Total Oblivion

"A fast-paced, suspenseful dystopian picaresque, part Huck Finn and part bizarro-world Swiss Family Robinson..."



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Skinny Dipping

Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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Goblin Mercantile Exchange

Futures, Options, and Swaps (the weblog of Alan DeNiro)

free story: Taiga, Taiga, Burning Bright

In the spirit of the season-well, kind of-I’ve put up on my site the closest thing that I’ve ever written to a Christmas story. Well, sort of. “Taiga, Taiga, Burning Bright” originally appeared in the great anthology Bandersnatch. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 2:21 pm » Fiction » No Comments

MMORPG Eschatology

What happens when a shared world dies? Witness the quiet, strange, unsettling end of The Matrix MMORPG.

A grand finale was planned where all online players were to be crushed, however due to a server glitch, most players were disconnected before the final blow came. What had been envisioned as a last hurrah transpired as a gruesome slide show. High pings and low framerates caused by the developers giving out advanced powers (with graphically demanding effects) and abilities to all players, coupled with the flooded chat interface, meant many players were unable to experience the final event as intended.

I do love half-empty online spaces, which is one of the reasons I enjoy MUDS-they give the solitude and space of, say, the early Infocom games where you are alone in an underground empire or a giant spaceship. In an MMORPG, when someone pulls the plug, there are always going to be consequences.

Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 11:04 pm » Games » No Comments

Quintet (1979) review (and a n.b. on THX1138)


This movie is ready for a reassessment. Take the film on its own terms-if you are expecting high science fiction Mannerism you are going to be sorely disappointed. People have talked about the one-dimensionality of the characters-but the whole POINT of the film is that humanity, at this decrepit, terminal stage of their existence, has become one-dimensional. It’s more than the need for survival. The people living in this icy city have literally lost the ability to feel…anything, both individually and collectively. Essex (Paul Newman) is in this world but not of it; having ventured south for a decade and come back to the city with his lover, he sees just how much what society is left has devolved.

The lack of younger actors also gives this a compelling, otherworldly feel, similar to Children of Men-but fast forward that movie twenty years in the future. Because of the breakdown in society, no one is younger in the city than their mid to late 40s-indeed, Essex’s wife who is in her mid to late thirties maybe, is seen as a marvel in the city. Maybe this lack of young actors is why American audiences responded so poorly to it. The younger the better for American sensibilities-so to create this world as it was made was truly a bold choice, and in that sense, the casting of Newman is perfect.

The sets and the cinematography are absolutely amazing-again, taken in terms of what the movie is trying to do (create a metaphor for the game of Quintet), it absolutely works. The weird isolation, the dogs, the broken down architecture and the ice-you get the sense that this city was once, when the cataclysm started, humanity’s last great hope, and the current residents are living in a shell of that dream.

So few American science fiction movies actually put their money where their mouth is with the worldbuilding-to create a consistent worldview and stick with it. Most visual SF is based on spectacle-and that’s great, I like well-done spectacle too. But to decry this movie because it is not a spectacle is kind of missing the point. I knew nothing of the maligned critical history of this film and was quietly blown away by this minor masterpiece-and I think more than 30 years from its creation, Quintet has a lot to tell us about our age of environmental devastation and desensitization.

p.s. It’s interesting watching George Lucas’ THX1138 some time after Quintet. The color palette-all those whites-seems to have bled between the two movies, and the set design (for the former, the as-yet-uncompleted BART tunnels; for the latter, the detrius of Montreal’s 1967 World Fair) has some uncanny similarities in parts. Though, of course, the world of THX1138 is divided from Quintet’s by one major chasm: time. Not between 1971 and 1979 but the epochs of the two movies. THX1138 is still living in a “city of the future”, albeit one sheltered away from the raging red sun. Quintet’s city is THAT city’s dying embers, when barely anything works, and everyone waits to die. They are different tropes of nihilism-one controlled from external (albeit shadowy and highly networked) forces and the other being devoured from the inside. Anyway, two seminal works of 70s science fiction, there.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 11:52 pm » Movies/TV » No Comments

Trust Them

I’m sure many in the Democratic Establishment are wondering why support and enthusiasm-which had surged in 2008-is now flagging for Democratic candidates. Why the money is drying up. Why the activists are out in lesser numbers.

I might be wrong, but stories like these might be part of the issue:

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) today filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s asserted authority to carry out “targeted killings” of U.S. citizens located far from any armed conflict zone.

The authority contemplated by the Obama administration is far broader than what the Constitution and international law allow, the groups charge. Outside of armed conflict, both the Constitution and international law prohibit targeted killing except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury. An extrajudicial killing policy under which names are added to CIA and military “kill lists” through a secret executive process and stay there for months at a time is plainly not limited to imminent threats.

Awesome! It’s good that these powers are even expanded more from the Bush era. And that “oversight” is extremely comforting:

“Whether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location,” says Koh [State Department legal adviser], “will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses.” This is a long way of saying “trust us.”

This is a monstrous policy that has not gotten the coverage it has deserved. And yet I am sure that Democrats are banking on the opposition being so crazy and delusional that they will be the only choice “by default.” (I’m too lazy to research this now, but I’d be interested to play the wind-back machine on Obama’s stance on drone killings on U.S. citizens during the campaign).

The point is that the ship of the overpowerful executive branch has long since sailed, and the shore is no longer in sight.

I fear that this not a ship of state we can rely on, as passengers, even in part. We are on this boat. Half the crew is itching for mutiny. The captains want to show they’re “tough”, that they’re in control. Meanwhile those in coach and steerage are getting more restless-and hey, at least the mutineers are showing signs of life.

Meanwhile, overhead, an unmanned drone soars, making its way to a nearby boat of enemies…

Everyone back to the buffets, the shows, the waterslides!

Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 1:02 am » Polis » No Comments

The First Apps

A great article on 18th century almanacs as ur-iPhones:

By now, I hope you’ll forgive the ahistorical slip that led me to enlist the iPhone as a way of imagining just how resourceful an early almanac could be. It was so much more than a book. Comparing it to the iPhone helps expand our vision about how an almanac worked and what it could do for its buyers. It wasn’t simply a compendium of reading material. Just as an iPhone connects users to an outside world and provides a feast of tools designed to make our lives easier, the almanac held the same promise. More than that, it was central to early American life and culture because it had so little competition. There was nothing at the local book shop that could do all the things the almanac did.

I don’t mean to suggest that almanacs did not contain anything worth reading. After all, Benjamin Franklin’s most famous parable linking time and money first appeared in the 1758 edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanac. And even if Jeremy Belknap did not consider Dr. Ames’s poetry any good, almanac-makers routinely borrowed material from the great English poets to “decorate” their almanacs. Others, including Ames and Franklin, sprinkled the calendar pages with proverbs and aphorisms.

(via Steve Himmer)

Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 7:36 pm » ?!?!?, Computers/Tech » No Comments

Version 2

(But wait there’s more. I’m writing prose as well, I swear. This is from a form known as a ballade, not to be confused with a power ballad.)

Version 2

What does it add? pearls, moon rob
Sounds; There calling forward my cousin…
forgiveness for all human mobs!!
(rapt>> apart in common muslin)
Garden resistant for the thoughts in
restoration; let me tether.
Will I be that gentle weather
unfired/At the crowd nearby?
Derringer molts, addresses nether;;
I live on: 1 Asterisk’s Eye.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm » Poetry » No Comments

The Whippoorwills (poem draft)

These poems, in between prose bouts, are helping me work through things that I don’t discern yet. The different yearnings couple with the disparate styles. One mood is not like the other. Quatrains between poems can be unalike as well. There are inside-out narratives that aren’t secrets.

The Whippoorwills

*first baptist air

The trees of Ohio are not in this guidebook/cross/hill
God, I try to be abandoned and bend
(There’s no way Is there no way?) I see
spaghetti dinners of Red Scouts and weep. tape/vice

drive out where I alewife. Living bark but
dead ravines. I soak. These whipoorwills think it’s
habitat pinata lovefeast
/indigo the way they

keep striving outward into their captures/what/why.
That’s where we are. You,
I’m not.
It’s not God I’m referring to here, Carrier, anymore.

Chains/wins/wine group the rain species of Ohioana.
The calumny
And I am leaving tomorrow without
my splintered send-off.

Either you won’t or my covenant can’t.
The plane/desire/drives
scratches out the
trees. So they wait. Either you won’t or

the folk of jars are trying too hard.
Somehow my gloss. Error
empowers information. Do you know/x/x?
We will travel wait-East, though lone.

*the continent rings

God wouldn’t die sparingly
so I could find the easiest
(It will not be so bad when it’s over.)
Awful courage in the midst

(…these broad and faceless connections where
everyone climbs into the Sweater
of the Wolf.) Deep admiration for math
solutions claws to one surface. I regret/

Whippoorwills have no conscience/appear scratched
True nightjars forgive too slowly the worst
thoughts In which they see the older
Ohio, die in wanton reserve

of You: sun, You do steer though far
The pilot, /(all the while foul)/
the lightless skull.

And more woodworking on the hill.
Though you won’t see anymore how it branches.
/turn this. This free caring has
blacktooth to throw away/a high mountain/a price.

As the spirit untrafficks its writhing
Be mirrored as the least gray,
be countless people also, state as much as
you can handle.

*lust’s nests

To hear and grace the one for you once
only, in a groan that falls away.
Then every year starts another blunt
You’re the ground comma. Or

your favorite song heard
only once and never spoken of again/hours.
Mid-beauty is environment/the most free
parking. But you’ve carried airports arc before. The

comic strip diseases enter history of sap biter.
Birds were here long before/absent but here
And I’m hundreds of miles… God doesn’t/mind
Oh wow, not what I meant at all.

*the claim

waiting for baggage-
you won’t know
I know less, it’s

less rule again, guess/wine
One life
starting, and

another is yet another
My attention misses
matter. Full and empty matter.
I heard your/weeping

volumes in the
foundation/replanted from Ohio.
Recorded vineyards/passing
They rotate Small from

sugarclouds, real in whippoorwills’
your cries. Give to stolen It
falls this wave, /the
next, loves in crumbs.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm » Poetry » No Comments

The Men (poem draft)

The Men

The men came out of the woods
And we were children
And didn’t know what to do to them
We watched them from the window
How would they die
In the cold
We thought
They were walking toward us
We closed the blinds
We are not here
The farmhouse is not here

The men put us in their overcoats
Speckled eggs we were in the overcoats
They took us back to the woods
In the woods there was a steeple
And cars
And an ice cream maker

The men were cold
We found our way out of the woods
The blinds fell
We held their hands

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 9:05 pm » Poetry » No Comments

Metroid: The Other M; or, the Girl with a Cannon for a Hand

Samus, Alone

When I look at various forms of criticism and reviewing-literary, music, etc.-and consider how moribund they can be at times, I take solace in the fact that it will never reach the nadir that gaming journalism seems to dwell in. As a whole. I am talking about the various organs that are there to ceaselessly promote product, to ensure that the surprises elicited in a game are unarticulated, to enthrall themselves-and presumably the audience-with cheap kills and thrills. Truly moribund. Though there are always exceptions.

There’s a new Metroid game out, called Metroid: The Other M. I haven’t played it. I have played the first two of the Metroid Prime games (though not finishing them) and I must have Metroid on my mind because I am playing Super Metroid on the Virtual Console now. Other M has received mixed-to-good reviews, and part of the complaint has been about the increase of cut-scenes and narrative.

“Ham-fisted controls and storytelling turn Samus into a clumsy blabbermouth…”

After years of silence, Samus now sure loves to talk, and we can’t find the ‘Off’ switch….But then, she does shut up, and the game takes over.

I came across this user review on Metacritic with someone with the handle of “Hynda”, and it was truly the most fierce and moving piece of writing on games I had ever read-it was so powerful, in fact, that it made me rethink why I enjoy certain games and not others. Here we go:

There is a lot of sexism around this game [and its bad reviews -ed.], people who says its the worst metroid ever are probably machist. They love games like metroid prime where you barely see samus body or face, you can only get to see her eyes so you feel related to her, she doesnt even talk, she got no personality, no soul, no life, she is just a puppet for the players, in this game Samus comes to life, and she is not a silent mad bounty hunter who wants to kill gods or anything, she is not like that crappy master chief or kratos, not even like that copy of Indiana jones called Nathan Drake. She is more than that, she is a human, like you and me, and like a human she got her weaknesses, she can die, cry, worry and respect others, she is sad all over the time and she covers her face with a visor because that way she can hide her sorrow, this is a story about a girl who wants to teach the universe you can be a good person and still be great, unlike those PS3 games where everyone is evil, bald or with giant muscles, samus is like the girlfriend everyone have had, but I know most of gamers dont even have a girlfriend that is why they cant understand that, they cant feel related, they only feel related to games with old bags smoking with a patch in their eyes(MGS4). Really dudes, you should try to get a girlfriend, maybe then you will understand this game greatness

The reviews depicting Other M as being egregiously hammy are pretty universal-and that might indeed be the case (I do want to pick up the game and give it a thorough go). And the some of the design decisions do seem misguided (e.g., in most Metroid games, Samus loses her awesome equipment by accident, which she has to retrieve over the course of the game. In Other M, she isn’t “authorized” to use certain pieces of equipment by her commanding officer until certain points of the game). The point is-or rather Hynda’s point is, because she said it better than I possibly could-is that, when we control a character, it’s not a simple matter of narrative linearity. It’s complicated. The identification of a character when playing him or her is complicated. We are complicit with whom we play. Nintendo is known for characters as empty urns-we don’t go to Mario for the vicissitudes of life as a plumber.

Clearly the preferred archetype for Samus is that of the strong, silent female warrior of the Metroid Prime Trilogy, and I have enjoyed those games (not as much as I have enjoyed Super Metroid, though). But to fill that urn-the very act of filling it-can create its own sort of power. The how and the execution of this can be either effective or ineffective, of course, but it seems that a lot of reviewers (and players) don’t want anything to do with this attempt at characterization. They just want Samus to shut up. And stop emoting.

It’s men, young men, who drive this industry. And on the screen the caricaturing of musculature, both male and female, is done for these young men in mind. The aforementioned puppets.

But in a game, the player has the choice to create control in a different way-to identify with a woman on the screen “who is like you and me.” And that feeling-feelings that many games try to viciously uproot with cheap spectacle-is a precious treasure indeed.

More later, when I play this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 11:06 pm » Games » 4 Comments

Later that year…

I’ve been a bad blogger but I’ve been busy! Very busy. Things have been germinating, things have been transcribed. It’s also been a month of soul searching and some measure of tranquility, which can’t be attributed (either way) from writing, from a good or ill perspective. But I still am writing, hither and tither.

In writerly news:

+I have a story coming out in Asimov’s sometime in the spring, called “Walking Stick Fires.” It’s solidly in the nascent tradition (or “tradition”) of infernokrusher fiction. (BTW, where is the original infernokrusher post on the Wayback Machine?)

+I’ll be visiting my alma mater The College of Wooster in a couple of weeks from the 27th to the 29th. I’ll be reading at Tuesday at 4…somewhere in Kauke Hall. Which will likely be completely unrecognizable to me. Needless to say this is a thrilling and humbling experience for me, to go back where I cut my teeth. I think it’s hard to overestimate how…uncouth and needlessly precocious I was when I ventured to C.O.W., and the place really gave me the tools I needed to write and think and be a better human being. I’ll also be at several classes, and teaching two master classes on speculative fiction.

+I’m also reading at Magers & Quinn in Uptown Minneapolis on October 8 at 7:30, with Adam Golaski and John Cotter.

+The kind folks at Parking Lot Confessional did an interview of me which just came out-thoughtful questions afoot!

Be good, people.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 10:25 pm » Life Studies » No Comments

Readercon sked

I’ll be at Readercon this weekend-if you are as well, say hello.

Here is the one panel I’ll be on…really looking forward to this one, noon on Friday.

“In Search of Lost Time: History and Memory in Historical and Speculative Fiction. Alan DeNiro, David Anthony Durham (L), Lila Garrott, Andrea Hairston, Howard Waldrop. “[I]n places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people—how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe—and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique—the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books”—Maryse Condé, explaining the genesis of her new novel Victoire: My Mother’s Mother. Clearly the best historical fiction attempts to bridge the gap between these two modes of understanding by bringing the richness of memory to the rigor of history. But it’s also a commonplace that history is the trade secret of speculative fiction. How is the interplay of history and memory in imaginative literature like and unlike that of historical fiction?”

Those are the kinds of questions I think about every day as I work on the new novel (set in the late 17th century).

I’ll also be reading at 2:30 on Friday for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 12:56 pm » Fiction » No Comments

Simone Weil and Social Media

My computer has been in the shop for, like, about a month because of a virus. I haven’t really had a backup computer suitable for blogging. UNTIL NOW.

OK, so it’s time to blog about the sorcery of social media.

This essay by Jim Grote adroitly puts together a case for Simone Weil‘s theory of “social force” as one that is extremely relevant in our highly networked times. Indeed her theories tie in astonishingly well (considering they were written before and during World War II) to how our social media works-in a manner that is almost purely reputation based. And reputation creates prestige:

Prestige “rests principally upon that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it.”

In manners of trivial angst, you can see how this works with Twitter “followers”: the desire for more, and the efforts to acquire more. People aren’t necessarily “followed” for what is being written but rather for the unit of reputation that that content creator represents.

Thus, according to Weil, the consolidation of power in these forms of media (or mediated forms) only increases reputation as the main unit of currency in our society. It’s a “post-modernization” of prestige (post-modern not in the lit-crit sense, but in a sense of work-machines and systems, e.g., from ticker tape to the computer). And this prestige imbalance (provided one buys into the system) creates power disparity:

We read, but also we are read by other. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest). A mechanical process. More often than not a dialogue between deaf people …. Every being cries out to be read differently.


Social force is bound to be accompanied by lies. That is why all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive action on the established order …. The social order, though necessary, is essentially evil, whatever it may be.

This isn’t to say that Twitter is some inherently diabolical force in our culture, but rather it is indicative of how the forces in our culture operate. There is no purity in this; it’s hard to break out of seeing “beyond” social media when it is an aether that surrounds us. I get excited when someone even vaguely semi-famous follows me on Twitter. Why is that? The craving for attention, for recognition is all-pervasive. A total repudiation of this would be unthinkable for many people, especially in Generation Y and younger. The New York Times had an interesting article of late about the possible rewiring of the brain that takes place because of the prevalence of gadgetry and communication tools at our (by “our”, meaning a certain segment of the developed world-certainly cell phone usage is not a developed-world phenomenon; I would contend however that the onslaught overload of the continually new is) disposal.

He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail.


When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.”

It’s that ‘little voice’ which interests me, bringing about complicity into the network. And, believe me, I know this pull. I struggle with it every day not only in my writing but in my everyday life. It was inculcated at a very early age (probably 8 or 9, when I got my first Texas Instruments computer?). Back to Simone Weil:

What, then, is the antidote? Weil puts forward an “out” that is neither capitalist nor Marxist. It involves attention, but real attention:

As Weil’s special vocation was to seek and find the forgotten, she considered the essence of both friendship, and social justice to be the act of “creative attention.” Her favorite parable was the Good Samaritan. The charity portrayed there she regarded as sacramental in character:

‘Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterwards do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention towards it …. The attention is creative. But at the moment when it is engaged it is a renunciation. This is true, at least, if it is pure. The man accepts to be diminished by concentrating on an expenditure of energy, which will not extend his own power but will only give existence to a being other than himself, who will exist independently of him …. Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist… He who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes does not exist. ‘

Both love and justice perceive what is invisible to the world of social ideologies, that is, the individual sufferer. True attention literally creates personality in the sufferer. Far from leading to political quietism, Weil’s philosophy of “creative attention” leads to authentic political action.

What’s interesting about this from a standpoint of poetics or aesthetics, particularly narrative-prose aesthetics, is that fiction is also a process of “breathing life” into a stranger. The writer creates both the stranger and ground he or she stands upon-and then the stranger becomes “known.” In this, writing creates… “a ‘personal’ existence for that individual.” In the real world, in compassion, in giving life to relationship, we are in essence making that person exist for us. (How much of the day is spent amongst simulacra?) This is what is meant by the “depth” of a character-it is pointing toward the character’s character, the innate yet rather ineffable quality that comes about when a character comes alive in a book. And this, perhaps, is why the written arts are so crucial, and why I do worry that the shallowness of attention in our current culture is making the need for fiction obsolete.

Not because of length of prose, or even difficulty of reading (although that certainly plays a part) but because people would rather not get closer to each other. Even if it’s an imaginary other.

One final note, about social media and the sorcerous (I did promise that at the beginning of the post, didn’t I??). For Weil, the “Beast” of social media accretes power to the powerful by deception. Media manipulation by powerful conglomerates and spokespeople and celebrities. One of the most profound books I read in the last 12 months was Eros and Magic in the Rennaisance by Ioan P. Culianu, which involves:

how magic in the Renaissance was “a scientifically plausible attempt to manipulate individuals and groups based on a knowledge of motivations, particularly erotic motivations. In addition, the magician relied on a profound knowledge of the art of memory to manipulate the imagination of his subjects. In these respects, Culiano suggests, magic is the precursor of the modern psychological and sociological sciences, and the magician is the distant ancestor of the of the psychoanalyst and the advertising and publicity agent.”

I think the interplay between Weil and Culiano here is extremely apparent. I’ll try to touch on Eros and Magic, and Giordano Bruno, in a future post.

Late note: I have to add this excerpt from a review by John Crowley of a book about Culiano’s mysterious murder (well, it’s a long story). But this is the important part:

Culianu distinguishes between two types of polity: the magician state — such as the United States or Italy, where he lived when he came to the West — and the police state. The police state becomes a jailer state, “changing itself into a prison where all hope is lost,” repressing both liberty and the illusion of liberty in order to defend an out-of-date culture in which no one believes. It is bound to perish. The magician state, on the other hand, can degenerate into a sorcerer state, providing only the illusion of satisfaction, keeping the controls hidden; its faults are too much subtlety and too much flexibility. “Yet the future belongs to it anyway,” Culianu says. “Coercion and the use of force will have to yield to the subtle processes of magic, science of the past, of the present, and of the future.”

That sounds like the “Social Beast” to me.

Monday, June 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm » Fiction, Polis, Religion/Logos » No Comments

St. Louis reading tomorrow!

Hey folks, if you happen to be from St. Louis and reading this, I’ll be reading there tomorrow at 7pm with some other folks as part of the Exploding Swan reading series. It will be at a farm. In the city. Precisely, Slow Rocket Farm on 1944 Cherokee St. So I do hope you can make it and swing by!

Friday, May 21, 2010 at 12:13 am » Total Oblivion » No Comments

liontoothseed & blackberrytattoo

The dandelion is a noble flower, mimicking the tooth of a lion. It is not its fault that there are far too many of them, populating my lawn in their multitudes.

A commonality doesn’t have to destroy beauty.

It’s also a shame that on de-weeding chemicals, on the labels, blackberries are considered “weeds.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 11:26 pm » Life Studies » 2 Comments

The Caged Tulip


While gardening yesterday, I came across a vegetational oddity that was both grotesque and poignant. I was weeding the lower tier of our terraced garden, where our radiant tulips are in full apotheosis. However, near one of them, a suet feeder (i.e., a small rectangular cage) somehow had fallen into the garden thickets. Lost in the snow, most likely. And many of the leaves of the particular tulip that was closest to the feeder had sprouted into and through the cage, so that they were packed inside the narrow confines.

I did my best to extract the leaves with a minimum of damage, but my hands were clumsy. It was like extracting a vine through a keyhole. Some I got out, some I didn’t. The tulip lived, but it wasn’t pretty-or rather, one set of its leaves weren’t pretty.

When I was in high school, my main form of writing switched from fiction to poetry. Most of my works of fiction were self-aggrandizing fantasies involving myself and classmates in interplanetary adventures of one sort or another, or based on whatever ideas I could crib from the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (hey, nothing wrong with that!). I would daydream alot and concoct and sometimes write down what I concocted. But it was all escape, and escape wasn’t solving the problems of high school I was having, which were numerous and seemingly insurmountable. Painfully shy, imbued with pretty much no self-confidence, and in an all-male Catholic prep school that was absolutely merciless in its bullying towards those in the first two categories…well, you can do the math. It was absolute hell-I was in the wrong place in the wrong time, and didn’t have enough guts to extricate myself from the situation and go to a school with peers who wouldn’t seek to destroy me every single day. I was stubborn and stuck it out, trapped.

It was in this pressure cooker that I really started to write poetry for the first time in my sophomore year. I honestly don’t know how I got through freshman year without it. This pain directly transferred itself onto the page in a direct relationship. I got out a blank notebook and started addressing my tormentors, the captors of my spirit; address the walls and blockages , to say what I couldn’t say to anyone else. Was the poetry horrible? Oh yeah, of course. It couldn’t have been any different. I had read Yeats, came across a few others in whatever random oratorical speaking event or English class I had stumbled across, and of course song lyrics from New Order, The Replacements and the like. But-and I don’t know if it was any different for anyone else-the lyric mode of address managed to reorient how I saw the world, and allowed me to create hope (I miswrote this as “home”, which works too) when there was none in sight.

Of course, things did get better, slowly and surely, and I started to accrue craft and some measure of experience and confidence. And then, sometime in college, the Rilkean decision to commit my life to writing, come hell or high water. With lots of both since then-not there haven’t been other torments, and other painful and spectacularly bad choices, but I was fighting for my soul in high school.

And I guess when you actually fight for your soul do you come to believe that the soul exists.

In that sense, then, deep down I’m still that same kid-vulnerable, using the sentences at my disposal to try to unlock the cage of my own insecurities and gently extract the leaves. And I do suspect that a lot of us in this particular field (let me know if this is being presumptuous, or not applicable to your situation!), with our own adolescent cauldrons that are only remembered in glimmers, such as right before falling asleep or stumbling upon one of your tormentors on Facebook. But these are our creation myths, the common soil that we have planted our roots in, the lyric of struggle and flowering in the spring sun. I can’t pretend for a second that I’m not who I’ve been.

Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm » Fiction, Life Studies, Poetry » 3 Comments

forays into video

just goofing around.

Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 2:57 pm » Poetry » No Comments

Takeaways (2)

It’s important to remember that, in the modernist mode of being a writer, publishing is publishing and writing is writing. The “making public” of writing can happen at a later, compositional (and typographical) phase-type needs to be set in place. In this instance, writing is a direct conduit from thought, and publishing is one step removed from that, at least:

thinking -> writing -> publishing

You could even put “dreaming” before thinking here in this lame flowchart (or the unconscious; thinking that we’re not aware of).

However, in the “cloud” of social media, the flow changes a little bit:

thinking -> writing/publishing

The compositional/typographical tools become the writing tools; a “press to publish” compositional field narrows the range and timespan of an embryonic “writing” stage to one that is more “in the public.” This can be demonstrated any number of ways, such as the collaborative/tribal give-and-take between an author and audience that was talked about in the last post.

The potential problem isn’t with the writing in this role per se (although this can lead to bad writing of a different sort than the bad writing of the traditional model). The problem is that it binds thought more closely with publishing. It has the potential to have the writer willingly cede her or his thoughts to the whims of the marketplace. Now, sure, it could be argued that that happens all the time; writers thinking of projects that will sell, or whatever. Nothing inherently wrong with that. But writing is the nether-dreamworld acting as an intermediary and buffer between our private thoughts and the interactions we have. That is where, to a large extent, it gains its restorative power: to remind the reader of an inner life, separate from the bounds of a commercial world we are all, to one extent or another, trapped in. (This can be intimated as “mere” escape or the multilayered pleasures of immersive worldbuilding.) Worse still is the potential creeping of the “commercial network” into the true wilds of the unconscious, so that we don’t realize that we really don’t want what we want.

The point is not to say that great art can’t be made within a hypertexted, collaborative space. The point is, rather (or one of them, at least) is that attitude of short term, tactical gains in a marketplace-with these new tools that can shrink the bandwidth of a writer’s private lexicon-can potentially yield mere empty interconnectedness, without durability or the idiosyncratic vision of a writer that might be, in the end, his or her only true hallmark.

The early pulp writers were not great writers, for the most part, yet they put their hearts into their work, and their stories had high-impact and were encoded (encrypted, if you will) with a high level of cultural impact for future generations. They were networked, after a fashion, with the fan community, but were also for the most part isolated voices (the poignancy of written letters also is an instance of the marriage of thought and writing).

From The Exploit by Galloway and Thacker (truly a great book):

The expectation is that one is either online or not. There is little room for kind of online or sort of online. Network status doesn’t allow for technical ambiguity, only a selection box of discrete states. It is frustrating, ambiguity is, especially from a technical point of view. It works or it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it should be debugged or replaced. … One way to fix the ambiguity is to be “always on,” even when asleep, in the bathroom, or the unconscious. All the official discourses of the Web demand that one is either online and accounted for, or offline and still accounted for.

If we give away the store (our reserves of who we are), if we give our selves, what are we really receiving in return?

Friday, April 2, 2010 at 12:29 am » Fiction » No Comments

Absence and Dreams, Roots and Branches (poem)

(these poems are just drafts, but in some nether-space of feeling they are both complete and incomplete)

Absence and Dreams, Roots and Branches

Here’s a chalice.
I’m in Dixie.
is much scarier
than “alchemists”
say. It doesn’t
ever happen.
Electrical cords
A screen-saver
comes over
the eyes: clouds
mangy cover the
mountains. They
are so reasonable.
Thieves also
go on vacation,
but they don’t -
they just
don’t — see you
coming. And
giving. I’ve doused
the brochure on the
American anchoress
in a hotel sink.
And the little soaps
won’t wash out… Some
where in a door’s
county a lye
archon is baptized.
Here all buildings that
matter are white.
A brook
solves silently.
The book will
often be written
struckthrough, carried
off by
powerlines. Clear-cut
forests will become
growth and utter pythons
in the wilderness
of math. (A rail +
a rail + dogwood)
At the x-roads unknowing,
I eat my
breakfast: congregation and
dropsy, kneeled to
the bone, shovel-
ready. The persimmons
in the parking
lot scrawl: Bus
your own cups,
then again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm » Poetry » No Comments


OK, hopefully this will help.

I found this snippet on a book panel re: SXSW that I thought was illuminating in regards to some of the attendant issues of authorship and culture that I’ve danced around in previous posts:

# An author is no longer an individual working in a room alone, but the leader of an online “tribe” of followers –- the people who comprise the author’s audience. Several example kept coming up, wine guy Gary Vaynerchuck, author of Crush It!, business guru Seth Godin; and Kroszer’s favorite example, The Pioneer Woman, who “could organize a tour on her own without the help of a publisher.” The consensus, from another panel –- “Scoring a Tech Book Deal” was that a potential author needed a minimum of 5,000 Twitter followers. [this social calculus is pretty funny --ed.]
# For non celebrities, social media is the way most authors will get this tribe. This can be difficult for some traditional authors. [emphasis mine]

This goes far beyond paper book vs. digital book. This is a fundamental change in the way text (to use the broadest sense of term) is constructed. We are indeed entering a true post-Romantic era, with many attendant positives and negatives that come with any seismic change. And these changes will absolutely change the content of fiction, as well as other disciplines. This is, in itself, nothing that revelatory. Probably thousands of others have said this is happening, or will happen, over the last 15 years or so.

The problem is that the tribe isn’t always right. God knows I love engaging with readers and other writers, but what, exactly, are the parameters of these pseudo-nano-states? I don’t want to take this metaphor too literally (obviously, unless we are in the real of interpersonal writerly experiments, most writers are still going to be “individuals working in a room alone.”). We are not in a troubadour era of oral culture. This interdependence for the written culture of reading silently (and in relative spatial isolation) is a drastic change.

And yet, to move it into the realm of fiction, and partic. speculative fiction (of all stripes) what does this entail for the content of stories? The subject matter? (Looking at the matter as a living, tactile thing?)

In other words, can the thoroughly modernist concerns of our fiction be served by this new world of tribalism?

Because, like it or not, the structures and “information embedding” of the stories themselves are still thoroughly Modernist. Ideally, the stories and novels that are brought forth as “the best and the brightest” in our field pay at least lip service to concerns such as, but not limited to: characterization, emotional resonance, the elicitation of surprise, immersion, perhaps even a sense of the secular numinous. This is where the Romantic bleeds into the Modern (using Poe as the pivot): the crucible of our fictions that have beginnings, middles, and ends.

And yet, the delivery of these stories is increasingly brought about by a play of surfaces: social media juice, buzz, and linkage; for a purely mundane example, I think about the open calls by people to nominate their story or novel on their blogs, tweets, etc. This is purely on the realm of horse trading, which has always existed-but it’s existing, perhaps for the first year ever in the SF/F field, in a completely different way than ever before in 2010, and the reason why this is the case is perhaps illuminated by the quote from the beginning of this post.

Perhaps it’s just a lagging indicator, and our storytelling forms will, in time, embrace different ways to deliver prose that matters in different ways than we thought possible. Perhaps. And this would indeed be a recalibration of the field that somehow manages to find the sweet spot between narrative depth and structural uncertainty. But until then, it’s “old wine in new barrels.” And the writer’s relationship to his or her materials-i.e., the space of a social media-is one of crucial importance. But as of now, in this time of transition, it’s really the “worst of both worlds”-the two worsts being:

1. the 1930s-1940s Golden Age notion of being a “pro”, which entails churning out quantitative work at all costs, cultivating status of being a “pro”, being ruthless toward aesthetic indeterminism.

2. the early 21st century branding of “self” in the hyper-public sphere of cyberspace (which very might look and feel like a real Self!), inculcating oneself with favors through the social network, embracing conglomerations and alliances of various tribes together to affect short-term gains in the field.

Finally, it has to be asked-what is the ultimate goal of the self-described digerati with literature in the first place, as a class? What is their use with literature? I honestly don’t know, and perhaps it is my bewilderment, or my own density of this issue, that drives me to explore this.

Maybe I’m writing this because I have deep misgivings which are my own and mine alone. I see, along the edges of sight, this ruthlessness creep up and pounce. I see takedowns and pettiness and it isn’t pretty. There have even been occasions when throughout the years I haven’t been on my best behavior myself. Writing isn’t necessarily a field in which to “feel justice” or equanimity. I do, however, think that this aforementioned tribalism gives a sense of false equanimity, false democracy. Which isn’t the same as community or truth. Where I do feel the need for truth is in my own voice-and that is certainly my “early Renaissance humanism” at work. (It took me many years to realize that I’m not a postmodernist. Imagine that.)

And I want other writers, especially ones just starting out, to realize that there are other ways to go about becoming a good writer besides getting 5,000 Twitter followers (okay, this is a metaphor…mostly), or getting one’s tribe up and running before going deep inside oneself and finding out what you need to say-what you really need to say, with gnarled persistence, and, yes, plenty of alone time.

Monday, March 22, 2010 at 11:26 pm » Fiction, Life Studies » 3 Comments

Reading Tonight at UVA Bookstore

As noted on my Appearances page (quick, look above you), I’ll be reading w/ three other fabulous writers under the aegis of “The Ways We Come of Age”, 6:00 at the UVA Bookstore. I’ll be around all weekend in town, and at the Author’s Reception for the VA Festival of the Book, so feel free to say hi. This is an honor and privilege for me, having received my MFA at Virginia when I was a wee lad of 23; I’ve grown (well, I hope) a lot since then, but I’ll always treasure that time in Charlottesville and the mentors and friends I had there. And it’s great to be back again.

On the Appearances page, you can see where else I’ll be roaming next week: Richmond, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Asheville! Also, starting in Richmond one other thing that I wanted to do is a real-life extension of what I’ve been doing online and that is fundraising for Mercy Corps. This blog post here talks a little bit about the online efforts, but essentially: Mercy Corps is a fantastic organization that works all around the world to better the lives of ordinary people. (In particular, you can read about what Mercy Corps is doing in Haiti:

So anyone that happens to come by the reading in the flesh and makes a donation of at least $5 will receive an impromptu micro-story written for them, then and there, set in the world of Total Oblivion, More or Less. I’ll also take requests-if you want a few sentences about your uncle, your dog, whatever…I can do that. And you don’t even need to buy a copy of the book (although if you DO, I’d be more than happy to inscribe it in the pages therein). Of course I’m still fundraising online as well, so if you can’t make it you can still participate and I will send you a little story either by email or postcard!

Thanks all!

Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 3:20 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments