Notes from the Geek Show
... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer and carnival freak, Hal Duncan
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
San Diego Union Tribune Review
I should really start this at the beginning, with my arrival in New York and such, shouldn't I? Like, I should start with "first things first". So, yeah...
I had dinner with Chip Delany!
Well, OK, that was actually Friday night, so that didn't come first at all, but fuck it.
I had dinner with Chip Delany!
Sorry, I just needed to get that out of my system. It's just... you know... dinner with Chip Delany. And he was lovely. And I didn't entirely witter on pathetically like the fanboy I am. OK, so I didn't get round to telling him how he clued me in to Guy Davenport, or ask him about subjunctivity, or if he'd ever return to SF, or just how far he ever got with the sequel to Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (sorry, Phil... I know... but it just seemed a tiresome question to ask), or any of the other terribly literary chat I had Big Plans regarding. Hell, I barely even managed to tell him I was reading (and wowing over) Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. But that was because it was all just too damn enjoyable to sit and dine in a civilised manner with one of my all-time heroes. And, like, have him ask for my address (*eek*) so he could send me his comments after reading the copy of VELLUM I foisted upon him in best "I don't care if you even read it, I just offer my lame book as tribute at your feet" fashion. I think the point where I relaxed (a little) and thought, fuck it, let's just have some fucking dinner here -- maybe, possibly, connect rather than network, as he puts it in the aforesaid book of essays -- was when I spotted the three (four) big hoop earings in his left ear, adding a certain dash of the... piratical to the professorial gravitas of his eight-inch beard and black cane. Suddenly I had this glimpse of the Delany (I still can't quite think of him as Chip, not really; that would just be... forward) of his autobiography, of Nova and Babel-17, the Delany of all his writing, fiction or non-fiction, as much the artist as the academic, the Delany who loves hands big and rough, and nails well-bitten.
But I don't want to make this entirely a rave about a two-hour dinner on Friday night, so let's actually get on with the con.
Well, no. First things first. You know, Continental Airlines may well do direct flights between Glasgow and Newark but they're cheap bastards. I mean I wasn't bothered about seeing Cheaper By The Dozen 2 on the flight over but I was kinda tempted by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the way back, so it would have been nice to have screens that were more than a grey blur and sound that didn't cut out after ten minutes. And, I'm sorry; I can just about accept not serving alcohol as the complementary beverage, but filling a tiny glass half full of ice, and then covering that, and keeping the rest of the can for the next customer... that's just fucking stingy. I guess it's worth it for the direct flight, and waaaaay shorter time... but rationing out the fucking soft drinks is just plain cheap. Just saying.
Not that the dodginess of movies and drinks policy really bothered me, busy as I was reading my way through Gaiman's American Gods and realising, Oh, so that's why people keep comparing Vellum to the book, and also realising, much to my surprised amusement, that half of it was set in fucking Wisconsin. On relating this to Meester Minz I was met in turn by his surprised amusement: "What, you never read American Gods before that?!?! Seriously?!?!" Actually, I'd been kinda avoiding it from this terrible feeling that I'd end up up either cribbing from him or, worse, finding out he'd already told the story I wanted to.
Monday night was spent with Jim, his wife Sondi and John Klima. Beer and pizza, and a first glance at the smashing Electric Velocipede #10, which I'm going to post a BIG SODDING PICTURE of directly after I post this entry. Cause it's pretty. And it has neat shit in it. But then, of course it has; it's Electric Velocipede #10. So go buy it.
Tuesday: Hanging at Random House, lunch in the afternoon and karaoke in the evening. Tons of Random House folks bringing down the house. Fleetwood kicked it off by kicking out the jams. I did "Delilah" and it went on from there. Had a great time chatting with Tricia about Scott Walker after my attempt at "Jackie". La Gringa and Emperor Minz did some wild duets. I remember stripping to the waist at one point for "I Wanna Be Your Dog" which got some cheers, some laughs and some cries of "Give that man a burger!". By the end of the night Minz and I, blasted, were doing serious damage to our livers and serious damage to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid". It was a fucking scream, and it was good prep for Wiscon. We made it back to his place at about, oh, 2:30 in the morning. I'm just glad I didn't have to get up early for work, unlike me poor editor.
Wednesday: Lunch with Howard Morhaim out in Brooklyn Heights, followed by coffee out on the promenade. Man, that place is niiiiiiiice. I seemed to spend a lot of Wiscon chatting to people who turned out to stay, or have stayed, in either Brooklyn or the East Village (like Lauren McLaughlin, who I tip my hat to for kindly allowing me to cadge an hour or two in her smoking room in the Madison Concourse and therefore drink free White Russians and smoke simultaneously) and therfore had to suffer my continual comparisons with the West End of Glasgow and enthusing over how One Day If I Am Rich And Famous I Will Live in New York (For Some Of The Year).
Thursday: We were lucky, Minz and I, in comparison to everyone else who came to Wiscon, it seems. We got on our train for Newark International at Princeton Junction and had it pull out of the station just at the point where power went down for the whole Northern Corridor, between DC and NY. We had to get off our train and drive to the airport. As I say, we were lucky though. We made our flight and after a minor delay in Milwaukee still made it to the hotel bang on time for the opening of the Governor's Club (and with our luggage) unlike many who had horror stories about their travel disasters, to put it mildly.
And... well... after that it all gets kinda blurry. Actually it gets a lot blurry. Last thing I remember is sitting chatting to Geoff Ryman and some of the Ratbastards in the Governor's Club at about, I think, 9:00. I was spotted at 11:30 by John Scalzi in the elevator and he tells me I had a White Russian in my hand with ice still in it, so I must've been in the lobby (the Governor's Club closing at 10:30). Reputedly the exchange went along the lines of:
John: "Hi, Hal, how you doing?"
Me: "I'm fucked."
There are rumours about me getting, um, a bit, um, over-friendly. I can only hope these aren't true, or that any apparent freshness was just misunderstood Celtic exuberance, or simply cringe with embarassment and apologise to anyone and everyone I might have bothered with my drunken libido and impulse-control issues.
The last time I was spotted Thursday night was outside the hotel, smoking at 1:30 in the morning, then staggering away bedwards with a weeble-like sway, which was a matter of much concern to those who saw me (they obviously don't know me well enough). I am however a resilient soul and can always make it home -- if not to my actual bed then at least to the extremely comfortable floor beside my bed, the perfect place for my editor to trip over me when he arrives back from meeting his old college mates to find me sprawled there unconscious. Upon a gentle nudge, with a few incoherent mumbles and uncoordinated stumbles, I managed to navigate my way to the bathroom and to bed. Hell, I even woke up at 9:30 in the morning, in time for breakfast in the Governor's Club.
So, really, I wasn't that drunk.
But if anyone has information pertaining to the whereabouts of Hal Duncan between 9:00 and 1:30 on Thursday night, please -- no, on second thoughts I'm not sure I want to know.
Friday, Friday, Friday: Bumped into Elizabeth Bear on the way to lunch at Dotties with aforesaid Scalzi. A skirmish round the Dealer's Room. Hellos to various people I met at WFC. Jeremy Lassen in a suit. When and where did I bump into Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbaleister? Or Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe? Or Gavin Grant and Kelly Link? Or the thousand other folks I might have met on Thursday night, or not as the case may be? Maybe I was just too busy asking "Do you know what I did last night?" to keep track of the information. Maybe it's just that the problem with cons is that after the first night it all starts to blend into one long "hey there, how ya doin?!" with only a few selected moments in sharp relief. Like the quivering lip as I waited for Delany in the lobby and time passed and he didn't show and we realised his plane must be late and couldn't get in contact with him. The sad-hearted acceptance that it was always too good to be true as we headed out to the delayed-but-kept reservation. The childlike joy when the message came through that he'd gone straight to the restaurant because of the late flight and was waiting there for us. What else do I remember? The 6:30 conversation with Ben Rosenbaum.
Saturday: Christ knows, frankly. When was the panel on the animal companion? I remember feeling a bit rough and picking at lunch, talking about genre and children's fic with Gary K. Wolfe and Pat Murphy and Veronica Schanoes and Helen Pilinovsky and Sharon whose second name I can't fucking remember despite the fact that I absolutely fucking adore her hard-smokin', straight-talkin', sheer fucking attitude and wit and goddamnit we were on the same plane back from WFC after a late night conversation and I should fucking well remember it. *gah*! I remember a fine meal with later in the evening with Gary Wolfe and Jeremy Lassen. I remember arriving back at the Ratbastards karaoke evening, the Scalzi and Rosenbaum strip-tease, Christopher Barzak with my editor as one of his backing dancers, Jeremy singing "Big Balls", me stealing a beer from someone's hand as a prop for "The Piano Has Been Drinking". The room parties.
Oh yes, and of course Chris Brazak introduced me to Terri Windling and Midori Snyder, which was cool, as I found out then that the new issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts is now online, with my essay on "Tales of Death and Rebirth in World Myth and Mythic Fiction": The Tomb and The Womb. It covers everything from Inanna to Buffy, you know, so go read it. Or just look at the gorgeous illustrations Midori Snyder found for it. (The one of Hypnos and Thanatos as two pretty-boys lying arm-in-arm is, needless to say, my favourite) It also has a whole bundle of other goodies to say the least -- fiction by Jane Yolen, Alan De Niro, Karen Joy Fowler. All round goddamn good stuff. Actually, chatting to Midori on Sunday about art and religion was another of the highlights of Wiscon for me. OK, so the fine wine, incredible tapas, and the company of Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, Terri Windling and, of course, the Emperor Minz had a lot to do with making that last night of the convention not have, you know, that horrible last night of the convention feel.
Which, yes, brings us to Sunday, and sitting in an abandoned room post-party chatting to Roger Range and Alex With No Last Name On His Badge who I was bumming cigarette papers off, and, let's see, yes, you were there, and you were there, and you were there, and then we were outside, because they kicked us out, and I was chatting with Sharon again just like I was chatting to her and Veronica and Gary Wolfe and Richard Chedwyk and Erzebet YellowBoy and Catherynne M. Vallente and Ekaterina Sedia only that was earlier in the night or earlier in the con, some other time when we were just hanging at that bench outside the revolving doors where you sit and the smokers one by one come out, and you shoot the breeze, and then someone leaves and someone else comes and the chat changes and it stays the same and every so often you leave and head for the dealers room or a panel where Scott and Justine and Gwenda have press-ganged you in as one of their plants to ask a question in complete gibberish only you fail miserably by being far too comprehensible but it's still a hoot because you have Christopher Rowe stepping up in a total parody of worst audience excesses to say "I have, well, it's not so much a question as a comment... it's in seven parts", only for Scott Westerfeld to point and shout "Scalzi! Get him!" whereupon John Scalzi tackles Christopher Rowe on this absurdist theatre of a panel where the discussion of the "Death of the Panel" leads to the beginning of a revolution, a revolution, I say, in bringing the UK concept of Free Beer For Panel Participants to the US, and then you head out for a Bloody Mary and end up sitting in the bar chatting to Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette and others and others on the Friday afternoon, and you all head off to see Chip Delany interview Joanna Russ on the Sunday, then it's up the Governor's Club where Geoff Ryman is wearing his Tiptree tiara, so you get him to sign the copy of Air you bought in the Dealer's Room just like you do to Alan De Niro with his new collection, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, and Jay Lake has you sign his copy of Vellum and you end up talking about the Neo-Victorian vibe in some modern fantasy, and you're sitting there thinking, man, I love conventions, man, I love this convention, man, I fucking love fucking Wiscon.
So... yeah. That's all clear then, right?
Sunday, May 21, 2006
And / or you can check out this review from the New York Literary Society...
Vellum: The Book of All Hours, at its core is a wonderfully complex book layered in history, mythology, and an awareness of contemporary social ills. Layered, but not hidden; which allows Duncan’s non-didactic approach to the novel’s political undercurrents to flow freely and naturally. Poetry lovers in general and spoken word artists in particular may find such euphoniously written lines as, “…they’ll have slave ships ferrying dead sinners to their Western Lands to toil in plantation purgatories…” deeply satisfying. However, there is a word of caution that must be interjected here. Readers looking for a quick, mindless read or something in the vein of a dumbed-down, Da Vinci Codeish literary frolic should leave this book on the shelf. Juxtaposed with Brown’s, Da Vinci Code, Vellum will feel like taking a graduate level course – without satisfying any of its pre-requisites. In short, you simply cannot skim this one and not come away with something that resembles Milton’s, Paradise Lost set to underground Irish hip-hop.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Rocky Mountain News Review
...Unlike many novels with planned sequels, Vellum has a satisfying conclusion. Duncan's talent and research abilities are immense, and reading his first book is a challenge, but finishing it is an accomplishment.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Fuckin A! Yeehaw! Alrighty!
Huh? I hear you say. OK, so a month back or so me good mate Mags, who works for a TV company in Glasgow (first guys to do a doc on Franz Ferdinand, I might add (which was Mags's idea, I might add to that addage)), told us about this project the indie record label Chemikal Underground are working on, bringing together writers and bands based in Scotland for an album. Is that so? says me. So who have they got on board?
Now I'm not sure how certain which of these are -- some of them may be in the early stages of collaboration, while others may be dependant on touring commitments -- but as I understand the project has Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Michel Faber and Ian Rankin amongst the interested writers and Sons & Daughters, Vashti Bunyan, Aidan Moffatt (of Arab Strap), and (possibly) Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai amongst the interested musicians. (As I say, I don't know how far along any of the collaborations are, so I'm wary of saying anything with any certainty). Anyhoo...
Well, now, says me. That sounds rather interesting. Would they, by any chance -- perhaps possibly maybe -- be still looking for writers?
I shall ask, says Mags.
So, long story short: I exchange a few emails with the guys at Chemikal Underground (oh, and btw, if you haven't heard Sluts of Trust or Mother and the Addicts, two of the most recent acts on this fucking killer label, then get ye to a record shop and seek them out), and they say, sure, send us some lyrics and we'll forward them to the bands, see if any of them bite. So I fire off a couple of songs (reckoning that other writers like Morgan or Gray may be doing more modern poetic stuff, so a straightforward rhyming rhythmic rock song might offer some diversity) and a few days later...
A few days later they get back to me and tell me that Aereogramme have taken one of my sets of lyrics and want to give them a go. Fuckin Aereogramme! OK, so I'll confess that at this point I knew the name but hadn't heard any of their stuff. So the first thing I do is check out their website, download one of their tracks and listen to it. That would be about the point when I wet myself (and kicked myself for not having heard them before this). I've got their first two albums now -- A Story In White and Sleep and Release -- and, maybe my puppy-dog excitement is prejudicing me but these guys KICK ARSE!
Here. Go read some Amazon Reviews.
In fact, go read some more .
Come to think of it, they have stuff out in the US as well, a new album just released, in fact, so for those of ye across the Pond:
Amazon.com has all three albums too.
(And note the fact that all three albums have five stars. Nuff said. )
I could throw around other band-names like Mogwai or Godspeed, You Black Emperor or Explosions In The Sky (or even Jimmy Eat World pre-Bleed American... perhaps, maybe) but that doesn't do them justice at all. There's a definite emo / post-rock vibe to them, yes, but its not just the usual quiet-loud-quiet-loud formula; they're anything but derivative. Nope, Aereogramme are, well, Aeroegramme. There's a lot of folks I know who read this blog who, man, if ye haven't tried them out already, trust me, yer gonna want to check them out. As one of the reviews puts it:
"If you have any musical intelligence at all you will at least appreciate the incredibly brilliant and original drumming, the lyrical genius, the driving basslines and the contrast between beautiful melodies and bone crunchingly heavy rock. Other bands have tried to blend the two but usually too blatantly."
And, boy, is that my kinda music! Not only that but their sound is just fucking perfect for the lyrics I sent them, a wee song with the upbeat title of "If You Love Me, You'd Destroy Me". The song came from a conversation I had in a club one night with me mate Dougie (aka Dougie the Indie Elf), where one or other of us (can't recall who) came up with that phrase and we laughingly said, man, that's a fucking cracking title for a song. Cause that's proper love. Not yer poncy, frilly-cuffed, hand-nailed-to-forehead bollocks. No, no, no. Sure, OK, love is flowers and puppies and walks in the park, and such shite. But it's also ripping your heart out of your chest, offering it someone in the palm of your hand and saying, take it... crush it... I want you to.
If you really loved me, you'd destroy me.
I'm just a big romantic at heart, you know.
Point is, having heard Aereogramme's other stuff I'm so fucking stoked, have been for weeks, because their sound just matches that vibe completely. I mean apart from the fact that this means I'll be on an album with some fucking shit-hot writers and shit-hot musicians, people whose work I have total and utter respect for, apart from the fact that this album will, without a doubt, be on sale in my hallowed temple, the Glasgow-based indie record shop Fopp, apart from the sheer "How fucking cool is this?!?!" excitement of being part of Glasgow's fucking kick arse indie music scene, if only for one song on one album... apart from all that, I just can't fucking wait to hear what they do with it.
And I get to go into the studio tomorrow evening and hear them recording it. I get to sit in the sound technician's box (or somewhere well out of the road -- I don't mind) and see a fucking honest-to-god, bona fide professional (post-)rock band turn my lyrics into real music.
And it's the first track being laid down for the album, too.
Fuckin A! Yeehaw! Alrighty!
There's not much more I can say, really.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Puck, of course, particularly likes the reference to him as "hot".
Saturday, May 06, 2006
The Fanfiction Kerfuffle
See, one phrase I've seen used in some of those threads by fanfiction writers is, I think, a good clue to where they might be missing the root of the primary objection of writers who get shirty about fanfiction. That phrase is "playing in another's sandbox". That's a wrong way to think about it, a deeply wrong way, because the literary stuff being played with is not like sand, not for most writers, not at all. It's not formless, shapeless, infinitely malleable. Hell, a fuckload of work went into shaping those characters and settings; time and energy and, often, identity went into the construction of the personalities and cultures inhabiting a work of fiction. But that metaphor sets up a false division between the character and setting as mere rough material (the sandbox) and the story as fine detailed construction (the sandcastles). The fanfiction writer is placing themselves in the role of architect, the builder of the sandcastle, and placing the original creator in the role of... what? Someone who dug a hole in their backyard and shovelled it full of sand. A mere supplier of construction material.
Metaphors are important to writers. Every image has implicities. And the implicities of that image are not going to win you many supporters among the writer-dudes.
So, I use the phrase "building-blocks". It's not that much better, but it might at least suggest that what we're dealing with in characters and settings is not shapeless sand but rather crafted objects. If words are the Lego bricks of writing, settings are elaborate cities, whole streets and buildings built from those bricks, on a scale that you can step into and walk around in; characters are huge monumental sculptures, carefully placed in relationships to each other that, if they work, balance in a sometimes terrible, sometimes beautiful, blend of harmony and conflict. Stories are in part just those relationships, in part the brick-built bridges and expressways, like a monorail that leads the reader through the Lego city, around the sculptures, in a carefully-laid out path from A to B to C. The main point here is simply that those components -- the characters and settings -- if the crafting of them wasn't so full of effort, and if that effort didn't result in something kinda fuckin cool, well, fanfiction writers wouldn't be wanting to play with them... and the sandpit metaphor disrespects that effort. No, the writer is not just some spoiled brat who doesn't want to share his toys. He might be a po-faced uncle with no sense of humour who's built a full reproduction of the Battle of Little Big Horn in miniature and doesn't take kindly to your playing cowboys and injuns with his models. He might do well to lighten up a little. But don't disrespect the craft. I'm sure that's not what's intended by the "playing in someone else's sandbox" metaphor, but, as I say... images have implicities.
The subsidiary point is that, to many writers, the whole kit-and-kaboodle -- characters and settings and the pathways by which the reader experiences them -- are One Big Thing. To fuck with one part is to fuck with it all. Like taking a painting and deciding, well, I like the background and the foreground, the whole structural composition, but its not glossy enough, it's all grey and miserable, so I think I'll paint it over in nice primary colours so it's all pretty. That Caravaggio is so dark and gloomy; let's lighten it up a little! That Picasso is so blue and sad; let's make it bright and orangey so it makes me feel smiley! Wouldn't it be so much more fun if we had courageous Custer killing all the bad injuns?
Now, fanfiction doesn't strictly speaking change the work. It just builds new pathways through the terrain, creates a new... tour of the Lego city. It takes those sculptures and re-arranges them in the reader's experience, changing their relationships with each other. It may even make some minor adjustments in the way the sculptures themselves appear, or in how we see the terrain, by sticking some more weird sculptures up along the side of that new path. As we pass, we see this extra piece of Lego craftwork superimposed over the original, so that they seem to blend, so that we see a slightly different thing than that presented to us by the author. The fanfiction writer can't ever change the original but they can offer a different experience of it. Again, of course, this is where some writers get shirty, because the book -- the characters, the setting, the story -- is as much the experience in the reader's imagination as it is the words upon the page. And fanfiction can, while not changing the original text, functionally speaking, change the experience, adding interpolations which, in the writer's opinion, don't belong. The characters and settings as the reader experiences them become a redaction of countless different versions. You're writing a simple relationship of envy and bullying between a boy wizard and a spoiled brat; suddenly you know that half your readership are primed to take even the subtlest turn of phrase as sexual innuendo, a subtext of repressed homosexual desire. And as interesting as that reading of the relationship might be, it's not the story that you're trying to write.
It's like having a few thousand editors and book doctors, slipping new scenes in between every chapter...
Writer: Hey, hey, wait a minute! What the fuck is Harry doing in bondage gear here, giving Draco a blowjob?!
Editors: Chill, man. Don't worry about it. The orginal chapters are still there; we haven't changed those. And we've put our names on the sections we wrote so everybody will know that they're not actually yours.
Writer: But, but, but...
Me, I'm interested in that process, but I can understand entirely the viewpoint of a writer who feels that, sorry, you just ain't got the right to fuck with my Lego city in that way. I built it and I run the tours. Take yer weird-ass feelthy perversions and get the fuck out of my world. Because those tours, those stories, the reading experience is a process of communication, of self-expression. The writer has something to say, and they've built a whole fucking Lego city to say it with. Fanfiction appropriates that city and uses it to say something else entirely. And what if that something else is abhorrent to the ethics of the writer?
Writer: But, but, but... these characters are kids. Man, this is sick.
Editors: Come on. They're clearly locked into a subconscious love/hate tension that's just waiting to rip loose when they realise the true nature of their feelings for one another.
Imagine you write a hero; call him Jack Flash. He's blond-haired and blue-eyed, dashing but bugfuck-crazy. You want to use him to subvert the cliches of heroic fiction. You show him fighting blackshirts in a fucked-up steampunk world where Britain is a fascist state, blowing up shit left, right and centre. But it's important to you, deeply important, that the reader shouldn't just be getting a cosy, reassuring power-fantasy, a shallow make-believe world which denies the realities of modern-day neo-nazis. Deep down you want to challenge the heroic story-pattern where violence is the final solution because you have a strong belief in pacifism, because final solutions like that, you think, lead inevitably to, well, that other type of Final Solution. To fight the Empire is to become it, as PKD said. Then someone takes that character and world and tells a story which, in terms of its moral message, pisses on everything you believe in. All it says is, yeah, violence is cool! Blowing up shit is cool! Smash the State! Anarchy, fuck yeah!
Ultimately this ethical objection is, if you want to take it to extremes, that of an artist whose painting gets used in a propaganda campaign by a regime they consider heinous. You have a simple painting of a worker in a field. He looks all noble and honest, but over in the corner of the painting there's a starving beggar-woman who undercuts any idealisation of peasant life. This is a hard life, the painting says. This is poverty, suffering. The peasant life is a miserable one. So the Ministry of Information just crop the painting, cut the woman out, and plaster posters all round the country, with slogans celebrating the good folk of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany.
This is one reason writers want to keep creative control. Because ideas are powerful and with power comes responsibility. You create something which gets used to tell other stories about the world, stories that you consider deeply wrong, and you ain't gonna like it. People take your tools and turn them into weapons, well, you might well have some objections. You feel partly responsible.
As I say, I'm kinda interested in the thematic inversions and reinterpretations you get with fanfiction. I prefer my work to have ethical tensions rather than a straightforward moral message, so someone taking Jack Flash and using him to express a belief system maybe even utterly inimicable to my own would, for me, only add to that tension, complexify the meaning of the character. I mean, if some nazi fuck wrote a story which lionised the BNP I might well be speaking to a lawyer, but that's an unlikely extreme; the core idea of VELLUM is of characters existing in different worlds, as different avatars, so the inversions and reinterpretations of fanfiction are entirely in keeping with my fragmented multiple-perspective approach. In fact, as my take on a character I consider archetypal, universal, the wild rebel hero as symbol of the Id, it would be disingenuous of me to object to other takes on that archetype.
But I can easily imagine other writers being less happy about their building-blocks of characters and settings being put to other purposes.
Of course there's also the entirely selfish financial objection. You want to set up your own tour through my domain? says the writer. I don't care if you're charging admission or not; it's mine, all of it, the characters and settings as well as the stories. I'm the only one gets to use those tools, cause I built them from scratch. I'm the only one who runs tours in this Lego city because I built the fucker, piece by piece, street by street, sculpture by sculpture. The admission I charge isn't just for the tour; it's for the blood, sweat and tears I put into this part here, that part there. Go build your own Lego city, ya lazy bastard.
Yes, this is selfish, but its also self-preservation. There's value in the niftiness of the Lego cities themselves (if there wasn't, if those building-blocks of character and setting didn't have pulling power, the fanfiction wouldn't exist). That value can be converted into cash by setting up tours and charging folks the price of admission. If the author is good and lucky, they get some nice publisher to run the PR for the tours, to get people in the door and take care of the money matters; in return the author takes their cut but retains complete control over their Lego city. Of course, turning these tours into a paying business makes it all complicated and legal. The publishers run tours for many Lego-cities. They could afford to hire some hack to create a copy of your Lego city for a one-time fee and run tours round that without charging you a dime. Some scurrilous rogue could build their own facsimile, make a deal with a publisher who'd never seen your work, and make a pretty penny from all your hard work. Hell, with no dues to pay the writer, those bastards could throw more cash into the PR and before you know it, everyone's touring the copy instead of yours, while you're scraping the pennies together, eating dog food just to survive.
Hence copyright legislation. It's a simple deal. If you want to see my Lego-city at all, if you want me to run tours, then those tour operators gotta promise me they won't fuck me over by running tours round a copy. All of them gotta agree. Or rather, the government has to say, OK, this is how it works, has to assure me that I can come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who tries to rip off my hard work, copyist and tour operator alike. And that includes some Joe Schmoe with a small one-man business, doing it all himself, building the Lego-city and running the tour. Even if they're running that tour for free and the only PR is a link on some website to the online door into their copy of my work. The deal is that if I open up the doors to my Lego-city it's on the understanding that only I can grant the right to make copies, the copyright. I license the tour operators to run the business end, but at the end of the day I retain control of the supply.
Supply and demand. This is where fanfiction makes it gnarly because with particularly nifty Lego-cities there might well be a demand for other tours, new tours, which the author themself has neither the time nor the inclination to satisfy. And there's nothing -- nothing at all -- wrong with some fanfiction writer wanting to do that so much that they satisfy their own demand by building their own copy, in the privacy of their own home, and creating their own wee tour for themself. Hell, this is what any reader does with a book in some respects. They come out of your Lego-city with a copy of it in their head, one subtly altered by their own unique experiences, their own imaginative recreation of the original. If it shifts, expands, blossoms in their imagination in new directions, new potentialities, if they return to it in their imagination, seeking to explore terrain not covered by your tour... well, fuckin A! Result!
But that supply and demand is a tricky thing. You want to supply your own demand for new tours of my Lego-city? That's cool as fuck. You want to supply the demands of others? Well, now it gets thorny. I could be supplying that demand, after all. Hell, maybe the tour you've come up with is the very one I'm working on for the sequel. And as the supplier it's my prerogative to decide who gets to service that demand and how -- that's what we agreed on when I opened up the doors. Dude, I got a mortgage to pay. If anyone's going to smoke my stash they gotta come to me.
Me, I'm with the authors who say, well, if you're not charging for it, well, I ain't going to let you do anything you want, I'm not giving up my copyright here, making it all public domain, but as long as you treat the toys with respect, let's just say I'm none too bothered about you playing with them. J.K. Rowling seems to have a smart attitude to the Harry Potter slash, politely asking that this stuff be kept away from kiddies in members-only sites, so some eight-year-old doesn't find themselves reading about Harry and Draco in some fucked-up BDSM wank-fest, you know. And I can't imagine it's done her sales any harm.
But again, I can understand that other writers would get fucked-off about it. I mean, my own characters Jack and Puck are queer to the core. Knowing them, they'd love nothing more than a Yaoi slash site full of pictures of them in the filthiest of positions, stories of the most sordid depravity. And if they want to go out and play in the imaginations of others, fuck it, who am I to stop them? But that's my own perhaps eccentric position; other writers are a tad more protective of their creations and I ain't going to criticise them for that. It's a losing battle, practically speaking, fighting the blossoming of copies across the internet, trying to close down those unlicensed tours of unofficial copies... but they got a right to be surly about it. Hell, they got a right to sue the ass off the copyist if they want to; so if all they're doing is grumbling, cut them some slack.
But I don't think I've adequately defined fanfiction here yet. There's a lot of different ways to reuse characters and settings, and some of those threads I mentioned at the start of this, I think, confuse the boundaries between quite different things. Fanfiction is a dodgy term, I'd say, a bit woolly and vague. Fiction written by fans? What if you don't actually identify as a "fan" of something, a "fanatic", but you're still essentially doing the same thing, using another's characters and settings, copying their Lego-city and setting up your own tour through it, as my metaphor would have it? Writing a sequel to LITTLE WOMEN or a story based on, say, the early life of a well-known character from children's literature? It does seem a bit precious to distinguish professional reuse from fanfiction -- an artificial double-standard -- but should we assume that all reuse is driven by the same impulse as a Buffy Mary Sue or a Harry Potter slash? Maybe's aye, maybe's naw.
When it comes to derivative work, see, there's umpteen different approaches. There's parody, pastiche, homage, critique, copy, forgery and plagiarism. The first three are all fair use, as long as the derivative work distinguishes itself enough. Parody can lift characters and settings but it has to twist them, fuck them over satirically -- otherwise it's not parody. Pastiche and homage can lift the whole style of writing, but character and setting have to be your own. Pastiche and homage can owe a heavy debt to the works they're riffing off, enough that they're not really what you can call original, but they can't just steal; they have to be distinct. There's a fair whack of pastiche and homage in VELLUM, riffing off of the works of writers like Lovecraft or Moorcock, but I make a point of a) creating those characters and settings from the ground up so they're my own work b) tipping the hat explicitly so as to say, this is pastiche of X, this is homage of Y.
At the other end of the stick you have copies, forgery and plagiarism, which are most definitely not fair use. Fanfiction is neither of the latter two, but it does generally fall into the "copy" category by directly reusing those characters and settings.
What's the distinction here?
A copy doesn't have to be claiming authenticity. So it's not a forgery. Nor does it have to be claiming originality. So it's not plagiarism. A copy can, as much fanfiction does, simply 'fess up to its nature as an appropriation, a reuse, of extant material authored by another, openly saying "this is based on characters and settings created by and owned by X". There's no attempt to pass the copy off as another work by that original creator. Nor is there any attempt to present that work as entirely one's own. That Harry Potter slash is not posted on the web as "by J.K. Rowling", and the writers aren't claiming "these are my characters what I made up myself". But while neither forgery nor plagiarism by a strict definition, those works are breaches of copyright. That caveat means fuck all in a court of law. As I say, it's like setting up your own Lego-city modelled so closely on mine that it can't be considered simply parody, pastiche or homage, setting up your own tours through it and opening it up to the public. It's a copy, and that's verboten under copyright legislation.
So what about critique? This is where I think fanfiction stands or falls by the aesthetic craft of its writers, and its where the pros who reuse work now out of copyright are not considered fanfiction, despite the fact that they're doing pretty much the same thing. The boundary between critique and copy is the blurry middle ground where the divide is drawn between those who accept fanfiction as a legitimate aesthetic form and those who reject it as derivative tosh. It's the point where proponents of fanfiction will point to historical works which took pre-existing characters and settings and turned them into whole new works, while others will scorn such self-aggrandising comparisons and point to the Mary Sues and wank-fantasies, saying, dude, this is not the same thing.
Slash fiction is -- forgive the pun -- right on the edge of this razor-thin blade. Is a Harry / Draco story just a cheap sexploitation yarn, created as nothing more than escapist porn? Or is it an intertextual critique of the relationship between two characters, an investigation of underlying tensions, a hypothetical which starts from the common-place idea that hostility is a superficial mask for repressed desire, and applies that to the work at hand? Is it a one-handed wank-fest for S&M freaks or a Freudian critique of the relationship Rowling presents in her fiction? It depends entirely on the skill of the writer, I'd say. That Harry / Draco could be one or the other. Hell, it could be both.
That interests me, I've got to say. Sure, I think there's a lot of fanfiction written by folks lacking the nous or even the impulse to really get under the skin of a story, to deconstruct it and reconstruct it. But I'm quite sure there's a lot of writers out there doing fanfiction who are interested in the bits and bobs, the characters and settings, not just as variables to click into yet another formulaic fantasy of the boy wizard getting rogered by the blonde bastard, but as objects to be understood, taken apart, tweaked and twisted to see what else they might become, to explore the potentialities.
I kinda respect that because I do that in my own work. Go read "The Disappearance of James H___". Nuff said.
I've always been into that idea of intertextual critique. Coming from a love of pulp, I see the tropes of SF and Fantasy as shiny toys to be fucked around with. Generations of SF/F writers have taken the tropes of others and reused them, reinterpreted them, put new spins upon them. Aliens, robots, vampires, and so on. There's nothing more tempting than the challenge of taking a tired old cliche and finding an angle to it that nobody else has found. Hell, coming from a love of poncy literary stuff, I've snaffled Puck from Shakespeare and made some minor adjustments to use him in my own work. I've rewritten Inanna's Descent, Prometheus Bound, The Bacchae, and I've fucked them over in ways the original authors might well be turning in their graves about. Why? Because characters and settings, once they've entered the public imagination, become shared tropes with latent meanings wider and deeper than the author's intent. I'm interested in what makes people tick and what better doorway into the psyche is there than the archetypes most resonant in one's culture. Harry and Draco, Kirk and Spock -- these are the modern gods, the latter-day Apollo and Dionysus.
At the end of the day, I think there's a potential in fanfiction to provide not just derivative copy but distinct critique. But that critique is -- and I think it has to be -- proscribed by copyright legislation, because unlike parody, pastiche or homage, critique and copy are so close as to be all but indistinguishable. As long as the author's still using those characters and settings, it's their call whether they want to keep them under lock and key, license others to use them, or turn a blind eye to the proliferation of fanfiction. I tend to think the author's copyright should, by default, end with their death, unless otherwise specified in their will. If they want their children to inherit the family silver, keep it under wraps for a few decades out of respect, well, that's fair enough, but if they don't give enough of a fuck to put it in writing, fuck it, why shouldn't those nifty building-blocks become public domain the moment the writer isn't there to use them any more?
What? You're worried that others will write some cheap and tawdry travesty after you're gone? Fuck it, look at the way the loving family of Tolkien dealt with his explicit wish to have no LOTR merchandising ever. Yes, darling Christopher really followed his father's wishes, didn't he? Look at the way Zelazny's will -- which as I understand directly prohibited any sequels to the Amber books -- look at how that has been treated, with a prequel signed off by his estate. Yeeeeees. Well. Cause he didn't say we couldn't have a prequel. Man, if you can't trust your own kids to treat your work the way you want them to, then screw the money-grubbing fuckers. Let the people that actually care about writing have at it.
So what's the upshot of all this rambling?
The point is, we want a Yaoi LiveJournal. When are we getting our Yaoi LiveJournal?
Shut up, Puck.
I mean, Jack's dead easy to draw. He looks just like Jonathan Rhys Meyer, only with spiky orange hair.
No, I don't. I look like Christian Bale.
You wish! And I look like Hans Matheson, only prettier. With green hair. And horns.
Look, I'm trying to sum up here. Both of you just butt out.
Writers. No sense of humour.
Shut. The fuck. Up.
Razzafrazzinschickenfricken fuckin bolshie fuckin prima donna characters! Worse than fuckin children and pets. Just... shut it or I'll kill you off again.
Right then. Where was I?
Trying to score some free porn featuring your favourite characters, but being too lazy to write it yourself?
No, that is not what this is about. I'm trying to make some serious points about why fanfiction gets some writers all riled up while others simply shrug it off. I'm trying to look at the legalities, the ethics and the aesthetics of reuse. I'm trying to --
-score some free porn. Admit it. "Intertextual critique"? Yeah, right. You just want some filthy stories featuring yours truly, but you don't want to ruin any reputation you might have as a "serious writer". With themes and all that boring shit. Man, this full-time writing thing's gone to your head. Next thing you'll be using the word "ludic" instead of "playful", and -- *ow*.
Right then. I guess the point of all this is just that the whole authorial ownership thing is a contract between the writer and the rest of the world. It may be a bit stricter in some ways than some folks would like, but I can't really blame any writer who feels it ought to be stuck to. I wouldn't like to lose that safety net (as in suggestions I've seen of reducing copyright terms to spans that might see a writer's work go public domain in their lifetime), but I just can't imagine myself fussing over some happy wee hobbyist tinkering with copies of my tropes and coming up with free fanfictive PR, healthily homoerotic or otherwise.
Fussing over it? No but you can imagine yourself wan-
That's quite enough of that. Quite enough.
Ye'll have to excuse me while I deal with my wayward creation.
Right then, ya wee bastard. You want slash? I'll give ye fucking slash.
V for Very
Thursday, May 04, 2006
V For Venn Diagram
Vengeance: Is Mine, saith the Lord. This is all very well. Justice, however, is the domain of Athena, as anyone who has read The Oresteia by Aeschylus should know full well. Anyone who has not read The Oresteia should go and read it now. On you go. I'll wait.
Vicarious Thrills: Often confused with "escapism" by writers and readers attempting to justify their own literary or pulp preferences over those of others, vicarious thrills are what we get from stories where we identify with a protagonist who does lots of Really Cool Things. We would like to do these Really Cool Things, but in this irritatingly rigid reality we can't; so we settle for seeing others do these Really Cool Things, imagining ourselves in their place. The sucky aspect of reality in which we are unable to do these Really Cool Things is what leads to the idea that vicarious thrills automatically render a story "escapist", the assumption being that we, as readers, are seeking no more than a compensatory fantasy, a temporary reprieve from the bleak misery of our banal existence. In truth, the presence of vicarious thrills in a story does not necessitate the absence of mimetic versimilitude or thematic resonance -- which is to say, insight; indeed, the vicarious thrills can often be seen as a series of "left jabs", softening the reader up for an almighty "right hook" which will send them reeling onto the ropes and wondering what the fuck just happened.
Venusian Slime Boys: are green and sexy. One day I shall have a Venusian Slime Boy all of my very own, though this will require a trip to the city of Interzone, a place of decadence and iniquity and rather inconveniently fictional. Regardless of this, I am currently saving up money for my return ticket. I am not overly fond of centipedes but, well, those mugwumps are something else.
Virtue and Vice: The abstraction of ethical judgements of deed into ethical judgements of state. Roman Catholicism posits seven cardinal vices and seven corresponding virtues: Pride & Humility; Envy & Kindness; Wrath & Patience; Sloth & Diligence; Greed & Generosity; Gluttony & Temperance; Lust & Chastity. Applying the principle of the Aristotelian Mean -- the idea that virtue is the middle ground between two vices, one of excess, the other of deficiency -- it is apparent that we have here only half the story. These judgements of (wrongful) excess versus (righteous) restraint immediately raise the question of whether one might not identify another set of complementary virtues and vices which mirror these -- i.e. states of (wrongful) deficiency versus (righteous) adequacy: Shame & Honour; Hauteur & Respect; Timidity & Courage; Zeal & Doubt; Unction & Prudence; Severity & Tolerance; Mortification & Appetence. Where the Catholic set of vices and virtues construct a notion of the Good Christian versus the Wicked Heathen, I would suggest a corresponding model of the Good Heathen (a person of Honour, Respect, Courage, Doubt, Prudence, Indulgence, Tolerance & Appetence) and the Wicked Christian (a person of Shame, Hauteur, Timidity, Zeal, Unction, Severity & Mortification).
Vacant: We're so pretty, oh so pretty... we're vacant. We're so pretty, oh so pretty... we're vacant. We're so pretty, oh so pretty... we're vacant. And we don't care.
Verdant: The colour of vines and veins, viands and victuals, green is viridian, vernal vegetation of a vineyard, venereal disease on a virile member, the viper with its venom. It is Venus as virgin and virago. It is vulgar and it is voracious, the viral and visceral force of appetence. It is the Virgilian pastoral with a snake in the grass. It is vitality and it is vital. We must recover the sexual idyll of our past.
Vellum: There are three dimensions to time, just as there are three dimensions to space. Looking only in front of us and behind us, we see only the frontal dimension of past, present and future. But there is also lateral time, the field of alternative possibilities, parallel worlds in which we took different choices, became different people. If those people are still us then our story must incorporate those other versions, not a straight line from cradle to grave, but a tangle of branches and roots, divergances and convergances, as in some Greek myth expounded by Robert Graves: the people of Thrace tell this story of Dionysus; the people of Athens tell another; Dionysus is the product of all those variant tales. The third dimension of time is the residual, the dead realities beneath us, laid down as sedimental strata of morphologies, metaphysics complexifying through each iteration of a cosmos in a process of involution, of evolution, order emerging out of chaos until we find ourselves here on the solid surface of a world run by scientific principles. Dig down and we might find the graves of gods under our feet, the bones of giants, their more primal realities palimpsested by our own, as a faded text upon a reused scrap of parchment -- the Vellum.
Vision: What many people mean when they say "substance" -- the weavework of observation and insight which is manifested in a work of prose or poetry through direct mimetic representations of, reflective comments upon, and thematic implicities regarding, the world and our role within it, our physical, metaphysical and pataphysical reality. Importance is generally put upon the vision being original -- unique to the writer and new to the reader -- although three thousand years of literature might well lead us to question just how possible it is to say something truly original. In fact, one might well wonder if the most relevant observations and insights are not in fact the most banal and obvious, such patent truisms that we blithely ignore them in our day-to-day life. People die. This is as trite and easy to say as its ramifications are unfathomable and well nigh impossible to accept. This is what I see when I look at the world. It is not a terribly original vision, I would have to say. So sue me.
Vermouth: Just show the bottle to the cocktail shaker. When I say "dry gin Martini" I mean dry.
This meme was brought to you by the letter V (as presented by Ben Peek). If you want to play then post a comment; you shall receive your very own letter for your own blog / journal entry.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
In the Spirit of Shameless Self-Promotion
In the Spirit of Alasdair Gray
In fact, Vellum is empty, pretentious twaddle. It's another naked emperor for the cheering throng that mistakes obscurantism for brilliance. I cannot even call Duncan's novel an exercise in style over substance, because that term implies a substance beneath the style. Duncan, having exhaustively researched ancient myths, is just playing around with them here without shining the light of understanding upon them — either as stories in and of themselves, or upon the role of myth as a necessary defining ingredient of civilization.
I confess that I am in the target audience for this book. Those who read a lot tend to become inured to the simple linear plot - the typical novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We seek the new and the daring. Romans à clef. Allegories. Stream of consciousness. We search for the hidden meanings. We speculate on the influences and the psychological state of the author.
Worse if we are English majors or professors who tire of mining the Biblical or Shakespearean allusions in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland; we start craving the hard stuff. James Joyce. And not The Dubliners or Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. No. We start popping Ulysses. And soon our appetite can only be satiated by the sine qua non of post-modern literature; the crack cocaine of chronicles: Finnegan’s Wake. A novel that is not so much read as deciphered.
No. Despite the fact that Vellum is a self-consciously literary work, it is not in the same league as Finnegan’s Wake. Granted, it is built on allusions that are as carefully layered as Rembrandt’s brushstrokes. Nevertheless the book can be understood by a layman. No Ph.D. is required to decode it.
Monday, May 01, 2006
Right then. Where's me fuckin tobacco?
Writings On Vellum
-- Washington Blade
"Overwhelming in its complexity, sumptuous in its recitation, this is a truly monumental work."
-- The Good Book Guide
"An uncanny ability to present a connection between religion, mythology, and philosophy, Duncan takes us on an epic journey through time and space with characters that any reader will truly care for…and a future that just might exist."
-- Front Street Reviews
"Readers who enjoy the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Theodore Sturgeon and Neil Gaiman will appreciate the burning energy and imaginative prose of Vellum and find themselves already anticipating Duncan's next novel."
-- Gavin Grant, Bookpage
"The world of Vellum is a world composed of other worlds, and every action taken by every character evokes another self in another place and time. As glimpses of all of these different worlds, places, and people begin to echo each other in the reader's mind, the effect is symphonic and exhilarating."
-- Matt Cheney, Locus Magazine (Best of 2005)
"While favorable comparison have been made to other works and writers in the genre earlier in this review, Duncan manages to take the hints of those pieces and storytellers to craft a truly original work, wholly his own. While the War in Heaven is perhaps the oldest conflict of recorded human story, Duncan presents something here, which is deeper and more resonant than much of what has come before. "
-- Rob Bedford, SFFWorld
-- Sci-Fi Horizons
"A confident debut... a compelling alternative look at the world and its history."
"Hal Duncan's extraordinary debut... stands as one of the most important releases of the year."
"Thus far, one of the best novels I have read this year..."
-- Fantasy Book Spot
"It’s clever, it’s beautifully written, it’s utterly absorbing and it will make you think."
-- Forbidden Planet International
"... it's not often that someone arrives on the scene with such a massive and assured novel."
-- Waterstones Online