didn’t release the following book for many years, and when he did he promised the next would be out within one year… when it didn’t come out for another six. This triggered a lot of discussions about readers’ “entitlement”, but it’s pretty obvious something went wrong regardless of what readers think.

Keeping my own glacial pace I now finished this third book, the one that the fans loved the most. For me the first has been the best book by a good margin, the second one was good but not as good, and when I started reading this third I felt quite underwhelmed. There are very good chapters even in this third book, especially Sansa, Jaime and Tyrion (in this order), but in general I couldn’t understand what in this book was supposed to push it well above the previous two. This continued up to page 700 or so (1100 total in the paperback I read).

There’s not a big convergence in the book, or a single turning point, but I agree the last 400 pages are in a different category. Instead of reaching some overall plot culmination what happens is that every major PoV reaches a turning point in its own self-contained story (there are repercussions from one to the other, but often it happens indirectly). What Martin did was about aligning these story-lines that, even if kept well separated and following their own trajectories, they all reach the highest tension is a rather quick succession. So these last 400 pages are intense because of the speed the plot picks up, because there are so many deaths, and because they are really well organized as a whole, without feeling jammed forcefully. The story has a very different intensity compared to the first half of the book.

But one aspect I noticed is that this is different from simply reaching some culmination of a plot as you would expect. This isn’t merely a good book ending, the function is different, and I think it’s this function that has then created the problems the series has with book 4 & 5. These parallel stories reach their culmination, often with well executed (if a bit trite) plot twists, but in particular to “reposition” all the major characters. I mean it’s not a plot trajectory, it’s about set-up a brand new state. In fact some of these end-of-book set-ups (what comes after the respective plot twists) are even quite bad, bordering fanfiction (because they are a bit too forced and mostly fanservice, see Jon’s “election”).

What happens is completely different from the good finales and plot twists you see at the end of book 1 and 2, that’s what I mean. The first two books have their own satisfying culminations but it was just that. In this case instead book 3 almost wipes the board clean because these major characters all end up in a novel position. It’s no more a journey, it’s a definite new beginning. Less about what is left behind and more about the blank, undiscovered state ahead. The same story continues, of course, but all the premises have been changed, all these characters have been uprooted from their familiar places and roles, and each pushed into a totally new context. Also in the other two books this was the most relevant (and effective) plot mechanic: the balance and familiarity is radically upset. But this time there are less immediate concerns and dangers, it’s not a twist that sends characters directly into action same as every previous book finale was setting up the stage for the next. This time the blank state is dominant across all the story-lines, all of them being expertly juggled to reach this coordination.

What I observed in this third book finale matches what I read about Martin’s original plan. That was about creating a few years gap, after book three, so that the story would continue with characters starting well into their new lives. It seems evident that this is how the ending of book 3 was written. The new set-ups are so radical that the attention of the reader is not on the immediate tomorrow. It’s a starting point meant to eventually build up to a different context, and that was where the fourth book was meant to pick up.

I imagine Martin went on with that plan but, because of what it required, it’s not like he could publish the third book and then start writing the next as he would usually do. He needed to painstakingly track what happened in those “hidden” years between the books. Martin said this himself, he said he figured that the amount of work plotting those years wouldn’t be that different from the amount of work actually showing them in a book. Again, I imagined he tried sticking to his plan, but all the added work to set up the new world must have meant he made little actual progress in the book writing. I imagined that months passed and he grew frustrated and at some point he gave up. He might have felt as if he needed to actually produce those pages that would go into the book itself, rather than just “worldbuilding” the hidden gap. That gap of the plot turned into a necessary gap in the production. Taking too long not being able to resume writing because he was still assembling the pieces needed. He probably got anxious about that and might have felt like he needed something to get back on track.

How do you get back on track? By going back to what you always did. I’m just imagining how things might have gone, it’s just speculation, but I think that after having struggled to write the story between the books he eventually gave up because it required way too much work. He felt the pressure of writing the book itself, and in the end the only immediate solution was to fall back to what he always did. That meant that he had to scrap the jump forward in the story and follow through with the events right after book three.

That’s my interpretation of “what went wrong”. I think that it was Martin’s own self-consciousness about taking too long that paradoxically made things worse. He felt he needed to start writing new pages, but that required building what happened in the gap, so he had to remove the gap to minimize all that work, but that consequently presented its own issues, as the plot would need to be wrestled and adapted to the new plan. The story was not structured this way, and even if some readers think Martin eventually did an excellent job, it’s still likely far from ideal. This type of mid-series re-planning might work if you can go back and adapt the whole thing, but it’s obvious to me that the third book was written for a different goal, and that going in a completely new direction still exacts a not irrelevant toll on the whole.

I imagine it as a self-feeding anxiety that made Martin sacrifice his initial plan to fix the problems he had in writing what came next, but in the end this didn’t actually help because the following two books still took a very long time, and still upset that balance in the original plan.

At first he stuck to the plan following the way, he got anxious because it was taking a too long time, so he decided to take a shortcut, only to realize the shortcut made things even worse. It’s probably the pressure he felt that was the primary cause of the delays.

We, the fans, messed it up. (Indirectly, for the most part, of course.)

Out there there might be an alternative timeline where Martin stuck to the original plan. It is likely that that version has an edge over what we got/will get.

(The removal of the timeline gap was done to deal with the tribulations that came up while writing the fourth book, meant as a solution and a fix, but it also messes up with the way book three itself is written, because book three explicitly builds toward that timeline gap. It requires it. It’s not just what comes after that is upset, but also what comes before.)