April 2010


I just heard today that Realms of Fantasy will be publishing another story of mine, “The Banjo Singer.”  While “Here’s What I Know,” previously published by Realms mythologized my father’s life, this one’s about my mom, by way of the fantastic, of course.  Here’s how it begins—


The Banjo Singer

Marie’s father was a large man with hands square and flat like coal shovels.  He owned the music store where Marie worked—like her dead mother before her.  She was a quiet girl, slim and slightly bent like a young tree planted in the way of a tireless north wind, but stronger for it.  There was something discomforting in her gaze if you looked her in the eye, and so Marie rarely looked others in the eye, not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable.

Afternoons she helped her father among the tubas and piccolos and banjoes and violins and thought them all of  no real importance.  Wood tubes, bent brass, strung wires and cat gut—they were dead things.  She wanted to be a singer.  She was a singer.  She wanted this all her life, though few had ever heard her sing.   Even at birthday parties or at Christmas when everyone sang, she always busied herself doing something else.  In church, she never voiced the words, for she knew if prayers were answered, her life would be quite different altogether….

I suppose it began with the Walkman.  I never actually owned one, but I borrowed them enough to know I didn’t really want my own personal soundtrack except on rare occasions, usually stationary at my desk.  So I wasn’t tempted by the iPod, though I listen to most of my music on my computer.  But my big step was in not getting a cell phone.  I still don’t have one.  As far as I can tell, it’s still a chronically unreliable technology, rather like owning an American car in the 70’s.  A favorite subject of social conversation now is cell phone woes.  Nearly all of you understand these better than I.  A nice young woman at dinner last night said she’d started receiving anonymous porn messages on her cell.  Many wish they could do without their cell phones, but they are cursed for life apparently.  Sort of like me and heart meds.  I do appreciate that cell phones have made eavesdropping on intimate conversations about damn near anything way easier, and for all that good material, I am grateful and unrepentant.

As a writer working at home during the day, I’m not crazy about The Phone.  Or, as I often call it, The Phucking Phone.  The no call list helps, but since the biggest biz in the world (American Politics) isn’t excluded, interruptions still abound.  I’m also fond of those Rat Bastards who claim to be charitable raising money for the police, orphans, et. al. and keeping 90% themselves.  There are also times, I confess, that I haven’t wanted an employer or deranged lover to be able to reach me on the phone.  So I wasn’t exactly enticed by the cellular technology that evoked images of no escape.  Hundreds of earnest pitches have been made to me by users based on Safety.  What if I Break Down?!  Like I said, just like an American Car in the 70’s.  I’ll probably die being run over by a motorist on a cell phone who ignored me in the crosswalk, and I’m sure all the witnesses will have cell phones to report the matter, take my picture, post to YouTube…

When I teach science fiction writing, I’m always advising students to remember who doesn’t use the technology they’re imagining.  A homogenous world isn’t plausible. Now I’m in a minority of non-users of what I’ve heard called “a necessity of modern life.”  Most apparently agree.  A friend sent me a NYT article with the following factoid:  Only 15% of Americans don’t have cell phones for various reasons, mostly bad coverage or can’t afford it.  I’m in a well-covered city and could afford it, making my reason “Chooses not to.”  You know how many gave that answer?  5%.  We’re talking tiny minority.  This happened very quickly.  I know there were clunkoid phones in the 80’s, but the fever’s been less than 20 years.  It’s now become a cultural study for me.  How long can I hold out?  When will I join in the fun?  When will I be safe?

This Saturday April 17th at 2 pm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Griffin Bookshop, 723 Caroline Street, will play host to Richmond Noir editors Tom De Haven and Brian Castleberry, as well as contributors Howard Owen and myself.

Monday April 19th at 7 pm in Richmond, editor Andrew Blossom and contributors Mina Beverly, Pir Rothenberg, Anne Thomas Soffee and myself will be reading at VCU’s Student Commons, 907 Floyd Avenue.

The second class I teach this summer (June 28th-July 29th, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm) is Urban Fantasy.  The term always requires some explaining.  I applied it to the course before it became a marketing juggernaut.  I use the term very broadly to apply to fantasy set in a modern world as opposed to the much more common impulse to place fantasies in the past or in an idealized world that’s like the past.  This class is now listed as English 391-011.  This year we’ll be looking at some of the various borderlands of the genre with pairs of films and novels.

I start with Pan’s Labyrinth (film) and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, both fantasies that rely on traditional mythologies at work in a modern world.  This is probably the most common approach, favored by de Lint and others.  These two do an exceptional job of integrating the mythos into the plot so that it doesn’t seem merely tacked on, as is too often the case.

Especially recently, the genre has lurched, shambled, slithered, whatever, toward horror tropes.  To look at this territory, I’ve chosen Let the Right One In (film) and Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl.  I’ve never been much interested in vampire stories, but one of my many excellent students last summer turned me on to this film.  Straub’s novel is a highly unusual haunted house/serial killer story.  Or is it?  I told Peter I’m teaching the novel this summer, and he gave me a question for the class.  Unfortunately, he didn’t give me the answer!  Anyway, these two, arguably could be and are called horror but both have fantasy resolutions.

The third pair Adaptation (film) and China Miéville’s The City & The City owe much to the borderline genre of noir.  Both, some might say, aren’t fantasy at all.  We’ll see.  Charlie Kaufman’s crazy screenplay is all about what genre it is, so it should provide fuel for the fire.  I ended up not being that fond of Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, so I almost didn’t read this novel.  It’s the best novel I read last year.  I just voted for it for the Nebula.  Maybe it’s not fantasy.  Maybe it’s science fiction.  Maybe it’s…  Whatever it is, it’s damn fine.

The fourth pair Stranger Than Fiction (film) and Jeffrey Ford’s short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, lie in the borderland of metafiction, postmodernism, et. al.  This is the only Will Farrell film I can stand to watch, but this has consistently been the most popular film students have reviewed.  Jeffrey Ford’s brilliant short stories have had a huge impact on modern fantasy.  He’s won more World Fantasy Awards than anyone.  Ever.  More importantly, this collection has always been a favorite with students.

In the word or film world, of course, you can create any damn world you want to if you’re good enough, if you know how to blend genres just so…  Donnie Darko (film) and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore attempt such a feat, and judging by class reactions in the past, pull it off.  Even though it’s the longest novel on the reading list, students consistently rate it the best.  I’ve had students thank me for making them read this novel.  I keep waiting for him to write something shorter that works the same magic so well, but so far I haven’t found it.

So what are you waiting for?  You can register online at vcu.edu.

As in years past, I’ll be teaching two classes at VCU this summer, Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy.  I’ll describe the sf class today and the urban fantasy tomorrow.  For reasons more bureaucratic than substantive, the course numbers have changed, though generally the courses are the same.  The science fiction class is listed as Readings in Literature 215-004.  It runs May 24-June 24, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm.  I always try to fit science fiction into the general enterprise of literature, and I shall endeavor to do that even more this time.  The somewhat revised course description, reads as follows:

This course will explore science fiction in several different ways—as a genre, historically, thematically, culturally, in its different forms in print, film, and screen, as a social phenomenon, a craft, a community—not only to learn about science fiction but also about skills and strategies useful in the appreciation and understanding of any variety of literature.

Gosh.  I’d like to take a course like that!  The books this year are:

Alfred Bester.  The Stars My Destination.

Philip K. Dick.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Joe Haldeman.  The Forever War.

Neal Stephenson.  Snow Crash.

Cherie Priest.  Boneshaker.

Once again, the idea is a very rough historical survey of books and films beginning with the 50’s and ending with the present.  I still haven’t found a better 50’s sf novel than Bester.  I’ve returned to it after flirtations with Fahrenheit 451 (ugh) and Starship Troopers (great novel, but I can only take so much of the politics).  Do Androids etc. remains my favorite Phil Dick novel.  I enjoyed teaching Man in the High Castle, but I thought one alternate history on the list is enough.  Forever War was the favorite novel in last year’s class and is one of the best sf novels ever written.  The 80’s have always presented a problem.  Every year I try something different, and it dies.  Especially Neuromancer.  I’ve tried exotic alternatives like Murakami, but early cyberpunk consistently tanks.  My solution this year is to skip the 80’s.  So I’m doing the early 90’s.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash represents something of a cyberpunk fruition.  Even in this relatively short Stephenson novel, he still manages to info-dump at length for page after page, but here’s hoping the students keep turning them.  Finally, I choose buzz for the latest book.  If you haven’t seen Cherie Priest’s goggled heroine on a bookstore shelf near you (cover facing out, thank you very much) you haven’t been paying attention.  Nominated for everything, it’s a zombie, steampunk, alternate history with goggles and dirigibles.  I hate zombies, but obviously everyone else doesn’t, and the ones here are mostly set decoration.  It’s really an engaging Mama Lion rescues her wayward cub story, and should be a pleasant diversion at course’s end.

The movie choices this year include several changes.  I still start with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 version.  It’s usually a class favorite and holds up surprisingly well.  For the 60’s I’m finally showing 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  I find it overly slow and ponderous and self-important, but its influence is undeniable.  I’ll see what the students make of it.  I’ve always wanted to show Rocky Horror Picture Show in the class, both as a science fiction film as well as a social phenomenon.  I’m just old enough that the ritual came after me.  My students will have grown up with it.  Skipping the 80’s once again, I’m showing Terminator 2, the best of the Terminator movies and probably the most influential.  The first Terminator movie did well enough in the class last summer (better than any 80’s film before it).  Finally, I’m excited to show Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, an excellent Mexican sf film.  I had planned on showing District 9, but in some ways I think Rivera’s film is more interesting.

So there you have it.  There’s plenty of room.  I’d love to have you!