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10-21-05: An Audio Interview with Myla Goldberg

Dangerous Symmetry

Myla Goldberg in the big studio at KQED.
We started off this week with an interview with Myla Goldberg, so it's only appropriate that we end with one as well. On the day I ran the first interview, I went up to San Francisco to talk to her in person at KQED. She showed up promptly 10 minutes before our studio time started, and we were lucky enough to get one of the big studios, where they record Michael Krasny's Forum.

Ms. Goldberg was one of the most energetic and articulate writers I've ever spoken to. We talked primarily about her new novel, 'Wickett's Remedy'. Though the novel itself is on the slim side; just over three hundred pages, and those pages are rather slim, with huge margins, it's remarkably full of life and filled with interesting and complex motifs on a wide variety of subjects. It's about aging, memory, consumer culture, the soft drink industry, World War I, the living, the dead, the afterlife -- all this and it's still a page turning, toe-tapping tale of terror and the 1918 flu epidemic.

You know, occasionally this column gets linked to Locus. I'll send them links I think appropriate, and I sent them one for the print interview with Myla Goldberg, which they declined to run because she wasn't really SF. I totally understand their decision; I wasn't even sure if I should send it to them. But after talking to her, I'm even more convinced that she's one of genre fiction's most interesting new authors. Now, you're not going to find any spaceships or overt SFnal content in her novel. But she's keenly interested in the fantastic, and told me during this interview that she includes some elements of the fantastic in all her novels. Well both of them, but that's a pretty impressive resume at this point. 'Wickett's Remedy' includes this notion of the afterlife, and the dead comment on the versions of events related by the living. Goldberg is using this device to comment on the fallibility of memory, to convey her idea that each of us creates his or her own personal mythology of what has happened to us to make us who we are. This mythology may or may not bear some resemblance to the actual events that transpired.

She took some of her inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov's 'Pale Fire', a book I tried to get this weekend up at the Mystery and Imagination Bookstore in Glendale. Their comment when I asked for the book was, "Oh...that's the tough one to find." It's certainly a favorite of the SF&F crowd. I know that Jeff VanderMeer holds it in high regard, and other SF writers as well. 'Pale Fire' appears to be an epic poem with some comments on the side. But it soon becomes clear that the comments are the novel, it's a novel of commentary. Readers who want to dip into one of the most important literary influences a bit behind the scenes of today's cutting edge literature will want to make the time to find and read it.

But Goldberg really surprised me when she started talking about Karl Capek's 'War With the Newts'. Capek is best known (she said), for coining the word "robot" in his early science fiction masterpiece 'RUR', or 'Rossum's Universal Robots'. 'War of the Newts', she explains, is about well...a war with huge, uh...newts. It reads like it was written yesterday, because Capek wasn't simply writing about huge, slimy monsters. He was writing about people, and huge slimy monsters simply gave him an ideal way to get at us. And Goldberg's fascinating notion of the afterlife gives her the same sort of wedge to get at a number of issues, as well as helping to make her novel an imaginative page-turner. Trust me, with the documented, real-life experiments they were doing on human beings, which Goldberg covers in her novel, you wont be able to put the book down, and you will experience that perfect SF frisson of knowing more than the characters know even as they speak with utter certainty of scientific matters.

No, I wont seek a Locus link for this audio interview with Ms Goldberg. I totally understand their take on this. But readers of this column wont be disappointed. Goldberg is a fascinating, lively speaker, The interview, which I've posted in MP3 and RealAudio formats, unedited -- because she was frankly perfect all the way through is compelling listening. Be sure to start only if you have 45 minutes or so to listen, because to my mind it's what NPR calls a driveway moment. Or a late lunch at the computer moment for many readers here. My take is that readers should save themselves some trouble and buy the book before listening to the interview. I can't imagine anyone walking away not wanting to hear more from Goldberg. And once that late-lunch moment has passed, you'll have to opt for the novel. SF or not, a great novel is a great novel and 'Wickett's Remedy' is definitely the cure for those suffering from a lack of great novels. It's probably not a condition many readers here suffer from, to be sure, but with flu season (and potentially quarantines enforced by martial law), it's probably best to stock up on this imaginative, subtly subversive novel.


10-20-05: Kris Saknussemm Visits 'ZanesVille'

Journey to the Center of the Mirth

I can't see the name of author Kris Saknussemm without thinking of Arne Saknussemm, the long-dead explorer whose manuscript serves as the starting point for Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'. That novel was probably one of the first science fiction works I read, and it lead to my life-long book collecting habit. I remember buying all the Verne and Wells books in these standardized little paperback editions in a bookstore on what would now be called a shopper's circle in Covina, California. In an utterly modern town not three miles from the San Gabriel mountains, mountains I did not believe were close enough to see for the first weeks when we moved there because the smog was so thick there was no hint of their existence, Verne's premise did not seem so outlandish. But that was back in the late twentieth century, and I was only a pre-teen. Hand-held video games were a science fiction concept that no writer I was reading had the foresight to talk about.

Here in the twenty-first century, where said hand-held video this-and-that have seemingly replaced books, Kris Saknussemm's 'Zanesville' (Villard Books / Random House ; October 17, 2005 ; $14.95) does not seem in the least bit outlandish. But its very publication, on the other hand, does seem to move into science fiction territory, the kind of science fiction that I might be a bit skeptical of. I mean, who in this day and age is going to believe that a 450-plus page novel of satiric, over-the-top literary science fiction could get published? With characters and a plot that do not lend themselves to viewing on a 3" by 2" screen, with a complex point of view and an imaginative verve that seems to eschew guys running around with big guns shooting monsters, you have to ask yourself: What were they thinking?

Apparently, they were thinking that there are still a few of us out there who, when faced with the idea of portable entertainment, still think, duh: book. Read.

'Zanesville' comes from the perfect background for readers of this column. Saknussemm is the kind of writer who has found publication in literary journals such as ZYZZYVA, The Antioch Review, The Boston Review, and The Hudson Review. One might be tempted to think that there is a whole lot of reviewing going on in this writer's life, and even if it's not the kind of reviewing we occasionally do around here, it is in fact literary. And to my mind, there's no better prep for writing a weird bit of science fiction than literary fiction. It seems to clear the mind of video games, except as a subject for ridicule.

And in a novel where the main character is accompanied across the American landscape some thirty years hence by "Dooley Duck" and "Ubba Dubba" come to life, I'm guessing that video games are not portrayed as the savior of the American way of life. Saknussemm tell us that, "My father was a Congregationalist minister who lost faith in the church for social and political reasons, wandered into psychotherapy and some alternative forms of counseling, only to wind up at the end of his life back in the rigid hierarchical confines of the Presbyterians." And that probably goes some small way to explain why Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, who is introduced in the opening of the novel himself becomes affiliated with the Millerites, that wonderful end-times sect that was, alas disappointed to find out that Apocalypse was not going to happen according to the calculations of its founder. Since you're reading a novel set in the near future, this intro comes as a bit of a shock, a pleasant one to my mind. Sitturd is haunted by the death of his identical twin, as was one of our favorite writers, Philip K. Dick. Unlike Philip K. Dick, he's sucked up by a red tornado and never returns. Well, until the novel begins and Elijah Clearfather wakes up in Central Park, some (I repeat myself for clarity) thirty years hence. Clearfather embarks on the obligatory picaresque journey across a landscape transformed beyond all recognition.

Meanwhile, back in what passes for non-satirical reality, Saknussemm suggests that his grandfather's journey to the center of the no, no NO! BAD RICK. Ahem. Saknussemm suggests that a major influence on this novel was his expatriate experience. "I left America in 1984 intending to be gone for two years," he says. "It turned into twenty." What this gave him was an outsider's perspective to match his homesickness, a pretty unique experience, and it's easy to see how this cleaves with the perspective of Clearfather.

So readers, please note. You've got a very Philip K. Dick-style novel by a literary novelist in a first edition paperback. To my mind, this better show up on the PKD prize reading list, even if it is not so likely to get a lot of SF-genre attention. I'm guessing that you'll have to wander over to the literary side of the aisle to pick it up, and the cover, while not bad, is not so striking as to shout out BUY ME, even if the face on the cover appears to be doing precisely this. Yes, you are getting yourself in for a 485-page novel of cataclysmic weirdness. What more could you ask for? A generous sense of humor accompanied by a bilious sense of outrage will do nicely. 'Zanesville' is not your usual novel, SF novel or usual anything else. Because Saknussemm has one other interest that really seals the deal. He's interested in mental illness, organic and self-induced via the drugs we take for pain and pleasure. And he tells us, "I've found the most successful treatment mechanisms are fiction and humor–how they link us back to other lives, other lights. When it comes to reprogramming your own mind, nothing is more powerful."

And that was Saknussemm, not Kleffel. Heck, maybe we should all have relatives who try to journey to the center of the earth.

10-19-05: Joe Abercrombie 'The Blade Itself'

The Thing About Fantasy

The text itself matters as well, folks. Show some imagination, puh-leeze!
The thing about fantasy, see, is that you can do what you want. It's a fantasy, all the restraints are off. But given that, so few authors seem to do anything particularly different. Veteran genre readers who feel a bit of dismay when something like Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' jumps on to the best seller list and wins all sorts of awards should understand. In a field of choices which seem to calibrate between 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'Conan', 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is really, truly different. Clarke does something rather new with fantasy, even as she offers up the familiar fantasy themes of magicians at war.

Compared to 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', everything else in the fantasy seems just like more of the same. But the thing about fantasy, see, is that there's lots of room for innovation. Take for example, the forthcoming wants-to-be-a-big-deal from Victor Gollancz, 'The Blade Itself' (Victor Gollancz / Orion ; May 18, 2006 ; £16.99 / £9.99) by Joe Abercrombie. Yes, it has all the familiar touchstones. You've got your barbarian, your nobleman, your torturer, and your Magi. Feh, right? Another calibration between LOTR and Conan?

Not quite. Because there's lots of room for innovation in fantasy, even when you put all the standard pieces into play. Abercrombie's innovation is pretty simple and very welcome.

He's got, not to put too fine a point on it, a bad attitude.

So you take all the standard-issue fantasy elements and simply look at them differently. I mean, it's a damned bloody world out there in fantasy land. Death on a stick. Abercrombie approaches the whole deal as if he were writing a sort of 1950's noir that takes places in a world where guns would be well, redundant. How much do you need a gun when everyone around you is carry a big damned old sword? And quest, schmest. Who has time to run and save the damned world looking for a king or some such dignitary when viciously slashed bodies are piling up all about you?

" The blade itself incites to deeds of violence," Homer informs us. And, apparently Joe Abercrombie. Abercrombie's fantasy is written with the kind of welcome bluntness that made Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon' such a welcome entry. Yes, Abercrombie's is in fact a fat fantasy. It proclaims itself to be 'The First Book of the Law'. Well, harrumph. That could go one of two ways. You could keep the nourish elements, imaginatively reborn into a standard fantasy setting. Or the standard fantasy elements could overrun the noir.

But Abercrombie is writing his work with the kind of verve that you just dont find in fantasy these days. There's a heavy-duty seriousness that weighs down most of the kings-in-common's-clothes fantasy that is entirely, happily absent here. There's a bit of the breath-of-fresh-air that makes Robert E. Howard's best 'Conan' stories appealing to this day. A sort of one-slash-at-a-time attitude. Turn this book to a random page and you'll find the sort of interrogation scene that, on one hand you could find in a bezillion generic bestseller-for-a-week fantasies. But the way Abercrombie writes it, it's more like a bad-cop, worse-cop interrogation from garishly-illustrated fifties noir. He takes everything you've read in fantasy and gives it a nice half-twist. No, it's not a total re-invention of the genre. But its certainly a fresh approach to familiar material. There's lots of room for innovation in fantasy, but there's so little of it that a breath of fresh air is a breath of fresh air, no arguing that.

I suggest that should you give 'The Blade Itself' one of those first-few-pages and then random-bits-here-and-there readings, you'll likely walk away with it in your hands. Clean, well manicured hands; blood-free, gun-free, sword-free. Aren't you lucky? The thing about fantasy see, is that it stays on the NOT side of reality. That's a good thing. As much as we may like to read about these matters, living them is another thing entirely. I will quickly and whole-heartedly admit that I prefer the blade itself to remain as part of the printed page.


10-18-05: Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Fifty Degrees Below'

Signs of Life

Winter weather gets you down.
The recent appearance of the mass market paperback edition of 'Forty Signs of Rain' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; August 2, 2005 ; $7.99) by Kim Stanley Robinson was itself a sign of the impending arrival of the sequel in hardcover. I'm happy to announce that Robinson is delivering the second installment to his series in a very timely manner. Thus, this week we have the arrival of 'Fifty Degrees Below' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; October 25 ; $25.00), and Robinson's work seems even more compelling.

Robinson was taking a bit of a risk when he addressed a topic as timely as global climate change in 'Forty Signs of Rain'. There's every chance that today's timely topic is tomorrow's telling deadweight. But in 'Forty Signs of Rain', Robinson wasn't just addressing global climate change. He was addressing an even touchier topic, that nebulous intersection of science and politics, and firing off what is supposed to be a trilogy.

'Fifty Degrees Below' follows hot on the heels of the trigger event that concluded 'Forty Signs of Rain'. As the title indicates, things have gotten a good deal colder in this little world of ours, even if this is the result of global warming. Leave it to Robinson to give you an explanation that is convincingly scientific as to why this is happening. But mostly what you can depend on here is not just a series of weather-related catastrophes. I'll let the dust jacket do all the work of spoiling the big surprises that Robinson rains down upon you.

Hell, er Washington freezes over.
No, the real catastrophes in Robinson's novels are the human mistakes that take place in the midst of lives too full to be lived well, in the midst of decisions that must be made based on the push-me-pull-you tides of capitalism rather than scientific data. Moreover, that scientific data is itself subject to those tidal forces. Nobody is eager to do the right thing unless it happens to lead to immediate profits. Investment in the future is apparently for sappy families, and even those who are in those families, such as Charlie and Anna Quibler, cannot afford to base their scientific judgments on what's going to keep us alive and comfortable in the long term. Not if there are significant dollars to be made in the here-and-now.

Of course, none of this is surprising in the current climate. We're surrounded by so much short-term cash-grabbing, it's starting to feel that the most important lessons we learned in elementary school were not how to play together, but how to come out of the penny stomp with that shining circle of copper. What Robinson brings to the party is a fascinating level of detail and insight into the minds of those who must resolve the conflicts between science and politics, and the increasing complications of their own lives.

To this end, Charlie and Anna Quibler are a perfect sort of Ma and Pa Cleaver to venture forth into the bold new future. Readers can count on human interests propelling the action as much as nicely-turned, well-described and theoretically possible disasters. Suffice it to say that one would be well advised to stock up on snowshoes regardless of where you live. Unless of course, youre resident of that inferno where ice cubes will be served on the days when politicians become willing to act on behalf of the betterment of the world as opposed to their donors. It may be freezing in a lot of places, but not so far down as to warrant an expectation that politicians might really change. Fortunately, the way things are headed, it looks like the politicians themselves may experience a bit of freezing. Oh, the humanity. In the interim, one can count on compelling, thought-provoking page-turners from Kim Stanley Robinson. These are indeed the kinds of books that should be on the bestseller lists. But as the weather reports indicate, no ice cubes down there yet, so dont hold your breath. But do visit the bookstore while you wait.


10-17-05: A Print Interview With Myla Goldberg

Flu Season

Photo by C. Jason Little.
Even as many of you read this, I'm in San Francisco, interviewing Myla Goldberg in person. However, in advance of the audio interview, I've got an email interview I did last week. This is an outstanding, beautiful and often terrifying novel. Enjoy this interview; there's more to come.

RK: Your new novel, Wickett's Remedy, is set during the 1918 flu pandemic. Why did this capture your imagination?

MG: I was reading a NY Times article listing the worst pandemics of all time, and the 1918 influenza epidemic was one I hadn't heard of. Having always had a morbid streak, I immediately felt the need to look into it and the more I learned, the more shocked I became that I had never heard of it before, and that it seemed to have been wiped from public memory. My fascination both with the epidemic and its effacement from mass consciousness provided twin engines that drew me into writing the book.

RK: The other world event during this time, was World War I. Tell us a little about your work in the novel contrasting the battles; nation versus nation and mankind versus virus.

MG: I was struck, as I did research and began writing by our differing attitudes toward cataclysms that we, as humans, create (like war) and ones that we are helpless before (disease). I think that part of the reason the 1918 epidemic was forgotten over time was the fact that we, as people had no say in either its coming or its going, while the war is so widely written about, studied, and emblazoned into our public consciousness because we did both create and undo it.

RK: Why did you choose Boston as the location of your novel?

MG: The research directed me there. Boston was a major disembarkation and return point for doughboys leaving to fight and returning from Europe. It is commonly thought that the 1918 flu began in milder form in the US, and was exported to Europe by doughboys going off to fight, where it mutated into a more virulent form in the trenches and then was spread across the world by returning soldiers, including American soldiers returning to Boston's Commonwealth Pier, which was one of the country's major naval barracks. Also, the human experiments that occur toward the end of the book actually took place in Boston Harbor, which pretty much sold me on Boston as my setting.

RK: Tell us about researching the novel; where did you find the newspapers from which you obtained the articles? Where did you get the details about South Boston and its environs?

MG: The research I did for the book was incredibly fun; it took me to three major libraries (New York, Boston, and the Library of Congress), as well as to Boston itself for literary location scouting. For the first three years of the five-year process, I only read fiction that had been written before 1945, both to help me get into the mindset of the times and to prevent contemporary prose styles from infecting my writing. The newspaper articles I found by reading microfiche of period papers; my South Boston info came from two excellent first-person accounts of Southie life, which I list at the end of the book in my Author's Note. My two favorite pieces of research involved tracking down the actual government documentation of the Gallups experiments at the Library of Congress, and uncovering newspapers that had been written by and for naval prisoners at a Massachusetts naval prison in 1918.

RK: Tell us about the Gallup Island Experiment and how it fits into your novel.

MG: When I learned that experiments in flu transmission had been conducted on human volunteers, I was simultaneously fascinated and appalled. My writing tends to be driven by curiosity and I really wanted to try to figure out what would lead a man to volunteer to be infected by a flu that was killing huge numbers of people.

RK: Why did you choose to interweave the history of a soft drink into your novel about the pandemic?

MG: From the outset of the writing, I knew that I wanted to address the faultiness of memory, both individual and collective. To that end, I knew I wanted both a period story and a contemporary story so that I could play one off the other to show up the way memories change over time. Since I was dealing with disease, the idea of a patent medicine came to me almost immediately, and sodas are the descendents of patent medicines, so it seemed like a natural narrative bridge to span the two eras.

RK: Your novel features a very interesting narrative style. Could you comment on the inclusion of letters, the various points-of-view and the news articles? Did you start out with the raw narrative of Lydia and interlace the other elements, or did they pop up in the sequence of the novel?

MG: While I was doing lots of period reading, I came across John Dos Passos USA Trilogy, in which he uses lots of different kinds of texts to tell his story. I was struck by the freedom this approach allowed -- using it you could include lots of different voices and perspectives, which provides the story with a much broader canvas. This was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do with Wickett's, so I decided I would use Dos Passos' work as a structural model for the book. Meaning, basically, that I ripped him off.

RK: You develop a wonderfully creepy notion of the dead offering margin notes to the narrative. What novel is the direct inspiration for this device?

MG: My inspiration was Nabokov's Pale Fire.

Her new novel about the 1918 flu pandemic.
RK: Could you discuss your notions of the afterlife in Wickett's Remedy? Were they developed for the novel?

MG: The afterlife, as I see it in the book, is a void filled with sound, basically the sound of everyone who is now dead whispering their lives, their concerns, or the unanswered questions that continue to nag at them. It's a vision that is definitely specific to the book.

RK: We've seen quite a bit of fear recently with regards to the potential for the bird flu to become the source of a pandemic equal to that of the Spanish flu in 1918. Do you think the fear is justified? Do you think we should be using the Army on American soil in the event of an outbreak?

MG: What happened in 1918 could certainly happen again, and just as was the case then, we have very little means to control or stop it if it did - though the detection infrastructure set up by the WHO definitely gives us an edge over the folks in 1918, who had yet to discover viruses. I do think that it's probably a matter of when and not if, but it could be this year or seventy years from now. Fearing it isn't particularly useful; it'll either happen or it won't and if it does, hopefully the WHO will identify it in time to produce an effective vaccine. I'd rather spend my time thinking about things I can actually do something about.

RK: You've just seen your first novel, Bee Season developed into a film. Could you talk about what you did, and how it feels to see your imagination brought to life made concrete on the screen?

MG: I didn't have anything to do with Bee Season's adaptation to the screen. It's both a wonderful and incredibly surreal thing - wonderful because they wrote me a very nice check and because it means more people will read the book; surreal because writing (and reading) a book is an incredibly personal and private experience and it's just so weird to imagine someone trying to translate that into a mass visual form like film. On a certain level it feels like an intrusion - I think for the same reason that a reader is often disappointed on seeing a film of a book they like. We've got our own personal ideas about characters and settings and it's impossible for a film to capture that; this is even more the case when the book being adapted is your own.