The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks

This morning, the BBC reported that Iain Banks had passed away from cancer. In 2008, I was commissioned to read all of Banks’s Culture novels, which had been reissued by Orbit in the United States, and I wrote the following essay for another outlet. The publication rights have reverted back to me. I am reprinting the essay here. My condolences to the Banks family.

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In an Iain M. Banks novel, you will find sour antiheroes sweet-talking corpulent cannibal kings, erratic robot drones so caught up in lending a helping hand that they overlook the telltale traces of emotional breakdown within those they serve, and a febrile zeal for blowing things up which suggests that Banks isn’t so much an author of bawdy and exciting adventures as he is a giddy eight-year-old with an elaborate train set scattered across a football field.

When not committing his considerable energies to such intense Bildungsromans as The Wasp Factory or bleak-humored narratives like The Crow Road, Banks inserts an M into “Iain Banks” and writes science fiction novels. Most of these speculative volumes concern the Culture, a utopian-anarchist society that extends across a sizable cluster of the universe. These Culture vultures gambol across the galaxy in ships with such eccentric names as Don’t Try This at Home and Serious Callers Only. Culture citizens live for centuries, and can even change their appearances if they grow discontent with their corpora. These conditions encourage these civilized sybarites to have more fun than a flighty Dalmatian discovering a chiaroscuro sea of spotty companions. Never mind that there’s always an intergalactic war going on.

Red Smith once suggested that writing involves sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein. But Banks’s unique form of bloodletting appears more modeled on the Black Knight’s stubborn persistence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He writes one book per annum, devoting three months of the year to writing and the remaining nine months to “thinking” about the narrative. And while Banks’s idiosyncratic approach has resulted in twenty-two novels, his methods aren’t entirely foolproof. When writing Matter, Banks became so addicted to the real-time strategy game Civilization that he blew his deadline. One can detect the video game addict within the book’s early descriptions. An army is described as “a single giant organism inching darkly across the tawny sweep of desert.” Sid Meier should be proud.

Part of the fun in reading a Banks book involves watching this boisterous Scottish author figuring out his elaborate plots as he goes along. There’s a moment in every novel in which Banks eventually meshes his anarchic energy into the needs of a narrative. At the onset of Use of Weapons, a reworking of an abandoned 1974 manuscript that Banks once claimed “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions,” the reader can’t entirely pinpoint just where the book is heading. One series of chapters depicts a Culture agent attempting to recruit a non-Culture mercenary named Zakalwe for a “Special Circumstances” mission for a planet that the Culture hasn’t yet contacted. The other chapters unfold in reverse chronological order, depicting Zakalwe’s previous assignments. But as Banks stitches together these threads, he ends Use of Weapons with a devastating insight into the consequences of following authority without question.

The early Culture novels were inspired by grand space opera and Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. The first, Consider Phlebas, begins with its hero, Horza, standing shirtless in a prison cell, his hands tied above him, as murky liquid rises to his nostrils — a scene that might have come from Flash Gordon. But as Banks carried on writing, he began to imbue his universe with moral quandaries. In the second Culture novel, The Player of Games, Banks’s protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is a galaxy-renowned gamemaster who cannot seem to find an amusement worth his while and has grown bored. (There’s also a wry symbolic motif throughout the book of Guregh stroking his beard, as if to suggest that he’s constantly in doubt of his smarts.) Gurgeh sets off on a deranged adventure in which his very life becomes the wager, and the pleasure that Gurgeh takes for granted is juxtaposed against the realities of a three-gender species with severe class and enslavement problems. When Gurgeh witnesses just what this species is up to, he returns to playing, but with a newborn chill and intensity: Banks describes Gurgeh’s face as “a flag hoisted by a soul that no longer cared.”

Excession (1997), perhaps the most elaborate and entertaining of the Culture novels, sees Banks probing into the Minds that control the many spaceships in the Culture universe. Anticipating the frenetic outburst of instant messaging and blog commentary by only a few years, Banks includes elaborate communication transcripts between these Minds within the text. Each speaker is separated by the infinity symbol, suggesting that there isn’t an end to the constant chatter. But Banks also makes his Minds more empathic and personality-driven than his pleasure-seeking Culture characters. Some of the ships even go “Eccentric,” turning unpredictable. Status, contingent as always upon who one knows, appears to matter even when a ship or character inhabits an unfettered anarchy. But as one Eccentric ship, the Shoot Them Later, tells another, “Just because I’m eccentric doesn’t mean I don’t know some big hitters.”

In this novel, it is technology that shapes the Culture’s social equilibrium. Banks even anticipates Linda Stone’s idea of continuous partial attention when he has one Culture diplomat named Genar-Hofoen bond with an obstreperous, four-limbed alien named Fivetide Humidyear VII. As Genar-Hofoen is in the middle of a diplomatic game with Fivetide, he is interrupted by an urgent message in his mind. He is forced to use a “quicken” gland and performs “the mental equivalent of sighing and putting his chins in his hands while…everything around him seemed to happen in slow motion.” Likewise, Genar-Hofoen considers transforming into an Affront (Fivetide’s species). But this technological panacea is juxtaposed against Genar-Hofoen’s existential plight. He’s escaping the entrails of a previous relationship — a woman named Dajeil, whom he impregnated and left after being unfaithful to her. So while Genar-Hofoen might find plentiful distractions within the Culture’s plentiful baubles, they remain distractions that are not unlike narcotics. One is left with the possibility of the Minds inevitably adopting similar temperaments. But at what cost to the freewheeling libertinism sustaining the Culture?

Banks’s willingness to address these ethical issues while keeping his books brisk and enjoyable makes one wonder why his name isn’t often uttered in the same breath as Kim Stanley Robinson or Greg Bear in this country. While Banks’s reputation has soared in the United Kingdom and Europe, he is sometimes overlooked in the United States. Perhaps with the Culture novels now being reissued by Orbit, there’s a good chance that American readers will at long last be seduced by his magic touch.

Brian Francis Slattery II (The Bat Segundo Show)

Brian Francis Slattery appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #466. He is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.

Author: Brian Francis Slattery

Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.


Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.

Correspondent: Yes.

Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.

Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?

Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.

Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?

Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.

Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?

Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.

Correspondent: Really?

Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”

Correspondent: You took that to heart?

Slattery: I did.

Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.

Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.

Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…

Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…

[Food arrives.]

Slattery: No, this looks great.

Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.

Slattery: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…

Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?

Correspondent: Yes.

Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?

Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?

Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.

Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?

Slattery: We’ll stop.

Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.

* * *

Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.

Slattery: Yes.

Correspondent: They were very nice.

Slattery: And it looks really good.

Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.

Slattery: Right.

Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.

Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.

Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”

Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

(Image: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #466: Brian Francis Slattery II (Download MP3)

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BEA 2012: Science Fiction & Mainstream — Crossing Over

They congregated just before lunch at the Upstairs Stage, hoping to get some thoughts on a future weirder than ham on rye. Some of their faces were young and fleshy, and I heard a few talk about authors who sent work contained within a pizza box. Some were older bespectacled men who might have still believed in a dream cut out of the cloth of hard independent labor. Whatever their reasons for being there, this did not prohibit author John Scalzi from waving an impish toodle-oo just before this business of “crossing over,” or perhaps “passing” as genre in the mainstream, was initiated just after the stroke of noon.

The moderator was a man named Ryan Britt, his gray vest insinuating some classy authority. But his promising role waned a mite when he stated, “Everything that relates to genre fiction is extremely weird.” Plenty of us have experienced “weird” moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre. That’s the problem. How do the glories of “weird” in any form get any self-respect?

The other big question was whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.

But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer, co-editor of a massive new anthology devoted to weird fiction called (what else?) The Weird (the other editor is his wife, Ann VanderMeer, who was also present at the panel), wisely suggested that weird fiction contributed to the 20th century in much the same way that fairy tales had bolstered the years before that.

These stories “take a look at possible futures based on what we were in the past,” added Ann VanderMeer. “It’s an exploration of the unknown.” Did looking at a “weird” future offer an explanation for the present? For that matter, why did “weird” have to be so time-sensitive?

John Scalzi, author of Redshirts and the sharpest and most vibrant contributor to the discussion, pointed out that the flip phone had emerged because some engineer at Motorola had wanted to talk like Kirk on Star Trek. And while Scalzi was wearing a red shirt undoubtedly for the sole purpose of pimping his novel, it was evident that he was making a larger point about how fiction offers cues for how we live in the real.

“My daughter was freaked up beyond measure about the dude who chewed off his face in Florida,” continued Scalzi. “And it wasn’t just her.” The government had actually issued a statement clarifying to the public that what was happening was not the zombie apocalypse. “Well, that’s what the government would say,” responded his daughter. But it was, Scalzi added, a metaphor we could all relate to.

Stories may “take place in the future or they may be written in the alternative world. But they’re being written for today.” Such a distinction was not limited to fantasy fiction, but was eminently pragmatic applied across the whole. “The idea that you take what people know and give it a twist makes absolute sense as a writer.”

Jeff VanderMeer suggested that good weird fiction was comparable to “a frog in a hot pot” or “the idea of being acclimated by something.” Mosley took this idea of tangibility with narrative further, noting that Gogol’s Dead Souls carries the notion of a man buying and selling dead people for a profit.

But Mosley wished to stir people up. So he brought up the pre-Lando installment of Star Wars. “As far as I can tell, everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes. That may be unconscious wish fulfillment.” I had hoped that the moderator would be brave enough to tell Mosley that Carrie Fisher not only had brown hair and brown eyes, but even had the temerity to put up her hair in a bun. But nobody wanted to mess with Mosley. He was doing just fine carrying on his impersonation of Hooper X from Chasing Amy, except that he didn’t have the benefit of Kevin Smith writing sharp dialogue.

“One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.”

There wasn’t really much that people could say to this, and I didn’t see any fist pumping in response to Mosley’s remark. I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks. (But to his credit, he was the only one up there who brought up Samuel R. Delany. Nobody mentioned the New Yorker‘s recent science fiction issue.)

Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own. “It was the kid who was watching Star Trek and said, ‘Wow, I would want to make that!'” Hadn’t we heard a more concise version of this story only minutes earlier?

Scalzi attempted to steer the conversation back on track, pointing out that Ayn Rand and Steve Jobs were likely to be just as significant to culture ten years from now. “Technology has always been about keeping the threads of the past continuing to be in the fabric of the future,” said Scalzi, “regardless of whether the technology is a codex or the technology is a hologram of Tupac.”

To this, Jeff VanderMeer added cynical relish, “I think technology comes off as too bloodless for me.” He pointed to a story he had written about half-dead bears that devour you alive if you expect to engage in transdimensional travel. “If you want to travel, you really have to want to travel.” He praised the later iterations of steampunk for exploring these issues. “It’s great to aspire to perfection. But actually achieving it is a kind of insanity.”

Did the panel turn into a dead shark?

“I’ve been on these panels before for the last twenty years,” added VanderMeer. “I’m less optimistic that they really mean anything aside from cross-pollination.” He then added that one future pastime might be “sorting through the rubble for the remains of books that were published before the ebook revolution.”

“Jeff VanderMeer,” asked Scalzi. “Do you need a hug?”

The Bat Segundo Show: Samuel R. Delany

Sameul R. Delany appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #459. He is most recently the author of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Growing a beard to make up for lost time.

Author: Samuel R. Delany

Subjects Discussed: Literary beards, spending the same amount of money on books as food, how many books Delany has read, developing a cataract, Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the structure of Spiders, time moving faster as you get older, Delany’s academic career, the amount of sex contained within Spiders, the male climacteric, how the body changes, About Writing, including a short story in a novel, the original version of Spiders in Black Clock, seven years contained within the first 400 pages, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and fleshing out the idea of “writing what you know,” Lear and “runcible,” Times Square Red Times Square Blue, the Dump vs. the Deuce, the pre-1995 porn theaters in Times Square, transplanting New York subcultures to Georgia, the importance of institutional support to a community, gay conservatives, inventing the Kyle Foundation, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Steven Shaviro’s thoughts on Delany’s intensities, transgressive behavior, connections between The Mad Man and Spiders, pornutopic fantasies, Hogg, when pornotopia sometimes happens in reality, Fifty Shades of Grey, balancing the real and the fantastical in sexual fiction, Delany’s usage of “ass” and “butt,” how dogs have orgasms, making a phone call in the middle of dinner to find out about sexual deviancy, why Shit does a lot of grinning, Freu and infantile sexuality, the paternal thrust to Shit and Eric’s relationship in Spiders, the difficulty of reading Spinoza’s Ethica, whether a philosophical volume can replace the Bible, living a life driven by one book, Hegel, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, movies vs. books, interclass conflict, Peter Jackson’s films, how mainstream culture relates to subcultures, Jackson’s original notion of the King Kong remake as Wagnerian ambition, Tristran and Isolde, turning up the idealism dial, whether art can live up to pure ambition, the myth of the wonder decade, living through the 50s and 60s, Freedom Rides, people who are diaphanous to the forces of history, the Beatles, peasant indifference during the Dreyfus affair, the impact of not knowing the cultural canon, nanotechnology, John Dos Passos, fiction which responds to present events, life within California, living in San Francisco, how Market Street has changed, assaults on the homeless in San Francisco, the Matrix I and II programs, the gentrification of the Tenderloin, novels of ideas, whether or not genre labels hold conceptual novels hostage, market conditions that hold ambitious fiction back, Delany’s nine apprentice novels, trunk novels, and editorial compromise.


Correspondent: There’s this video game art project called Passage by Jason Rohrer. Have you heard of this?

Delany: No.

Correspondent: Okay. Because your book reminded me very much of this.

Delany: Really?

Correspondent: I’ll have to forward you the link. Basically, it’s this sidescroller. It’s in a 100 pixel by, I think, 13 pixel window. And you control this person who goes from left to right. From beginning to end of life. And you pick up a partner. In fact, you grow a beard.

Delany: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you die at the end. And it takes the 8-bit sidescroller and it turns it into this unexpectedly poignant moment. If you play it enough times, you can move the cursor down and actually have the figure go into this mire and collect stars, but maybe not have a partner or maybe meet an early demise there. And it absolutely reflects what life is. And I read your book, and I was extremely aware of the physicality. Not just because it was an 800 page book, but because the first 400 pages is basically these escapades of lots of sex, youthful brio, and so forth. And then, suddenly, decades flash by often when we read this. And I’m curious, just to start off here, where did the design of this structure come from? I know you’re very keen on structures. You’ve written about this many times. But how did this come about in Spiders?

Delany: Well, it came from being a person who’s gotten older. I just had my 70th birthday.

Correspondent: Yes. Happy birthday.

Delany: Thank you very much. And one of the things that does happen, and it’s a really interesting phenomena, is that time seems to go a lot faster as you get older. When you were young, time takes forever. You go to the doctor. You wait around for two hours in the doctor’s office. It seems like three months. Whereas I went to the doctor’s office this morning. I went in. And the next thing I knew, I was on my way here. And I’d been there about two and a half hours. And it didn’t seem that any time had passed at all. And I was at the University of Massachusetts between 1988 and 1999, for eleven years. And that seemed much longer than the last twelve years, thirteen years, that I’d been at Temple University, where I’ve been there from 1999 to this year, 2012. And that seems much shorter than the eleven years that I was at UMass. And there’s no way to avoid this. As you get older and older, time just begins to rush by. And I wanted to get this. So actually, the time goes faster and faster through the book. But at a certain point, you realize, “Oh wait a minute! It’s rushing along.” As one of the reviewers said, decades drop out between paragraphs. Well, that’s what happens. That’s how your life kind of goes. So in that sense, the structure of the book is based on the structure of my own experience.

Correspondent: What’s very strange though — I read the book and, actually, I started missing the sex after that 400 page mark. I mean, all of a sudden, wait a minute, they’re not having so much sex anymore. There isn’t all the snot stuff and the pissing and the corprophiia and, of course, the father-son stuff. All of a sudden, we don’t have a lot of that at all. And then you drop some, quite literally, serious bombs later on in the book. And this leads me to ask…

Delany: Well, the sex doesn’t vanish.

Correspondent: Well, of course. It’s there. It keeps going on.

Delany: I mean, the sex is there. But it’s the sex that someone older has. And one of the things that they have to deal with is the fact that your body changes as you get older. And somewhere between 50 and 60, you go through the equivalent of the male climacteric. Which is a very strange thing to go through. Quite as odd…

Correspondent: Oh god. Thanks for warning me.

Delany: Quite as odd as, what is the term for women?

Correspondent: Menopause.

Delany: Menopause, yes. It’s very much like the menopause. And somehow you’re not warned. You aren’t warned how it’s going to change. Everybody notices the body changing. From ten to twenty, there are going to be a lot of changes. But there are going to be just as many changes from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty, forty to fifty, fifty to sixty. You konw, I’ve been with my partner now, Dennis, for almost twenty-four years. And we still have a sex life. And we’re very fond of one another and very close. But it’s different. Things do change. And that’s one of the things that it’s about. I wanted to explore what the relationship of two men who were notably older was. And so I tried to do that.

Correspondent: You have said also in About Writing, which I’m probably going to be cribbing a lot from for this conversation, that a short story’s not exactly the best thing to include in a novel. And yet this book arose out of a short story that was published in Black Clock. Which leads me back to the original query. How did this thing become structured? How did this take on a life of its own?

Delany: Well, I had to throw away the whole second half of the original short story and rewrite something that flowed into the novel. If you actually compared it, the opening couple of scenes are very similar, although not identical by any means. There were lots of changes all through it. From the very first paragraph. But I wanted to use that as a kind of jumping off point.

Correspondent: Well, that’s one hell of a jumping off point. 800 pages. I mean, why do you think that you were interested in exploring such an expansive format? Why did Eric and Shit demand this sort of attention?

Delany: Well, because I wanted to talk about a lasting relationship between two men. And a very committed relationship. They’re very close to each other. They’re absolutely fixated on one another. I mean, neither one of them could really make it without the other. Which is the tragedy that Eric is faced with at the end. So I just wanted to explore that and see what happened, and deal with all these things. The time speeds up in the first half of the book too. The first 400 pages basically take, what, about seven years. So that’s even years. That’s a good Dickens novel. (laughs) But this is a book that goes on for basically sixty or seventy years.

Correspondent: Yeah. I wanted to also talk about the location. Since my name is Ed, I have to bring up another Ed. E.M. Forster. You have often quoted the advice given in Aspects of the Novel.

Delany: “Write what you know.”

Correspondent: “Write what you know.” But your idea here is to build upon that and say, in addition to writing what you know, it’s very good to keep the writing alive and energetic if you write about something that you’ve only experienced a few times.

Delany: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: And in this, it’s interesting because it should be evident by your Lear-like use — another Ed — of “runcible” that this Georgia is a fantasy of sorts.

Delany: Yes. It’s a fairytale. The whole book is an 800 page fairytale.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Delany: By which I mean things like Don Quixote. (laughs)

Correspondent: Of course. But my question is: You’re almost writing what you know and you’re writing what you don’t know, or only know a little bit of. Because we have to go to Times Square Red Times Square Blue, which I also read. You write about a man in that named Tommy. He wears a sleeveless denim jacket. Well, there’s a guy with a sleeveless shirt here. And he collected scrap metal. Not unlike this. You look at The Dump. It could also be The Deuce. The Opera House. It could also be the Metropolitan Opera House.

Delany: Easily. Well, it wouldn’t be the Metropolitan. But it could be one of the old porn theaters before ’95. Before New York closed them down.

Correspondent: I guess my question though is: by putting much of these viewpoints that you have raised both in your fiction and your nonfiction to Georgia, to the edge of the earth quite literally, I mean, what does this allow you to do as a fiction writer? How does this allow you to explore a subculture that, say, keeping everything in New York would not?

Delany: Well, one of the things that I wanted to show is that the kind of life that Eric and Morgan — his nickname is Shit.

Correspondent: You can say “Shit” here.

Delany: That Eric and Shit lead — as I said, besides being a fairytale, is also — well, I’m trying to figure out a good way to put this. In some ways, it’s kind of didactic. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman. They have to learn how to live their life. And it can’t be done — and this is, I really feel — and this is one of the reasons why it had to be a fairytale — it needs institutional support. Which is why there has to be the Kyle Foundation and why there has to be a certain support, a certain community support for what they’re doing. And at the same time, they’re very much on the margin of this community. They’re not in the center of this community. So that people like Mr. Potts, for instance. A very conservative man who just doesn’t want his nephew, who has come down to spend the winter with him, associating with these riffraff who use the gay-friendly restroom. Because he doesn’t like the idea of gay men using the restrooms at all.

Correspondent: Where did the Kyle Foundation come from?

Delany: It was purely out of my head.

Correspondent: Really. Because there’s a specific phrasing in their mantra: “an institution dedicated to the betterment of the lives of black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” And that phrasing recalls any number of Islamic foundations and the like.

Delany: And also the Goethe novel.

Correspondent: Yes!

Delany: Elective Affinities.

Correspondent: So that was really more where it came from?

Delany: It came more from Goethe than it did from Islam.

Correspondent: Sure. Steven Shaviro. He has pointed out that the intensities of your pornography are never presented as transgressive. Now in a disclaimer…

Delany: Although this is pretty transgressive.

Correspondent: Well, of course. I want to talk about this. Because in a disclaimer to The Mad Man, of which we see statues of something that crops up in there appearing in this, you called The Mad Man “a pornotopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons.” Well, there is no such disclaimer for Spiders and we see much of the same stuff, as I said. Piss-drinking, shit-eating, you name it. I’m wondering. How does a pornotopic fantasy — how does one of these, whether it be The Mad Man or Spiders or even the infamous Hogg, how does this help us to understand or come to terms with the realities of sex and what the present limits are? What some people might call deviancy today or perhaps yesterday.

Delany: Well, literature is divided into genres like that. You have the world of comedy, the world of tragedy. And you have the world of pornography. And each of them is a kind of subgenre. And sometimes they can be mixed. You can go from one to the other. And I think pornotopia is the place, as I’ve written about, where the major qualities — the major aspect of pornotopia, it’s a place where any relation, if you put enough pressure on it, can suddenly become sexual. You walk into the reception area of the office and you look at the secretary and the secretary looks at you and the next minute you’re screwing on the desk. That’s pornotopia. Which, every once in a while, actually happens. But it doesn’t happen at the density.

Correspondent: Frequency.

Delany: At the frequency that it happens in pornotopia. In pornotopia, it happens nonstop. And yet some people are able to write about that sort of thing relatively realistically. And some people aren’t. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey is not a very realistic account.

Correspondent: I’m sure you’ve read that by now.

Delany: I’ve read about five pages.

Correspondent: And it was enough for you to throw against the wall?

Delany: No. I didn’t throw it. I just thought it was hysterically funny. But because the writer doesn’t use it to make any real observations on the world that is the case, you know, it’s ho-hum.

Correspondent: How do we hook those moms who were so driven to Fifty Shades of Grey on, say, something like this?

Delany: I don’t think you’re going to. I think the realistic — and there’s a lot that’s relatively realistic about it and there’s also a lot that isn’t. Probably less so in this book than in, let’s say, The Mad Man, which probably has a higher proportion of realism to fantasy.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you — what’s interesting is that there is almost a limit to the level of pornography in this. There’s one funeral scene where something is going to happen and they say, “Nuh-uh. You’re not allowed to do that. Show some respect.” And roughly around the 300 page mark, I was very conscious of the fact that you didn’t actually use the word “ass.” And you were always using “butt.” (laughs)

Delany: I didn’t even notice.

Correspondent: And so when “ass” showed up, I was actually shocked by that. So I’m wondering. Does any exploration of sexual behavior, outlandish sexual behavior or sexual behavior that’s outside the norms of what could possibly happen, whether it be frequency or density or what not — does it require limits with which to look at it? With which to see it in purely fantastical terms?

Delany: Well, I think one of the things that you need to write a book, especially a book this long, is you need a certain amount of variety. And I think that this is perhaps a failing. There are only so many things that you can do. I think I give a good sampling of them. But every once in a while, I’m sure it probably gets somewhat repetitious.

Correspondent: Well, it’s a good variety pack. But it’s also: “Okay, reader, you have to get beyond these first 350 pages and then, by then, you are actually able to get into totally unanticipated territory and I’ve already locked you in.” How did you work that out?

Delany: One of the things is that you try and keep telling interesting things about the sex. I mean, things that can be observed about the world that is the case. I mean, I tried to talk about the sex in terms of — I don’t think most people know how a dog has an orgasm.

Correspondent: How do we find this out? (laughs)

Delany: Uh, there’s a wonderful website. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

(Image: Ed Gaillard)

The Bat Segundo Show #459: Samuel R. Delany (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Carol Emshwiller & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Carol Emshwiller and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #389.


Today is Carol Emshwiller’s 90th birthday. She is the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, and numerous stories. Nonstop Press has recently issued The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller. Her work can be thoroughly investigated through The Carol Emshwiller Project. (Many thanks to Gavin Grant for his assistance in setting up this conversation.)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the author of Harlem is Nowhere.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why there’s a sentient mount attached to his back.

Authors: Carol Emshwiller and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Subjects Discussed: Bears that Ms. Emshwiller keeps in her house, writing to please one’s self, fooling Harlan Ellison, slanting a story to sell it to a science fiction magazine, throwing strange ideas into short stories on purpose, increased short story competition, selling a story in a day, commercial value vs. name value, not writing for eight months, dealing with blindness, working on multiple stories at the same time, the difficulties of writing fiction vs. the ease of nonfiction and email, Kate Wilhelm, the visual components of sentences, being advised to purchase $150 glasses, inventing a fictional family as a way of coping with grief, how a single line of dialogue can stop a writer in her tracks, not forcing the creative process vs. keeping productivity going, whether or not Ms. Emshwiller has ever been terrified of her own ideas, the torture within Carmen Dog, Kafka’s influence, authors who laugh at terrible events on the page, the emotional truth of dangerous ideas, collaborating with Ed Emshwiller on films, formulating plot and looking ahead, repeating an idea, the cheat of characters who go for a walk, twisting an emotion, kindness as a wild emotion in “Creature,” studying animal psychology before The Mount, being seized an idea, reading for pleasure, the inseparable connections between reading and writing, books on tape, loss of reading desire with blindness, how blindness causes everything to take six times as long, competing notions of what Harlem’s boundaries are, balancing a view through books and a view through people, capturing “snapshots” of neglected figures as an observer, James Baldwin’s “Jimmy moment,” personal evasions, Rhodes-Pitts speculating on Harlem based on observing funeral parlors, having a relationship to a place without going in, aligning a piece of information from the library to personal experience, serendipity, Rhodes-Pitts’s film background, how films and photographs help make sense of a neighborhood, Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document Series, photographs as a residue of living, addressing Dwight Garner’s white bread vantage point, interpretive demands from critics, parallels between the African American Day Parade crowd and the 1919 Harlem Hellfighters, ongoing familiarity with historical figures among Harlem residents, the applicability of historical framework, Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers’ Project, Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston, 1944’s “Harlem Hunches,” quibbles with WPA oral history and manipulated slave narratives, phony dialect created by white writers, attempting to write a hopeful account when there’s a historical sense of pain, and the shock waves of Harlem gentrification.


Correspondent: In the introduction for The Collected Stories, which has been collected all in one book and published just in time for your birthday, you allude to there being five different phases of your writing life. What was interesting to me was that you mentioned the fourth phase, which was just after your husband had passed away, and you say that you were writing stories and these Western novels because you wanted to have a family. Your kids had gone away and all that. I was curious why the family on page meant more or needed to be there in addition to the real people in your life.

Emshwiller: Well, my family wasn’t there. (laughs) That’s the point! You know, the kids had all gone off. And I didn’t have any kids anymore near me. And then I didn’t have a husband anymore. And I was by myself. And what I did was — well, it’s sort of a long story. The very first thing, to get into that cowboy stuff, my daughter had a wonderful idea. She said, “Why don’t you go to this dude ranch that I know of?” Right? And I said, “I don’t even like horses anymore!” And I didn’t want to go. And I just fought her and fought her. And she said, “You gotta do something. You gotta go some place you never went before. Do something you never did before.” And she pushed me up there. And then, in two days, I was just back to horses and farm life and cows and everything. They had everything up there. Pigs and chickens. Everything.

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: What?

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: Oh, before, you mean?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Emshwiller: Well, when I was a twelve-year-old girl, I was into horses. And if I had a dollar, which I didn’t have very often, I would go and ride. Which was not every often. And after that, I grew up.

Correspondent: Horses? Yeah. Big deal. In the boonies.

Emshwiller: (laughs) Yeah, right! I didn’t hear anything about them anymore. But then it only took two days to realize that this was really great. And my daughter was absolutely right. I would just switch away into another life. And then when I came home though, I didn’t write another line for a year.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Emshwiller: After Ed [Emshwiller] had died. And I lay comatose in front of the TV set, looking at Westerns. Trying to see. Watching horses and watching mountains, which I really learned to love the mountains with Ed. When we were together, we used to climb around a lot. And then, after I got through mourning for a year and not doing anything, then I started writing the Westerns. I made myself a family. The thing is: I wrote. I can see a lot of people doing this though. For those two novels, I wrote like I never wrote before. I didn’t go anywhere. Those people were more real than my friends.

Correspondent: Wow.

Emshwiller: More real. And they were my life. For two years. Or three years. I don’t know how long it took to write both those novels. I thought of nobody else. And I didn’t go to any movies. My friends would give readings and I didn’t go. I didn’t go to everything.

Correspondent: They were more real than your real friends. Why do you think that is? Why did they…?

Emshwiller: I don’t know how that happened! (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination was that powerful, I suppose.

Emshwiller: And my writing changed completely during that. Then I went back to science fiction. From that experience, I think it expanded deeper into people, I think. Although I don’t think I’m as deep as U was into those people now. I think I squeezed back a little bit to the science fiction things.

Correspondent: You needed to invent people in order to understand them?

Emshwiller: I think. I don’t know. Of course, they were my invention. I understood. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, it’s tilted the balance there.

Emshwiller: Of course they don’t always do what you want them to do.

Correspondent: Of course. Which is why I suggested an invented simulacrum of people might almost be more effective. Because they’re coming from your subconscious. It’s not like you are controlling them completely.

Emshwiller: No. I found that out. (laughs)

* * *

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the notion of Harlem as an area. There are numerous skirmishes throughout history, some of them based off of racist fears about what Harlem’s boundaries are. And even when you were in Texas, you describe in this book creating an imaginary map of Manhattan. So given this, and given the fact that one person will call Harlem “a ruin,” another person will call it “an East Berlin whose wall is 110th Street,” how can any one person describe its totality? I mean, can this book or can any book really capture it? Or do you essentially fall into the Alexander Gumby problem of an overflowing collection of clippings?

Rhodes-Pitts: My attempt was not to give a description of Harlem in the colonial sense, when cartographers would go off into the bush and make a map that attempts to be true to life. It remains an idiosyncratic map of this place that is outlined by my personal experiences and my personal curiosity. And in the midst of living here — and really it was living here that helped for the book, it wasn’t the other way around; I didn’t move here to write this book — my own personal obsessions and curiosity collided with those of other people. And some of those encounters are captured in the book. Now whether it’s — I mean, I guess I don’t trust the project of someone who would claim that they were setting out to describe the totality of any place. It’s simply as that.

Correspondent: How about this? I’m curious about the different worlds between your peregrinations through the neighborhood, talking with people who live here, versus your dutiful efforts in the library to make sense of the history. You say that the personal quest encouraged this more scholarly quest. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to necessarily call it a dichotomy, but I’m curious how the two worked in relation to each other in terms of this book.

Rhodes-Pitts: Well, it’s a funny way of running back and forth between two fields in a way. And clearly my first encounters in Harlem, as I described in the book, were through literature, through books. And then I guess you could say I run to the field of experience when I actually move here. And then I’m simultaneously collecting things from the field of experience and from the field of the archive. And I guess as I finally set down to sort through everything that I gathered in my imagination and my experience and my reading, I was conscious of one way to make all of those things on one plane as best as I could. And I think I tried to do that through the way certain fictional characters move through that one chapter as characters and plucking them from their environment and colliding them together as figures in one scene from their different respective homes in literature. And then also making those figures live alongside the people that I knew and who told me their stories, or shared not even their whole stories but snippets of stories that come out in casual conversation. Not through interviews. Which I was really conscious about. So I just think my attempt was always to make the things equal in my treatment of them, and not to privilege one over the other.

Correspondent: Well, for example, you do write about going out of the library and seeing a man there who is reading the Koran. And you observe this tableau. But the question of what you memorialize — and this is also in relation to that photograph you mention — is something interesting and oscillates between these two points. I detected in reading this book that there was a little bit of “Should I impede on the person who’s practicing this private ceremony, but is nevertheless part of the neighborhood or should I observe him?” Was this a struggle in terms of deciding which characters to pick for the book? Who to populate the book to really present your view of Harlem?

Rhodes-Pitts: Again, I think a lot of that is defined by temperament. And I don’t think there was a method to it as much as there was my way of moving through the world, which is often as an observer, and completely aware that what I observe and then choose to describe is part of a selection process. And it was really important. The book is in no way my unscented notebook of seven years in Harlem. It’s very specific images — whether they’re flashes in the case of that particular man, who, for me, sitting outside the library. Clearly some sort of dedicated scholar or man of religion, who was also selling incense and shea butter as a street vendor. Probably not making that much money. Which is an interesting tableau, as you put it, of the pursuit of knowledge happening right outside the door of this other shrine to that pursuit. And I was always very interested in how a lot of the figures — especially the ones that I knew — when I tell their stories, it’s not just a funny story he told me, but it’s really often those stories are about an exchange of knowledge. The impossibility of seeking the stories and the truth and history in some ways. The evasiveness of those stories. And so I guess when I do go through my — whether memory or notes or the histories that I read, it’s very much with a direction. So there’s always a choice. You know, I have a background in film. So I’m very much aware of what it means to edit. To seek and to edit. To capture and sift.

The Bat Segundo Show #389: Carol Emshwiller & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #369. Mr. Bacigalupi is most recently the author of Ship Breaker. His short story collection, Pump Six, has been recently issued in paperback.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to juggle several bleak futures.

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Subjects Discussed: How to stay writing after getting four novels rejected, Schopenhauer and the will to write, Mr. Bacigalupi’s bleak temperament, the relationship between personal temperament and fictional temperament, why short fiction markets are more open to a dark vision, talking specifically about specifics, imaginative detail in Bacigalupi’s early stories, William Gibson and hyperspecificity, permitting the reader to fill in the gaps, improvisation and what details emerge from the memory banks, devising an imaginative concept vs. the influence of phrasing, the relationship between language and spontaneity, the importance of manipulative violence, whether or not addicts can be sympathized with, stylistic momentum, past tense verbs and participles, getting annoyed with language tics, getting self-conscious about repetition, the frequency of words, the mysterious obsession of the (ology) site, John Banville, using the word “spray,” dreaming space, cannibalizing from the four unpublished novels, uprooting reader expectations through the Windup reading order, origin stories, the disadvantages of writing within established universes, cheshires and megadonts, contending with the logical fallacies of a really cool imagined creature, how the location of a calorie company created numerous narrative variables, the influence of Katrina on the Windup universe and the Ship Breaker universe, descriptive teeth and metaphorical Teeth, the inspirational qualities of biting and tearing, body metaphors, analyzing one’s own writing patterns, J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, speculative narrative extrapolated from details in the present moment, consequential details vs. making things up, global warming, liquified coal, applying an aesthetic to data points, Lewis Carroll, missing hands and facial scars, Heinlein’s Friday, the Dauntless, James Lennox Kerr, Patrick O’Brian, Citizen of the Galaxy‘s heavy influence, and extrapolating from facts vs. extrapolating from books.


Bacigalupi: It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel. If it’s somebody else’s novel, you’re reading some natural history of the world. Whatever it is. You’re always gathering material. And so then it’s just there. And I don’t even know why, oh, at this moment, I’m looking for a detail that does this kind of a thing. I want to indicate the scope of the world. Or in this particular case, I want to indicate the scope of the calorie companies. Things like that. And, okay, where can I go to do that? What do I have in my repository that seems like it’s a useful tool for that? And then I’ll start pulling things down. So is there an intention that I have? There’s something I want to illustrate. There’s an experience I want to get deeper into. Then which pieces are going to go into it? That’s very much on the fly.

Correspondent: In terms of this being on the fly, how does this work in relation to you devising an imaginative concept versus language? Does phrasing sometimes kickstart a concept more than what you have in the bank, so to speak? I mean, I note for example “cillin” instead of “penicillin.”

Bacigaulpi: Right.

Correspondent: Little things like that we often find in your universes.

Bacigalupi: Right.

Correspondent: So the question, I suppose, is how much language motivates the spontaneity versus how much some leg that you have motivates that particular spontaneity?

Bacigalupi: I don’t know. It’s sort of a combination. You know, the spot where I actually remember a piece of language inspiring me to write a story was more connected to “The People of Sand and Slag.” When I wrote that short story, there had been a little piece of microfiction that I’d written. I had written a paragraph. And it was all about these people lying out on the beach and chopping each other up. And it was sort of compelling. But I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. But I liked the prose. I liked the rhythms of it. And there was something so bizarre about it that I knew that I liked it. That became a part of the bank. That went in and sat there for a very long time until, much later, I was starting to play around with some other concepts for “The People of Sand and Slag.” And suddenly that thing was there. Oh, I get it. These people are immortal. These people are regenerative. They can do all of these things. And this is the perfect illustration for this cascade. And so this piece of — we’ll call it “poetic prose,” and almost none of it survived or entered into the story. But the prose of that, the experience of it for me, resonated for me strongly enough that it could then form an entire piece.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I actually do want to ask about a recurrent theme. It’s here in Ship Breaker as well. In “Sand and Slag,” we have violence directed towards girls or women. The Windup Girl has that with Emiko. “The Fluted Girl,” of course, has that. And it concludes on an act of revenge. I’m curious as to why you are really drawn to the kind of really degrading violence towards girls and women like that. Whether it’s just part of the bleak temperament or you feel that that’s really a good way to get the audience to feel sympathy towards these particular characters. Or whether it’s just an environmental reality that you need to convey.

Bacigalupi: Honestly, I think this actually comes in different moments for different stories.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bacigalupi: And you’re really illustrating very specific things. The violence that you see for Emiko is pretty manipulative violence. Because you’re really trying to get to a point where you generate enough empathy for her, so that later on she can go on a slaughterfest. And that you feel that that’s entirely reasonable. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that I felt very comfortable depicting her being degraded at one early point in the story and yet I didn’t depict her doing the slaughter later on. And the reason is, I don’t want to lose — I want to maintain character empathy in her. And if you see more than just the blood on the walls, if you see her tearing every single piece of meat and bone out of every one of her enemies, then you might not have that later empathy for her at the very end of the story. And so a lot of this is just manipulation honestly. It’s just flat-out manipulation. And it’s interesting. So in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the guy is the one being dismembered as an experiment in sex fun. And so I’m not sure. It definitely shows up every once in a while. “Softer,” the woman is definitely killed by her husband. And that one too has some disturbing aspects. Who knows? Maybe I’m a misogynist.

Correspondent: I’m not going to go ahead and put that label down. But I am curious about this. We’re talking about manipulation vs. empathy. And this also leads me to ask you about Lopez in Ship Breaker. The father. He’s a very brutal character. I’m wondering if there were efforts on your part to try to make him more sympathetic. When does a character, I suppose, become violent? Almost serving as a manipulative way to get the audience to sympathize with the hero?

Bacigalupi: Right. Yeah, with Lopez — Richard Lopez, he’s sort of based on my own — I had a next door neighbor who was sort of a crystal meth addict. And so I’ve never really had much sympathy for addicts anyway. And so I was perfectly happy to have that villain role fulfilled by him. Honestly, I wanted to illustrate a certain — in a lot of ways — over-the-top idea about what point you look around at family and say that family is no longer family. That they aren’t really valuable anymore. That they need to be done away with. And I tend to think of almost all human relationships as contingent relations. Everything is dependent on good behavior. I don’t really believe in the idea of family as family, or that friends are friends. It’s whether or not, every day, you’re sort of earning your friendship or earning the connections and support of your family. And vice versa. And so, for me, I just really wanted to illustrate Richard Lopez’s break with any sense of his obligations. The mutual obligations of family.

The Bat Segundo Show #369: Paolo Bacigalupi (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #245. Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.

Author: Neal Stephenson

Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.


Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.

Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.

Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.

Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.

Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?

Stephenson: (laughs) Well…

Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)

Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.

BSS #245: Neal Stephenson (Download MP3)

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New Roundup

One of my projects over the past few months was reading somewhere in the area of sixteen books (along with a good deal of beginnings) for a science fiction roundup. I’m pleased to report that the fruit of my labors can be read this Sunday at The Washington Post, where the books featured include Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, Nancy Kress’s Dogs, Leslie What’s Crazy Love, and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King. I did my best to include a variegated mix of big and small authors, expected and unexpected presses, et al. If I have erred even a quarter as badly as Dave Itzkoff, by all means, feel free to rip me a new one in the comments.

Not Thinking About the Children

Two essays — one from Annalee Newitz and one from Lizzie Skurnick — express needless hostility to books that involve the young. The first essay quibbles over YA science fiction with protagonists under 18 being categorized as YA as niche marketing gone horribly awry. As Newitz writes:

When scifi novels with adolescent protagonists are marketed as “just for adolescents,” a curtain of taboo falls between most adults and that novel. In an era where there is so much legal panic around relations between adults and young adults, it’s hard to deny your knee-jerk response that there’s something slightly distasteful and pedophilic about an adult reading stories aimed at people under the age of 18.

Let me try and understand this strange logic. If I, a balding and bearded thirtysomething man, wander into a YA section at a bookstore, I will immediately find my name listed in the Megan’s Law database. I cannot possibly purchase a book and claim it to be “for my son” or “for my niece.” (Not that I would. Because a book purchase is nobody’s goddam business but mine. And besides, I have braved the apparent choppy waters of the kiddie section many times in purchasing several copies of E. Nesbitt and L. Frank Baum for friends to give to their children to read.) To wander into the kiddie section is now apparently equivalent to clumsily divagating through the beads separating the “adult” titles from the regular movies in a video store. Never mind that, when it comes to YA, it is parents who hold the purchasing power.

And, of course, I cannot possibly read a YA book on a subway. Not even if I remove the dust jacket and make the book’s title difficult to identify. Apparently, the minute that I open up a YA book, all eyes will veer to my perverted and demented form. There can be no other judgment. Not even the usual apathy. You may not know this, but every YA book can be easily identified by the government-mandated bleeping yellow light whenever anyone over the age of eighteen starts reading it. The appropriate authorities will be summoned. I will be thrown in jail and sentenced to a chemical castration. For I have transgressed the boundaries.

For what it’s worth, I have read a few YA titles on the subway and have not yet experienced any such problems. Perhaps Ms. Newitz has some legislative evidence with which to support her utterly strange claim. But I seriously doubt this.

Then there is Ms. Skurnick’s essay, which quibbles with Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel. She first casts doubt on a 9-year-old narrator’s ability to recite Emily Dickinson’s poems. (Casual YouTube searches suggest otherwise.) The idea that a 9-year-old would consider More Joy of Sex is likewise impossible. (Never mind that kids are quite curious about anatomy. I should point out that I acquired an illicit copy of The Joy of Sex when I was 6. Puritanical households make children curious quite swiftly.)

Both essays have been dutifully responded to by, respectively, Colleen Mondor and John Fox. Fox suggests that Skurnick failed to read one story correctly and used this to paint a needlessly broad stroke against the capacities of children.

But what is really going on here? I have appreciated both Newitz and Skurnick’s work in the past. However, these essays both represent foolhardy and illogical positions. These two idiotic essays read as if they were written to draw traffic to their respective outlets. Forget reason, ratiocination, or even a modicum of common sense. Newitz and Skurnick both decided that they’d throw all that into the incinerator. And in doing so, they have both settled for pernicious and discriminatory positions that threaten the possibilities of literature. If we cannot accept a 9-year-old who likes Emily Dickinson, then I suppose we should disregard the wisdom of Holden Caulfield or the musings of Huckleberry Finn. After all, all dem kids must be dumb! Likewise, it’s worth pointing out that there was once a time in which anyone reading or writing science fiction was considered a pervert or a loon. (For example, consider this 1954 Time article in which a Cleveland psychiatric social worker declared that science fiction plots betrayed “schizophrenic manifestations” in the minds of their authors.) It is extremely disappointing to see the editor of a sizable science fiction website fall into this same fallacious line of reasoning for YA.