Inhuman Swill : Writers

Iain Banks
Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

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No, this post is not about my marriage, which marks its 12th happy anniversary this year. This post is actually about writers and sensitivity.

Imagine yourself at the wedding of a close friend. You're there alone, having failed again to find a date to yet another big occasion. And it's not as if you didn't try hard. The frustrating thing is that things were looking really good with ol' what's-his-name for a while there. He seemed really interested, he did. You thought there was a good chance he might even be the one. But that was before he started acting all weird and distant, and stopped calling, or even returning your emails and texts.

So here you are alone at the wedding, again.

Oh, you're not alone alone. Most all your friends are here, and they're all happy to see you, but the thing is, they're mostly all married themselves. Everyone's nice enough to you, but you can sense a certain distance developing. It's nothing personal, you know that. It's just that for married people it seems somehow easier to relate to other married people. There are new concerns, new problems, new joys that come along with marriage, and that sets you apart from their world.

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I'm in New York City today to hang out with writers, editors, and agents at the annual SFWA Reception for Industry Professionals, so maybe it's an appropriate day to post this radio interview. Gary K. Wolfe and I appeared this past Thursday night on WGN's "Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg" to talk about science fiction, not to mention the new Library of America collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s which Gary edited.

We had a great time talking with Milt Rosenberg. You can listen to WGN's podcast of the interview online at WGNRadio.com, or hear the two segments of the show embedded below. Commercials and news breaks deleted!

10:00 - 11:00 p.m.  (43:59)

11:00 p.m. - midnight  (41:48)


Engines
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.

The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writers—Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the like—the Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.

As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de si├Ęcle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."

At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.

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WTF with Marc Maron
Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dear Marc Maron

For some reason this is a hard letter to write. I'm a relatively new fan of your podcast and your comedy, having come to it all through the broadcasts on WBEZ, but it seems like ages I've been trying to compose a thank you to you in my head. I mean, how hard should it be just to say I appreciate what you do and your show means a lot to me? Especially for a writer like me.

I'm 44 years old. My wife and I live in Chicago. I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction. Nothing glamorous like film or TV—I'm talking the basic stuff, prose on a page. None of which really explains why I've been chewing my way so voraciously through your podcast archive, or why I feel such a connection to what you do.

Part of it, I guess, is some of the weird correspondences with my life. I was born in Highland Park, for instance, where you now live, though I only lived there until I was six. (I was in L.A. in February, and I called my mom in Utah and told her I was planning to go visit the old house on Aldama Street. She said, "Oh, I don't think that's a very good idea." I went anyway with my buddy Ashir—the neighborhood was fine—and was surprised to see how small the house was, to remember how steep the hill was, and to hear parrots or some shit squawking in the big old trees.) I lived in Astoria for a long time, same as you, and it might be the best place I've ever lived. (Did you ever eat at Kabab Cafe on Steinway near 25th Ave? My favorite place in the world.) You have hassles getting into Canada—I can't even go to Canada, thanks to a ridiculous incident in Calgary when I was a stupid young 19-year-old Mormon missionary. (It's a long story.) I was on Air America ... um, one time, when Ron Kuby interviewed me a couple of years ago about a podcast I was doing. (See how I'm grasping at straws already? I should reassure you that I don't think there's some mystical, brothers-under-the-skin bond here. Cats are nice, but I'm a fucking dog person, okay?)

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I love the AMC series Rubicon so much that I tracked down a copy of one of the out-of-print collections of producer/writer Henry Bromell's New Yorker short stories from the '70s. I've started I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, and so far I'm very taken with the hallucinatory prose style. Can't wait to finish it.

I think it's the first time that someone's television work has prompted me to seek out his or her fiction. Racing through The Wire is what finally prompted me to read David Simon's non-fiction Homicide, a book that had been mocking me from the shelf for twenty years. (Interestingly, Bromell also worked on the Homicide television series.) I started watching Justified precisely because I was a fan of the Elmore Leonard novels featuring Raylan Givens. (Of course, it also didn't hurt that Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood was playing the character.)

But I'm pretty sure the Bromell conversion is a first. If I keep enjoying the stories, his novel Little America, a semi-autobiographical (I gather) tale of a son trying to understand his father's C.I.A. career, sounds pretty interesting.


Any of you other Rubicon fans recognize the name Joseph Purcell?

BoobGrab™

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Harlan Ellison™, increasingly irrelevant for years, is now entirely so, as his trademark grope of Connie Willis at Saturday's Hugo Awards ceremony demonstrated.

I would have mentioned this in my upcoming Worldcon report, but I didn't want to gloss over the incident in the course of recording all the good things that happened in Anaheim. This was definitely not one of them.

Harlan Ellison™ was one of my heroes as an angry young college student. I had somehow managed to overlook him until I ran across a copy of Shatterday between my junior and senior years of high school. When I started college, I discovered to my delight why a good university library kicked ass over my local bookstore—more volumes of Harlan Ellison™ than you could shake a fist at. I was sometimes ambivalent about his fiction, but his essays rarely failed to move me. Their articulate rage and vivid conveyance of a forceful personality—practically a force of nature—thrilled me beyond reason. I read everything I could lay my hands on, and I'd be lying if I denied that Ellison's rhetorical style wielded a huge influence on my own later writings about Mormonism. * 

I can still clearly recall the moment when one of the earliest big cracks in my young worldview appeared. It was a Harlan Ellison™ essay in which he spat vitriol all over the LDS Church for its decisive role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. I felt that I respected women, but until that moment I had never critically considered the objections to the ERA that I had been spoon-fed at home and from the pulpit. If one of my intellectual heroes disapproved of my people, what did that say about me? Was I really as good, thoughtful, and respectful a person as I believed I was?

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Mike Hunt is Aiken

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Elect MIKE HUNT Aiken County Sheriff
What a weekend Laura and I just had! We arrived back late last night from three days in beautiful Aiken, South Carolina. We were invited by our dear friend Shana, who lives here in the city and was going home for the annual Aiken Steeplechase, an afternoon of horseracing that is one of the biggest events in town.

Shana's father is a successful entrepreneur and state senator. His private jet was dispatched to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to pick us up Friday morning. There were nine passengers: Shana, her sister, her brother-in-law, their twin infants, Laura, me, Shana's fellow Aikenite-in-exile Joe, and Joe's friend Matt. The jet seated seven passengers, so we were at capacity.

Laura and I stayed for the weekend in an upstairs bedroom in the senator's home in Aiken. We were treated to all the hospitality for which the South is famous (this was my first excursion into the real South), with far more caring and far less pretentiousness than I perhaps had expected.

Saturday afternoon at the Steeplechase was quite an experience. Thousands of cars pulled into neat rows around both the interior and exterior rails of the track, with boisterous but not rowdy tailgate parties everywhere. Wandering from place to place, we ended up at a central tent where Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, dressed down in chinos and a plaid shirt, was shaking hands and breaking hearts left and right.

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Ray Bradbury

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The visionary whose stories foretold the Sony Walkman, who imagined virtual reality at a time when there were 400 television sets in the entire state of California, does not own a computer.  He does not like the screens.  "Computers are for people who make mistakes," he says.  "I don't make mistakes."  He does his work on an electric typewriter.  But if not for writing, surely Ray Bradbury surfs the Internet?  "There is nothing on it that I can use," he declares.  "I'm not a researcher.  I am an emotional hand grenade. . . ."

No one less than Aldous Huxley--fellow Angeleno and author of Brave New World--made a dose of hallucinogenics available to Bradbury.  "I was offered," he recalls.  "Aldous Huxley offered me a chance.  He said it would be perfectly safe.  There would be doctors and attendants.  But I told him, 'What if the trapdoor on the top of my head stays open, and all the nightmares come out and they won't go away.  Then what will your doctor do for me?'  I wasn't being moral.  I was being hygienic. . . ."

As a writer, Bradbury says he was blessed with total recall.  He claims that he can remember his own birth, the taste of his mother's milk and being circumcised.  Total recall is "a damn wonderful thing for a writer."  And what about the memories of people he knew and loved?  "No, memory is a curse, especially at my age," he says.  "All my teachers are gone, and most of my friends are dead, and the ones who are alive, you see all these old people, including yourself."

—William Booth, Washington Post Service

Well, I just received disappointing news. I was scheduled to do a reading—my first really significant public reading—in November, but now, due to circumstances beyond much of anyone's control, the gig has been cancelled.

There were five of us, "up-and-coming" "young" science fiction writers, who were going to participate together. I had compiled an email list of about seventy friends and acquaintances I was going to invite. It was going to be cool.

Originally we were all supposed to read in October. But then Ursula K. Leguin became available for a reading in the same series the same week, and most of the other participants decided they didn't want to compete. So our reading was delayed until November.

It didn't matter that much to me. I would have gone head-to-head with Leguin. Most of the friends I was inviting wouldn't have gone to the Leguin reading anyway. And now it's not going to happen at all.

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William Shunn

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