On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Our First Giveaway: 1945 Edition of The Dunwich Horror!

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Howdy regulars and new folks! We’re launching a giveaway for this cool 1945 Bart House edition of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. We’ll keep signups open until November 31st, then send the book to the winner – so you can keep it for yourself, or give someone a great Christmas gift!

Enter Our Giveaway!

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When you sign up for the drawing, we’ll also add you to our mailing list. We’ll send you a bimonthly content digest and newsletter, covering the world of weird fiction and culture. We’ll be doing the first one in a couple of weeks, and trying to create something that everyone enjoys, based on feedback from our early subscribers.

You’ll also get another cool treat for signing up – in a few weeks, we’ll be offering a free ebook to new subscribers. You’ll be given access to that when it goes live, if you’re already on the list.

(Also: When we pick a winner, we’ll reach out for your address so we can mail out the book.)

Capsule Review: SP4RX, Wren McDonald

SP4RX Wren McDonald Akira

NoBrow press is a generally amazing home for weird visual material in a sci-fi or fantasy vein (and now, it seems, of a line of kid’s volumes for hipster parents who want to warp their seed from birth). But they have a pretty minimalist house style, so when Wren McDonald’s SP4RX comes billed as a “stoner Akira,” it’s no big surprise that doesn’t encompass the meticulous, almost tactile virtues of Otomo Katsuhiro’s landmark work.

You might think, in fact, that “stoner Akira” is a little redundant – but Akira is more of a cheap-speed jam, with all those fine lines and hyperviolent deaths. SP4RX has a similar techno-dystopian setting, and a similar fight against authoritarian evil, but it’s all a lot more laid back. The drawings are cartoonish and approachable, though still occasionally evoking a sense of wonder at the great/awful future.  And the dialogue is of the affectless punk variety, lowercase, minimal punctuation, offhand. The sort that resists intensity.

What you get instead of that Akira intensity is a certain stoned charm, as a hacker hero and friends, including a cute/dangerous robot, work their way through a straightforward but relevant plot about class and the threat automation poses to workers. Some of the scenes are really fun, and you get to see a lot of bad guys blown up in very satisfying ways.

I could see this being a bingeworthy ongoing series, and in many ways this volume looks and feels like the setup for one (though unfortunately outside of Japan, it’s tough to pull off). The line art and simple monotone coloring would make it easy to churn out a lot of pages, and it’s the kind of thing I could zone out with on the couch for many, many hours. The current volume, at about 120 pages, really seems to barely get you in the zone before it’s over, but it’s a warm and fuzzy ride while it lasts.

AMREADING: M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

I’ve just finished M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which I picked up for a very well-spent $12.50 from Sarasota’s pretty awesome Parker’s Books last week. It’s a great piece of work on its own, but particularly interesting to me because it was Harrison’s third novel, published in 1974 – and there’s no contemporary writer whose artistic evolution is more fascinating, challenging, and inspiring to me than Harrison’s.

If you’re not familiar with Harrison, don’t beat yourself up. He’s a very unfairly lesser-known member of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, centered mainly in Britain, and also including Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Like Delaney, he started his career working pretty firmly in the mold of adventurous sci-fi, then went with great determination in sometimes extremely strange directions. He’s most frequently compared to Moorcock, but at his most weirdly adventurous – A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium – Harrison creates more hallucinatory worlds and more convincingly acidic characters than Moorcock, using language that simultaneously pushes the boundaries of sensibility and penetrates the truth.

What’s even more interesting about Harrison – to a writer, at least – is that after pushing things so far into the formally and substantively bizarre in the Viriconium books, he took a rather drastic turn into more subdued psychological realism, then returned to sci-fi with slightly more conventional novels like Light – which is, incidentally, a fair preview of Anne Leckie’s recently highly praised Ancillary series.

In short, he’s a master at multiple styles, and reading his mature work is a sure way for a writer to get discouraged. But what about the earlier books?

The Centauri Device is, on one level, quite encouragingly straightforward. The essence of the plot is not just spare, but clichéd – the last living member of an alien race is also the only key to operating an ancient superweapon, and several factions vie to capture or control him. The central character is also a fairly standard-issue Space Rogue, and the factions rotating around him are Space Empires, Space Rebellions, and Space Religions. It’s fun, quick, and, structurally, not particularly ambitious.

But in the details of Centauri, there are clear signs of what Harrison would deliver in A Storm of Wings six years later – strange poetry, bizarre imagery, and most of all, characters that by design don’t live up to their roles as heroes. In Centauri, that’s John Truck, the secretly-last-of-his-race who, though he shows a few flashes of concern and initiative, is for most of the novel a passive layabout, putting his greatest effort into avoiding responsibility.

But the factions battling to control Truck are even less appealing than he is, a collection of bullies and manipulative zealots. The sole (maybe) exception is a crew of anarchist pirates, who seem to have laudable motives, but aren’t able to make much of them. In short, it sounds like a space opera in outline, but it undercuts the easy good-vs-evil polarity that dumb fiction of all sorts continues to hinge on to this day. There really aren’t any good guys.

It’s just as nihilistic as it sounds – and readers who want ‘fun’ are going to be bummed right out. But it’s not joyless – what saves it, and more than saves it, is the same wealth of non-descriptive descriptions and turgid-yet-profound turns of phrase that define the Viriconium books. Here, in a particularly great example, are the dying words of one of the book’s more admirable characters:

“You were there when she bled into the dyne fields, you saw the substance of her flaring out like ritual evidence of the future. I believe she was near to her proper place, then.”

It’s not clear what this means, even in context. But there is a weight and precision here that makes it at least seem that Harrison had some sense of its meaning, was trying to point towards that meaning, worked on these words. There are tensions between them, allowing possible interpretations.

Or this description of a spaceship in action:

Precarious and hungry, hovering on the edge of the time when its prey might come into season, like a huge fragile insect against the gloomy bulk of the earth, it spun and darted – extruding its armament and making playful threatening passes . . .

What’s really glorious about this is that you don’t have much visual image of what the thing looks like – but you have what’s better, a rich feeling of the experience of seeing it. It’s the same trick that Harrison would later pull with the superficially mundane villains of A Storm of Wings. They’re just giant insects – dying giant insects, at that – but because every description is inflected with this kind of emotional resonance, they’re deeply unnerving.

Plenty of readers are frustrated with Harrison’s combination of nihilism and verbosity, and the Amazon reviews of this are a fun read. The ending in particular is a giant Fuck You to conventional heroism. But that sense of challenge is exactly why the book is still so much more worthwhile than most of its contemporaries.

As far as what that means for a writer, trying to measure himself against the arcs of the people he admires? On the one hand, Centauri is, again, encouragingly straightforward in structure. A lot happens, but it’s all linear. My own current project is on shaky ground in that regard, with several entwining threads and an inevitable measure of jumping around through time. Which is another way of saying that discovering that linear simplicity is in itself a skill.

And, though there are those flashes of intense subtlety, a lot of The Centauri Device is written fairly straightforwardly. Overall, it’s a reminder that you have to walk before you run, and this is one of the great writers walking, with occasional sprints, trying out his legs.

The real x-factor here, of course, is Harrison’s timing. He both loved the SF of his time, and was frustrated by it. The Centauri Device isn’t just a book – it’s a strategy of a moment, which is the main reason it may still hold interest for those of you who aren’t total word nerds. Most evocatively, it’s worth considering that John Truck – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler – appeared three years before Han Solo – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler. I’m not suggesting there’s any direct influence, but the two are a product of the same moment, of a related subversion of space opera.

The big difference is that Solo redeems the archetype for tradition, ultimately choosing to serve the ‘good’ guys. John Truck has no such comforting delusions.

Though it doesn’t exactly seem to be currently in print, you can get The Centauri Device in several formats on Amazon (isn’t the future grand?). I recommend the 1974 hardcover, available for 20 or 25 dollars with shipping.



Fallout 4 is Fundamentally Broken, Thanks to One Huge Writing Mistake.

Note: This was originally written back in December, when this game was actually new. I managed to not actually publish it at the time. Whoops.

 

In the past two years or so, I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying and practicing plot mechanics. They were a problem for me as a writer for a long time, but I’m finally really getting into the swing of things. It’s with that recently-polished insight that I approached the new Fallout 4, and I’ve found that, as a mechanism for delivering a coherent experience centered around character and plot, it has some serious problems.

I really, really wanted to like Fallout 4. So badly, in fact that I bought a Playstation 4 so I could play it. But now, after having the game for less than a month, and playing for around 40 hours (at least), I feel no urge to continue. In fact, I think continuing to play it would be bad for me – it leaves me feeling empty and drained.

On one level, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve been playing the Fallout games for nearly 20 years (Jesus . . .), and was pretty disappointed with Fallout 3 – it felt lifeless and boring compared to the first two games. And while Fallout 4 shares a lot of problems with Fallout 3 – a combat system that’s no fun, inventory management that’s just a boring hassle, enemies that are boringly samey, and a setting so visually boring it could be used to prep patients for oral surgery – It’s that sense of lifelessness, and even pointlessness, that feels the most familiar.

In other words, the writing sucks.

This is, of course, the same thing a lot of us said about Fallout 3 – and it was mostly true then, too. When Bethesda got the rights to Fallout from Black Isle in the early 2000s, there was a lot of skepticism – the tone of the first two Fallouts was just too different from Bethesda’s heavy Elder Scrolls fantasy RPGs. And for the record, I really loved the writing, including plotting and characters, on Skyrim – that was a game that gave you purpose, and led you through a series of small and large, but always meaningful, goals. The tone was right for the experience (also, Skyrim looks amazing. Fallout 4 looks like someone spilled brown paint).

But Fallout has always been a more human, more mature, and more subtle story than The Elder Scrolls – at its best, both a satire of the worst parts of our own culture, and a meditation on the experience of total loss. But Bethesda never truly picked up those threads from the original Fallout games, with Fallout 3 really feeling like a rote exercise, especially in the humor department – Bethesda don’t seem to get satire.

That continues in Fallout 4, while the story seems even more lackluster (though my memories of Fallout 3 are themselves getting mercifully scant at this point). Moment to moment, the story totally fails to give any meaning to your actions. Critics basing reviews off the first five or ten hours of gameplay seem to have been baited into thinking the exact opposite . . . but before I go there, let me just tell you about a minor quest I just finished up.

While wandering the wasteland, I found the corpse of a soldier, with records suggesting I should find, and maybe help, his fellow squadmates. I traced a handful of distress signals, and ultimately found the sole survivor of the expedition, holed up in a bugout bunker. He offered to let me have any of the junk in his bunker.

And that was it.

There was no final challenge. There was no twist – for example, it didn’t turn out that the survivor had double-crossed his squadmates. There was, in fact, very little payoff at all to give meaning to my play experience (and, just for the record, the ‘play experience’ of this quest, the actual stuff I did, was extremely unremarkable). I didn’t learn much, except that this world is dangerous. I wasn’t clear why these people were conducting a dangerous operation, or why exactly (the most interesting thread) they had to destroy some of their most valuable munitions.

That’s a pretty representative taste of the lost opportunities that abound in the stories here.

The characters are no better, residing mostly in the world of cliché or total nondescription – a guy who wants to help people, a reporter who wants to get the scoop, a super mutant who wants to be . . . stronger, I guess? The most interesting person in Fallout 4 isn’t a person, but a cyborg detective, whose possession of an actual personality almost seems like a satire of how boring all the humans are.

(In fairness, there’s another character, a mercenary, who is interesting. But you literally kill him before you find out he was interesting. You basically get to spend fifteen minutes with him).

But back to that opening sequence. The story of Fallout 4 is set up as an effort to humanize a central character who, in the previous games, was a bit of a blank slate. The setup (and I think this is the same for male and female protagonists, but I might be wrong) has the main character tricked into a state of suspended animation, from which he wakes up just briefly and witnesses his son being kidnapped. When you wake up, you immediately set out to find your son, moving relentlessly towards this crystal-clear goal.

Oh wait, NO YOU DON’T.

This is the thing that makes Fallout 4 seem totally pointless. In the previous games, the first hours were spent discovering the world, understanding your place in it, and answering questions about your own identity. Killing stuff and talking to people was part of that process, giving it all some clear forward momentum.

But in Fallout 4 you know exactly who you are, and exactly what you should be doing – but the larger game doesn’t want you to focus too much on the thing the story has so clearly set up as the most important thing for your character.

For the first thirty hours of the game, while I spent a good bit of effort advancing the main storyline, I was also cajoled by the game into spending a LOT of time on a series of fetch-and-kill missions connected to building a kind of municipal defense network, and a bunch of other peripheral missions that had no apparent connection to finding my son.

What father, in a real or fantasy world, would dawdle around with any of this bullshit after he found out that his son (spoiler alert) had been kidnapped by some kind of evil cyborg gang? When it so constantly encourages you to pursue side-quests that distract from the key goal, the game makes your character feel meaningless and without motivation. If it were true to its own premise, 85% of the content in Fallout 4 would have to be trashed and rewritten, because you’d just be doing the seven or eight quests that led directly to your key goal. But then it wouldn’t be ‘epic,’ I guess.

All of this makes me really suspicious that the whole “kidnapped kid” angle was added at the last minute, or was some sort of political compromise. Bethesda is good at setting up open-ended, open world experiences, where the player feels, in an odd way, motivated to do nothing – at least, nothing specific. In addition to playing the first two Fallouts, I played Daggerfall and Morrowind on release, too – and loved those games on their own terms. (Oblivion is another story).

So, now I’m weighing whether to keep or sell Fallout 4. It’s a boring game. Frankly, the most fun part of it is the new crafting system, which means I have – in another bit of meaning-destroying absurdity the game thrusts on you – probably spent more time improving my guns than trying to rescue a boy that is the only living testament to my beloved dead wife.

Who doesn’t get mentioned one time after the opening sequence, by the way.