23 August 2018

Eileen Gunn, Curator of Absurdities

I've been, frankly, chicken to write about Eileen Gunn's fiction, because she's done so much that is important, and her scope is much greater than the books I’ve read to compare to, but I want to say something, so here's my blurtings. I first fell in love with her stories from the collaborations with the equally intimidating to write about Rudy Rucker in Rucker's insanely smart, fun, crazy online magazine Flurb: A Webzine of Astonishing Tales.  (Gunn herself was the key miscreant responsible for an equally addictive but totally different webzine, Infinite Matrix.) But to get a proper dose of Gunn, there's nothing to equal a collection.

These two important collections are like Gunn herself--so supremely cool in their lack of pose yet so richly diverse and deep and generous that you end up learning stuff you didn’t mean to, laughing wryly and getting on top of stuff that was destroying you, getting moved to move the immovable, even feeling deeply about someone you don’t necessarily want to be. Quite Marvelessly, Gunn does this to you with not a superhero in sight. I wondered about her sense of humour and satire, which makes me think first, of Gogol; second, of Norbert Davis; but third, of Nabokov, so I wasn’t surprised to learn she’s fluent in Russian, has lived in many places, and done a great many things, including being a key worker in a corporate hive.

Unlike many writers, especially those who’ve been moulded by an MFA, she doesn’t try to create an absurdity or sprinkle odd things in, or twist the plot, to make some nothingstory quirky.

foreword by William Gibson
afterword by Howard Waldrop

Gunn’s a curator of absurdities--of the real life dimension. I can’t imagine her constructing a story out of the prescribed elements. Nor does she try for tricky interesting language effects. Her own voice when writing about organisations, for instance, seems to burst forth from a well of experience and fedupness (so the very funny and famous "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" told in a matter-of-fact tone, might have sprung from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, but gets far more mileage with readers because it does it with the engineered lightness of, say, David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment).

She is also a constantly curious delver into the generally unknown, so her stories are often like a Cracker Jack box would be, mid-last century, to a five-year old who's eating away till, !!!--for this kid must have lived in a cave far from Howdy Doody tunes and therefore never heard there’s a prize in every box. Awesome knowledge coming as a surprise gift--Jeffrey Ford does this too, and in the hands of writers as smooth and ego-invisible as these two, the stuff we learn is an intrinsic part of what makes the stories so memorable, be it snowflake collecting from Ford, or phantom-limb hauntings from Gunn.

If this were a different time, I wouldn’t compare Gunn to anyone, for I think her stories have their own voices, none of them being anyone but Gunn in service to them, or in her collaborations, a certain seamless synergy that works a treat. My favourite collabs are with Rudy Rucker. These two writers are intimidatingly smart but don’t act or write like that. Instead, this duo produces fun, smart stories that I’d call ‘screwball’ to their own design. And as is usual with their individual works, there’s serious stuff aplenty there--just not with any pretentious labels.

As Gunn has often been called a writer of science fiction, it is in this capacity that I am the most frightened to say anything, for my perception might be too screwy to expose without ridicule, but here goes.

Science fiction has often been burdened by having to be either Present / Future or P \ F. Rarely is it P?! > F?!, which I would define as seeing the future not with any foundation of optimism or pessimism, but with the realism of today’s absurdities continuing to their logical future. This is how I see Lem’s immortal works, and I think it was the ruse of science fiction, and satiric at that, that allowed him free rein to write about the future as fiercely as he regarded the present. I think Gunn does this too, making her science fiction all the more meaningful to this reader.

Mind you, this isn’t some Praise Be session. I don’t love everything she writes. My personal taste prejudices stuck to me like fleas when it came to “The Steampunk Quartet”, first published by Tor. It’s not so much that I’m not into steampunk. I’m not, but I can stomach it when it comes to the brilliant Gail Carriger, though I’m hanging out for her to outgrow steampunk and invent her own new genre. So it's not steampunk in the Quartet that gives me gas, but the towering genius of China Miéville: and since I’ve tied on my concrete boots, I may as well sink myself so deep, my bubbles won't reach the surface, by adding that celebrated “recluse”, Thomas Ligotti. But some of my best friends find much in these two, as they do, one of the most quoted of all authors, the man who penned “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Just kidding. I don’t know anyone but me who admits to a regard for Edward Bulwer-Lytton. No, some of my best friends are Lovecraftians; but we must all see the good in people and ignore the parts every right-minded cephalopod would want treated with extreme prejudice.

imo, Gunn’s best when she writes alone and in her own strong, service-to-her-story way. I think it is her humbleness in the presence of the story itself, that makes her a great writer and natural storyteller.

unquestionably excellent, and 
as with Stable Strategies,
unusually pleasurable 
book design
by John. D. Berry
who also designed the font as though 
he tailored it to fit Gunn.
Published by the excellent,
easy to buy from Small Beer Press

I’ve spoken of her finely honed sense of humour and satire, but she’s got such a broad range that satire is only one of her methods of getting into our heads and hearts. In her aptly titled Questionable Practices (she’s got a great feel for titles) one story above all shows this range. Heartbreaking tragedy is made all the more powerful by the way it is told, with shifting points of view and interjections of painless, succinct Dummies’ level information. In the hands of another writer, this could have turned into a mess, but Gunn’s depth of emotional involvement. knowledge and feel for what she is talking about, and control of her elements makes “Phantom Pain” a perfect story to end this collection--with a resounding whisper. 

EXTRA: The portions of both books that are not fiction are not decoder rings, but positively clutchably precious. There're prizes of info in both collections,
but few other authors will give you, for free, 
a tale of a delicious, successful, lie. 
And a bonus. A Secret that Really Works.

28 February 2018

Nature's post-production techniques

Nature is extravagant. But you, too, can afford what is used here, for it is all open-source.

Natural light, shade, and colours; dissolution, drying, soaking, and a certain amount of rot. Additional lens is 10-60mm thick seawater.

09 January 2018

on The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit by Garry Kilworth

"If I am to be kept in the dark, I have no idea what can be said and what can't. You cannot withhold information from me, simply giving me hints that a crisis is about to occur, then expect me to say the right things."

No, this isn’t Rex Tillerson or anyone in what’s left of the US State Department. It’s James Ovit, truth-telling in the self-deprecatedly titled The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit--dubbed by the publisher all too skeptically “a science fiction novel in three parts”.
A science fiction novel in three parts

This so-called novel is really a journal by one who, wherever he goes, whenever, seems to prove that the more things change...
"I was sleeping with an extra-terrestrial, a creature from outer space, one of those beings that were inscrutable to Homo Sapiens and had to be watched in case they had malevolent designs on my home planet, a world which was by definition better than any other."
though, like the Brexiteers pointed out to their dishonest benefit, experts don’t necessarily know all.
 "One does not have to travel naked through time."
Actually, I copied so many parts of this journal that I found wry truth in, that I should stop here, because you should be the one to get the same thrill that I have. As with all the best kind of fiction (to my taste) the thrill is based on the state of the real world, producing that complexity of reactions--wry, tragic, infuriating, funny, horrific, teetering, touching--all that, and this novel which reeks of integrity and knowledge, manages to be a page turner of the first order.

Although almost no one has heard of The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit, it should be as known as the fiercely funny Glenfiddich Award-winning Something Quite Big about NATO by Alan Davidson, a self-deprecating hard-bitten idealist who'd had to live in a pragmatist's armour till he threw it off, spectacularly with this book of his that had the good fortune to be banned.

But it lacks that thrilling page-turningness and weird disparity mixing that one can rely on in a Garry Kilworth tale. And it also lacks the insane brilliance of tossing three books into the air together to make such a class, fearlessly symmetrical, synergistic act.

As a political satire and intrigue, The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit has the quality and timelessness, and often, humour, of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s immortal Yes Minister (Yes, there's a Brexit Special); the added bile of that interstellar traveller Ijon Tichy’s diaries that spanned 30 years of the mortal Stanislaw Lem's life to put to our primitive paper; the added touches of whimsy that remind me of another favourite out-of-this-world diplomat, Henghis Hapthorn, captured in tales by Matthew Hughes

But Garry Kilworth’s creation is entirely his own, with his own style and such an idiosyncratic and rich well of knowledge, life experience and skills he draws on that often, passages aren’t just fascinating, but rather breathtakingly beautiful, like the rainbows on rotted meat.
"When I was a child there was no need to roam far away from one's home because the world came to your kitchen door...the rag 'n' bone man who would give me a goldfish in a jam jar in exchange for any unwanted items (even jam jars from the kitchen waste)...Until I was ten years old, I had not even visited the next village, two miles away. Then my father died of gangrene of the leg when his scythe sliced away part of his calf. He was drunk at the time, having been drawn into the pub on his way back to the hay cutting after dinner one Saturday. He patched himself up, without washing the wound, and finished his day's work. On finding it did not get better, he again treated himself. We could not afford a visit to the doctor believing it would eventually get better on its own. He didn't want to worry his family over a 'scratch'."
And in all this, there are nuggets throughout of matter-of-fact asides, coming out of the blue like elbow jabs from a spirit.
"If we had time travel in the 1950s, it would be passé by now, wouldn't it?"
Oh, and it's a love story, too, cardboard-character free. Outrageous cheek in a political satire, let alone a science fiction whatever.

The worst thing about this unique book is that Garry Kilworth is one of the finest short story writers today, who hasn’t burnt out but should have. He shouldn’t have been able to bring off this ambitious novel, too. But he has. He brings out expectations that he should damn well fulfill. 

So, Garry Kilworth, if you can't, supposedly because you slime out by calling yourself just a writer or something equally weasily, get James Ovit to do it: Change the course of history to make the current history we’re all swimming in, fake.

01 July 2017

Nothing less than a life's companion - review of Oothangbart by Rebecca Lloyd

Do you feel as Donal Shaun Hercule Poseidon put it? "That's all?" Donal asked. "Is there nothing more?"

Now when to read news is to feel bathed in toxic sludge; when time is commonly cut into measly little parcels; do you feel as so many do, one with Donal: "It was as if the whole of his insides were writhing in an unnatural manner, and he often felt as if he was choking...He wanted only to fling back his chair, leave the building and run forever." 

Do you also feel that timeless conflict of meetings--making you imagine murder while also wishing you could make yourself disappear? Do bullying cowards take up all your air; and do you feel scorched as fear of the other, the unknown, fear of a new thought is being stoked to the ambience of hell? But hell, who has time to think let along daydream. And what if someone finds out you actually contemplate? In Oothangbart where Donal lives, even the wonderful and new is viewed with the alarm of Chicken Little.

If you feel as choked by all this even though you don't live where Donal does, in a town as impossible to spell as Woolfardisworthy or Poughkeepsie (Oothangbart is also renowned in every citizen's greeting for its perfection and exceptionalism), now there is no better antidote than a little unassuming book published last year--a book that not only identifies but crucially, frees.

published by Pillar International
"a teeny-tiny independent publisher based in Limerick, Ireland"

Oothangbart, a Subversive Fable for Adults and Bears by Rebecca Lloyd could be called “Orwell’s Animal Farm for the Age of Team Players” but it is so much more. The gripping solution in Oothangbart is imbued with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not only the driver of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but who said, "You must do the things you think you cannot do."

Simply but powerfully written in a wholly natural style, but one with so many parts I want to read again that my physical copy bristles with pink slips (like all Steve Aylett's books, which are rife with perfectly put, often tragically funny aphorisms about modern society), no reader of Oothangbart should be embarrassed to admit that what happened to me, does to you. When I finished the last page, my cheeks were literally wet with joy. This book is not just about society but friendship, love, revolution: kites, not flags, oh my!

Oothangbart, a Subversive Fable for Adults and Bears is a mess of a title. Who can remember that? But soon, enough, subversion insidiates, for this story is our very lives: a complex metaphor for so many parts of society, from the social escalator of success for the successful, to the fear and aversion to the different and foreign that I've had a hard time writing anything about it, for the thought "That's positively Oothangbartian" has hit me constantly since finishing it, and I've been tempted to share these parallels. Not that you need them. What you do need is the honest reassurance that Lloyd's chapter 2 title: A PERVERSE THOUGHT fits the book as perfectly as a drug label round a bottle.

Some of it is even so damn true but unadmitted, it's explosively funny. True bagels (yes, there be bagels here as well as bears), not the ubiquitous 'bagels' like those blueberry fluffies in the vending machine at the Seoul airport, are well and truly heavy as stones, and quite as indigestible. But the things people, uh, bears, do for love...

It's perverse, brave, stirring, as perfectly pitched to the ridiculously real as the Academy of Projectors in Lagado that Gulliver reported; or Nobel-laureate Sydney Brenner's advice in his collection of essays, Loose Ends in Biology: "I have personally found it extremely useful, when dealing with managers, to invert all the catch phrases and exhortations."

Oh, hell. This gem is so "Positively Oothangbartian" I'm not strong enough to leave it out. "There are people getting degrees in biological sciences at the best universities in America today who don't know the names of anything outdoors, who have never studied anything but a cell." -- Jonathan Foley, exec director, California Academy of Sciences ("The Meaning of Lichen" by Erica Gies, Scientific American, June 2017)

in Oothangbart:
Everything seemed senseless; every effort he’d made to be sociable with fellows he had no feeling for at work, every pleasant greeting he’d given to pompous types who could ride The Escalator, seemed futile.
    If obedience was its own reward it surely meant that a fellow was waiting for nothing at all, and how could waiting itself be desirable when it took up time? One could wait forever in Oothangbart doing all one was told by fellows in high positions and at the end of it all nothing would be different. Throwing himself down into the folds and dust of his sofa, he lay with his arms covering his head and thought about the Time of Dreaming.
The smallmindedness that reigns supreme now in too many places is torn to shreds and fed to the fishes in this glorious novel. The misfit Hutchinson, one of the unforgettable characters here, reminds me of the great Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who said “Deliverance will not come from the rushing, noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.” And though I said I wouldn't, I must give yet another example of the way this book is like a spiderweb, its triplines reaching out in all directions:

From the 27/6/2017 PBS Newshour interview of Jason Isbell, singer-songwriter and guitarist--"A lot of people that I grew up with, went to school with in Alabama, and a lot of people in my family who told me growing up that cities were terrible places and anything outside of our little circle was scary and dangerous and frightening. And I thought about the effect that had on people, when you start to believe that, and you let yourself be so afraid of other people and the outside world, that you never feel tethered, you never feel a connection with the rest of humanity. So, I wrote that song based on that kind of fear."

Rebecca Lloyd's timeless Oothangbart sings, too. Read it, give it, read it to someone you love in the small time you snatch between... or as Lloyd writes in the Afterword “This book is for people who hate the typical work hierarchy that if drawn as a symbol looks like a pointed white-faced clown hat without the bobbles, and it is for ...” But Lloyd is wrong to limit. Oothangbart, just as freedom, is for everyone.

Finally, I said I wouldn't bring up endless connections, but as there's no penalty these days for lying, there's something else that needs saying and quoting. It's really as remarkably easy to write a book as it is to steal someone's time with mindless entertainment or hypocritical "The sky has fallen!" literature for people with enough leisure to enjoy the mudbath. But literature and life itself can be so much more.

As Rikki Ducornet says, in The Monstrous and the Marvelous (a deeply inspiring collection of her essays)--
I insist: it is not only our right, but our responsibility to follow our imaginations' enchanted paths wherever they would lead us; to heed those voices that inhabit our most secret (and sacred) spaces...It is precisely this capacity for invention that makes the world worth wanting. The capacity to dream very high dreams and to sing--as did the ancients of Dreamtime--songs potent enough to engender a universe. Those who ask us to deny our dreams would pillage our valley of marvels...would deny that the frontiers of the novel, our first love, are infinite.
Rebecca Lloyd, short story writer and novelist, has refused to be denied, and in following her imagination of the possible, has created one of those rare books that becomes a life's companion on the endless paths it opens up.

The Book Depository (free international shipping, though this book should be published in many countries and languages)

01 February 2017

A tense flight—Prayers at 30,000 ft

“Oh, no,” I thought with fear and dread as I got in my right-side aisle seat on the 8-hour Kuala Lumpur/ Sydney flight. A young woman in a chador settled herself and her two children in the middle row just ahead of mine. Her husband was separated by the aisle, so I was directly behind him. Children! If only they could be flown as baggage.

The woman was in her mid-twenties, her husband maybe mid-thirties tops. Both were unusually good looking. He and the little girl and boy were dressed as if they lived in a middle-class suburb of Sydney and were going out for a special occasion. Casual nice. The mother settled the children with no fuss. Indeed, through the whole flight, those three were passengers to die for. Quite unlike the flight from Vienna where a bloke who would make Crocodile Dundee look like George Clooney, walked on my seat to get to his, pawed through a basket of hot rolls proffered by the stewardess until she told him to get his mitts off, and drank beer after beer, carefully placing his empty tinnies at my feet.

But back to the family. Husband and wife occasionally whispered across the aisle, but otherwise kept to themselves, she busying herself making sure the children were cared for and quiet, and comforting her daughter when the little girl vomited from what looked more like exhaustion and fear than airsickness.

The father/husband was something else. He was the busy sort, and as soon as the screen was available, channel surfed until he got to the Koran. Several times during the flight, he went to this channel. At other times, he surfed the games channel and played several. But whatever he was doing was always interrupted by him bending over and nervously tweaking the contents of a large plastic bag at his feet. I couldn’t see it, but could hear the plastic. He watched two movies--something with Sandra Bullock, and The Devil Wears Prada. But that bag seemed to obsess him.

On the flight, we were given enough junk food snacks that I stored them up, and offered them to the mother for her children. She thanked me in fluent English, and her husband turned around to chime in.

In the same centre row as the woman and her children, was a man in his mid-twenties and his woman. That’s said deliberately. She was almost a cliché, she was so much his. He’d wrap his arm around her neck in a proprietal lock, and talk to her with the assurance and menace of her being a possession. She never said a word that I heard. Now, I don’t usually crane to see everything everywhere, but he was impossible to ignore. He drank, ranted in pure Australian the whole time, and kept jerking back the seats in front of him, loudly demanding their occupants agree with him, all with the friendly insistence of the drunk. His woman had her eyes closed most of the time as if she was asleep. The staff tried their best, but were ineffective as recorking champagne.
And all the while, the man in front of me kept rifling through that mysterious bag.

When we finally landed, the captain’s announcement wasn’t that we had landed, but to keep to our seats because we were to be boarded by federal police.

They took away the creep, to muted clapping.

Soon, I finally had a chance to see the bag. It was a tough plastic, a brand bag, and it said “UNHCR: United Nations High Commission for Refugees” illustrated with those unforgettable uplifted-in-support hands.

The family was in front of me in the wog entry queue, for I also, am an immigrant without an Australian passport.

I remembered my first day in Australia, when I fumbled paying on my first bus here. The driver took the money from my hand with a smile, and a “She’s right, luv.”

The family and I were just about to be called, each to an immigration official, so I had to speak up. There was so much to say, but all I had time for was, “I hope you’re treated well here.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, as the man distractedly nodded my way as they stepped forward left.

* * *

I can’t stop thinking of them now. How, even with our often inhumane Australian government treatment of refugees and the serious infestation of bigots in our parliament, it was probably a good thing that those refugees were coming to Australia, and a bloody good thing they weren’t on an American flight.

The Koran is bad enough, but imagine the horror if someone saw the guy reading Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on ... I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:" As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal"; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on . . .

And if someone doesn’t know songs, how could anyone blame anyone for not realising a person could be innocently reading that sword of God shit to become an American citizen? How could the vigilant think anything but “TERRORIST!”

Indeed, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was sung by the cream of US leaders in Washington DC’s National Cathedral as one of the first 9/11 responses, and will most likely be again, since it goes on to say, quite comfortingly to those who have gained yuge, unpresidented power and call America a Christian country: In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.

(and yeah, eternal noseyness is my creed, so I was as stickybeaky on this flight as years ago, in a Moscow hotel when I eavesdropped on a bunch of American Christian evangelists planning their campaign while flipping pages in large ringbinders labelled To Russia With Love.)

15 December 2016

A perpetual-enjoyment collection: 400 Boys and 50 More, by Marc Laidlaw

Though they’re rarer than postage stamps who whistle, you might know a writer, and wish to give that creature a present as where-have-you-been-all-my-life loved, once tasted, as a perpetual-chew toy. Or you might know a reader who craves collections large enough to indulge all through the nights. If you’re really lucky, those rarities combine to be you. If so, there’s a way you can treat yourself without breaking your virtual pocketbook, and do it the instant-gratification way. In fact, I urge you to discover this most exciting collection--one that could have been in hiding, so little has it been noticed.

I hate that 400 Boys and 50 More: Short Stories by Marc Laidlaw is not in the type of edition it deserves--an Everyman’s Library Collected Stories--even though in this case, it would be Some Collected Stories, and still be as thick and heavy as a corned beef with all the fat trimmed off before it’s sold.

“Well over a quarter of a million words, written over approximately 40 years” this truly is 50+ stories, each one carefully chosen (and not all previously published). Laidlaw has lightly spiced and larded the sections, describing each stage of his journey as a writer. Normally I'd prefer my head to be slowly ripped off than read ‘a writer’s life’ stuff. But here it's a treat, especially when he fails to brag when he could have, and instead, let you in on his greatest ambition at one stage: sleep. So modest, you'll want him to have revealed more. Funny and inspiring, including his lesson in how to be disreputable (typically, he doesn't admit to his success). But these bits are just a small part of this collection. The meat is top-of-the-line stuff that first appeared in Omni (a you-gotta-read: "The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio"), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (ditto: "The Ghost Penny Post" pub'd by MFSF in 2016), Nightmare Magazine, Rudy Rucker's Flurb, Subterranean Press Magazine, and some of the most lauded Ellen Datlow anthologies. Pinnacle publications and editors.

But who cares about history? The question is: Do the stories work now? And how! The thing I like best about Laidlaw won’t fit into one 'is'. 1) He’s a wet dishcloth to his stories. They rule. So whatever voice the story is, it most assuredly is. If that philosophy was good enough for Hans Andersen, I reckon it’s good enough for any writer. Certainly this reader loves it in a collection, as it makes each story a new find. 2) Whether the tone is baroque or contemporary, the tale *moves*. Though the stories aren’t shallow by any means, they are stories that professional storytellers could have waxed fat on.  3) Laidlaw's horror hasn't a whiff of falseness. It's real and deep and sophisticated and thoughtful as philosophers in hell. One example is his brilliant "The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft", which should be in many anthologies. 4) When Laidlaw's stories are funny, the humour is gloriously under the top. He does deadpan so well ("Mars Will Have Blood", "Pokky Man"!), I can hear the ghost of Jack Benny applauding. But don’t worry, anyone born ten minutes ago. Laidlaw should appeal to old, young, and immature enough to enjoy anything marked 'for adults'. And oh. did I mention that many of the stories' titles are treats in themselves? Get the book and see what I mean. And if you think as I do, then cry out as I have been for a while, for an omnibus collection of his Gorlen and Spar stories, my favourite contemporary high-fantasy characters and tales. They’d make a terrific movie series, too.

04 November 2016

The wake-up kiss for the incurious: Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast

Every year, millions of people stand on rocky shores gaze out to sea like sleepwalkers, looking for whales while at their feet, literally, unexplored worlds teem.

So you’re going to the beach. If you haven’t packed this essential, you are going to miss so much. If kids are coming too, this book can make your trip a life-changer for you and for them.
 Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast
by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell

I’ll say right off: I consider this a model of a guidebook in any field, and this one encompasses so many.

In many ways, it’s written as if two children never grew up enough to get boring and well-behaved.

Although it's a superb identifying aid for anyone who's ever been challenged as to who's the real alien when you look coastal oddities in their, uh, eyes? this book would make an irresistible nag if you think you live too far away (say Broken Hill, NSW; Irkutsk, Siberia; New York City) or think zombies are more interesting than the truly freaky tidal world. Although this book’s title speaks specifically of “Australia’s temperate coast”, it is not stuck in one geographical place.

I’m prejudiced about this book. I first found it at my local library, and within a half hour, realised that it had answered so many questions about things I’ve seen and had never been able to identify or understand. I had to tell the authors. So I tracked down the guy whose concept it originally was--Phil Colman--to tell him how great this unassuming masterpiece really is. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to meet Phil Colman and spend a couple of hours with him as guide, exploring tidepools on Long Reef, his stamping ground in Sydney. Two of the best hours of my life, with one of my favourite people anywhere. I can’t remember ever saying so many incoherent one-word sentences that ended in multiple exclamation marks. He is so gracefully knowledgable, proving that there is no reason a brilliant expert can’t communicate in ways any dumbo with curiosity and a will to learn can understand and thrill to.

Onwards to the Book—

Relationships are discussed in awesomely voyeuristic detail.

About Neptune’s necklace Hormosira banksii, “a brown algae (it actually looks green) . . . Each front looks like a row of beads about 12 to 15mm in diameter. On the surface of each bead you may see little yellow spots that mark the egg and sperm chambers. As you walk on them the vesicles split open with a popping noise and you may be surprised to find that they are not filled with air, but with water that keeps them alive whilst exposed at low tide.”

The common bluebottle that when dried on the beach, pops under a foot like an exploding paper bag, gets a writeup that includes: “The bluebottle is not a single animal but a whole complex of individual zooids. The individuals cannot exist alone, only as the superorganism…The whole animal is a hermaphrodite, but produces males, which remain attached, and minute females, which float off and eventually produce another bluebottle by a process of budding.”

Scientific theories are examined with the same delightful unwillingness to just look away. About one theory that is great in theory, “many ecologists now think that the concept is too fuzzy to be of practical use. Oh, well, back to the drawing board and try again.”

Phil Colman is a scientist who’s specialised in insects, seashells, and other specialties one can add an -ist to, for international museums. He calls himself a naturalist, and when he isn’t guiding, teaching, or trying to save coastal environments, is luxuriating, picking off leeches, etc., in the wilds of New Caledonia. Do read his Saving the Reef (by navigating Government)! He writes that he’s “been taking people to look at life on coastal shore platforms at low tide for more than 40 years” Questions people asked made him see the need for “a simple book … written in plain English”.

Because Colman wanted to describe not just what things are, but how they live and relate to not just each other, but the places they live, the authorship became not one but two, as “’I’ became ‘we’ when a colleague came in to help me out with aspects such as geology, or which I profess to know little.” In Peter Mitchell, geologist, academic, environmental consultant who says with typical modesty, he “doesn’t know who he is anymore” and that “in the third half of his life he spends time trying to correct the environmental mistakes he contributed along the way”, this book got the perfect co-author. Read more about them and their creation in this Pittwater Online story

The original concept enlarged and enriched itself quite naturally, and the result should be a classic, so much does it say with so much fun and wit, in a book that you really can carry as a companion. Modestly titled and only 122 pages long, it is extraordinary in its ability to answer so many questions.

Winner of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Award in 2013, Exploring tidal waters should have won some international award because its scope is global and its communication quality outstanding.

As I think Peter Mitchell writes in “The Water environment” chapter (though the writing of the two co-authors is seamless) “Waves travel in great circle routes round the world unaffected by the Coriolis ‘force’ and they only change direction when they ‘feel bottom’ near the shore.”

It is an instant reference for a myriad of “what is it” questions as well as taking anyone and everyone down avenues of weirdness it takes an unhinged imagination to imagine they exist. It is also one of those books that will not exhaust itself, but only stir further interest. Even compared to the classic I’ve written about before, the huge heavy, Isobel Bennnett’s brilliant Australian Seashores: adapted from W.J. Dakin’s Australian seashores, a book I love, this little book is actually more useful. The photographs, many of which are by Peter Mitchell, are superb. Combined with the succinct explanations, this makes the book the best I’ve seen for searching something you’ve seen and coming up with a “That’s it!”

The design is for maximum usefulness, as are the glossary, index, and generous resources listing. The book is even bound right. Shove it in your pack, and you can be sure its pages won’t fall out.

And in every sense, the information is inviting instead of intimidating.

a chapter title

And possibly best of all, this is all done with no dumbing down. Children especially, deserve better.

In the chapter “Jargon”, for instance. “Scientific names may be a bit daunting but they are better than common names that are sometimes only used locally and are certainly not standardised. For example, a common bivalve used as a fishing bait along our NSW shores is known as a pipi (also pippi). This just happens to be a Maori word that applies to three different bivalve genera in New Zealand…In South Australia the same shellfish is called a Goolwa cockle, while in Queensland it is sometimes known by an Aboriginal name, ugari (also eugari or yugari). But any scientist in Sydney, Tierra del Fuego, or London can avoid this confusion because everywhere in the world it is Donax deltoides as there is only one such species. Try to get used to scientific names. Four-year-olds have no trouble with Tyrannosaurus rex.”

I’ll leave it to children of all ages to discover what this book says about “solar powered dragons”.

Every library in Australia should have this in stock, so tell your library.

And you should have your own, to put sticky notes on, date that you saw, identify, think…

Get it and give it. It will help answer your questions as well as drive you crazy to solve more. And it is the perfect waking kiss to those whose curiosities are asleep.

 with Phil Colman as my guide, I 'discovered' this beauty.
With Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast, by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell, 
I learned, and you can learn too, who this is.

Get yours from the CSIRO bookshop


get yourself on a Guided Reef Walk where Phil Colman himself might be your guide, and buy your copy then.


05 September 2016

Kaaron Warren's The Grief Hole is for all of us bloodsuckers

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

Theresa thought she was beyond horror at human behaviour. She’d been submerged in it, surrounded by it, and risen above it, day by day, in her job. The contrast of THEM making her feel like a better person.
The Grief Hole

“Everyone’s a parasite”

-- Aunt Prudence in The Grief Hole

A band of angels couldn’t have conspired better to launch Kaaron Warren’s newest novel, The Grief Hole, upon the world at this theres-no- better time. 

This novel could have been so many things--a simplistic Avenger ripper, a Walmart-baroque peepshow into sadism and misogyny such as Game of Thrones, an unreadably dense but otherwise deeply thoughtful exploration of evil and do-gooding Nobel Prize for Literature winner.
But it is none and yet, all of these in parts.

The Grief Hole is, firstly, such a gripping and suspenseful read that its depths are only seen when looking back, for looking back is something your mind will do, regardless of your command. This page-turner does what literature should, explore without constrictions the unfathomed, the unseemly, and the avoided-at-all-cost—doing all this with no affectation in the telling, thereby making the impacts on anyone exposed to The Grief Hole unavoidable and irredeemable.

And as for the beauty of suffering, the artpieces intentional and otherwise, of unnatural death—the nuances of good and evil in this novel shine like the rainbow on rotting meat. The contrasts between people Prudence calls ‘monsters’ refuse to keep their clarity, undermining the very nature of ‘good’, though not with any of the usual faux-nihilism tosh. Both Theresa and the beloved international singing star Sol Evictus in The Grief Hole have much in common with Octave Mirbeau’s Clara in The Torture Garden (Le Jardin des Supplices) whose passion is, not a box seat at the Opera, but strolling participation at staged displays of exquisitely refined torture. 

Warren has a particular skill with characters, so lightly sketched they could be pencil-drawn instead of oil. Explicit three-dimensionality expressed in a simple line. Family members, the one true love, hired muscles, The Lacemaker, dogs, and of course, a host of ghosts. My favourite in this novel is the wise fool, Aunt Prudence. This isn’t the only work of Warren’s in which an aunt is a standout who I hope to meet again. Aunt Beryl (who, like Prudence, has astounding toenails) in Warren's short story Bridge of Fools is as outstanding as any aunt drawn by those other aunt-employers, Wodehouse and Saki.

The story itself is both fast-moving and, far from pitching us twists and horrors like fish to seals, seems to grow as organically as bread mould. The only aspect that I felt possibly contrived was the age of Theresa, who I reckon would be about 5 years older to have her experience in social work. However, I could be wrong. Perhaps what it took for her, was just that level of experience and naiveté. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, though as the saying goes, maybe ‘enjoy’ isn’t quite the word, especially about that all-too-visceral hole. One last terrific part, however, is a hint in the thrilling ending. It isn’t an ending at all. Prudence is incorrigible, and Theresa didn’t have to think twice to answer her own question, “Is that what I want?”

A rare book, this. I hope it flies out beyond genres and one language, to take its rightful, deeply unsettling place, in all good souls monsters and parasites.


The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren
Cover & internal artwork by Keely Van Order
Published by IFWG Publishing Australia
GET IT.   

24 August 2016

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology -- What a surprise. These critical essays fail to turn you off the author.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology is nothing short of an addict’s value-added fix. Usually critical essays make me feel sorry for the author, since critical essays tend to be like that bitter stuff put on a committed thumb-sucker’s digit.  But this exceptional collection made me want to reread and find more Aylett stuff, and it enhances with new insights, intriguing conundrums that even he can’t solve—and does all this with such wit and creativity that this critical anthology is a disgraceful disturbance to the calm, congealed status quo of critical works.
 edited by Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson
published by Sein und Werden

The essayists, each marvelous writers in their own right, probably couldn’t write the kind of essays Aylett skewers in his unspelled-out And Your Point Is? Scorn and Meaning in Jeff Lint’s Fiction.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology, though no hagiography, is written by people who not only appreciate Aylett as much as I do but are also SA evangelicals.

“If he could just stop the Tourett’s flood of original ideas, dilute the language so the reader only had to pause and shake the head in admiration every paragraph or so rather than every other line, this man could be a sales phenomenon, could be a franchise.... Read the book, first to yourself, then, unavoidably, aloud to friends until they’re sick of you.”
— Alan Moore, from his “Introduction to Fain the Sorcerer

There are many mind-scouring (often explosively funny) quotes from Aylett’s works and the man himself; and from Rachel Haywire, there’s a new interview. All the pieces, for the most part, speak in understandable tongues. ‘Diegetic’ was used only 5 times, four, in an extraordinary (tongue-in cheek?) work of scholarship by Iain Matheson; and Derrida barely gets a look-in. These essays, often with titles way too interesting for serious journals, are a mix of preoccupations and questions posed and plumbed, one of which is plot.

But plot, as Jim Matthews says, misses the point. He writes: “I’ll invite and deserve a lot of flak if I don’t at least briefly state that Aylett’s work goes a lot deeper than just first effects, and often no distinction can be made. The satirical element of his work is strung throughout like hi-tensile electric fence-wire and is, for him, paramount. He says, ‘People have lost touch with what real satire is...’ ”

They sure have. “[Shaun Micallef] refuses to spell out exactly what it means. The best satires ... are always very diligent in explaining their jokes.” — Ben Pobjie, “I blame Shaun Micallef for the horror of Australian politics", Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2016

Now, that is imo, a perfect piece of satire, showing why today’s true satirists are rare as standup comedians who don’t laugh at their jokes. But satire is always rooted in tragedy—so because Aylett is the real thing and is tragically, nowhere near as famous as he should be, and because his novel Lint should be always in print in say, a “Popular Penguin” edition but so far, isn’t — I hazarded trying this book.

The discussions of satire here—what it is, what Aylett thinks it is, great satirists, in the opinions of these essayists and Aylett himself—are both fascinating and desperately needed. I loved Andrew Wenaus’ “Satire, Anxiety, and Prospect in The Caterer” partly because I agree with Spencer Pate in thinking Aylett’s masterpieces to be Lint and And Your Point Is?, and I would add The Caterer comic.

Some other topics bemused me because I don’t understand them, though they are of great importance to so many readers, critics and editors. I don’t get speed at all. Okay, if it’s not Elmore Leonard or a Mac, isn’t one person’s fast consumable another’s slow, and why does speed matter unless something’s so slow that it’s fast because you can’t read it at all, like I can’t José Saramago’s suffocating single-paragraph novels? But speed obviously matters, since “It’s a fast read” is considered a plus in a review, while ‘fast food’ is its own damnation. So Robert Kiely’s statement “[Aylett’s] prose is uncompromisingly fast” in his essay “Speed, Originality and Déjà vu in Bigot Hall” reminded me of how even the most definitive statement in a critical essay is, undressed, a human POV. I find Aylett a slow read, which is why I enjoy him so much. He’s got so much on every page that to read it fast is to skim. I find Dr. Seuss a slow read too, and Joseph S. Pulver Sr., and Nesbit and Wodehouse, and Rikki Ducornet. They’re all slow reads because I love to loiter on the page. But Kiely’s essay, like this whole contrarian collection, sucked me in. It is both insightful and deeply thought out. Also, as with many of these essays, it introduced me to other authors and works I can’t wait to explore.

A wonderful conundrum asked and unsolved in this volume could be summed up by the statement “I know not what I do, unless I do and I don’t know”. Does Aylett mean to say what he does all the time, does he know what he means—and when is he taking the piss out of, uh, who? This mystery was great fun to read, and it certainly doesn’t seem as if Aylett is, like Dylan Thomas, famously laughing at us finding meaning when there isn’t. It’s good to know, when this reader isn’t sure, that he might not be either. Or maybe he was, and forgot. There’s so much in that head.

You will not only find gems you mightn't find for yourself in Aylett's works, but many other treasures--other authors' works, musicians' (Spencer Pate's "The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett" is a personal favourite), and running back to Aylett, background, underpinnings, motivations, nuances. The essays themselves also give such vicarious pleasure as they transmit their joy in discovery. You will also find that spirit of mentorship/admiration/camaraderie/almost a salon, that is in the best spirit of brilliant creatives inspiring/encouraging each other instead of seeing each other as competitors. And I’ve left the editors and essayists Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson to last. I particularly liked Bill Ectric’s lovely description of exploring Aylett’s treasures. He is one of those modest people who has so much under the surface, yet doesn’t let on about his erudition. This book is, I think, primarily his brainchild, but he and Wilson must have complemented each other to produce such a fine, and subversive outcome. 

Far from putting you off an author, this book of critical essays does what they all should—Enhance, entrance, intrigue, and make you want to get your mitts on, at the very least, every work by the unique Steve Aylett.

Heart of the Original by Steve AylettNote: Looking back, I noticed that I’ve written more posts about Aylett on this blog than I have about any other exceptional, even the quince. So if you haven’t tried Aylett, try these for starters:

Immerse yourself.

    04 August 2016

    Donald Trump Wall

    “We cannot put aside our memories of the day when 50 per cent of the people had a ‘favorable opinion’ of this bully and fraud and another 21 per cent had ‘no opinion’ of him... McCarthy offered a powerful challenge to freedom, and he showed us to be more vulnerable than many of us had guessed to a seditious demagogy—as well as less vulnerable than some of us had feared....

    “In the mirror, McCarthy must have seen and recognized a fraud...He lied with poise and spontaneity...No man was ever quicker than this super-Munchausen to call another a liar, generally with amplifying adjectives...If history had been cooperative—continuing or increasing the tensions and anxieties and misconceptions on which he thrived—changes in the country’s temper might have come to pass that would have made possible a successful bid for power. The truth is that lack of experience makes it difficult for us to judge the possibilities of a national demagogue.”
    — Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959 

    The pictures are by me, and posted here for Creative Commons use.