Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

“…frustrating triumph” — Slate.com, Mac Rogers

I believe that neatly sums up my assessment of Jeff VanderMeer’s magnificent Southern Reach trilogy.

(SPOILER FREE REVIEW)

First, a quick recap:

Annihilation (Book 1) — A mysterious, alien environment named Area X has taken over a spot of land in a location I presume to be the Florida coastline (though the exact location is left unspecified). You can only enter and exit via a singular portal. An expedition team is sent into Area X to investigate. Annihilation is the story of these people, particularly a biologist who returns as the sole survivor.

The story is fascinating. It reminds me of all the parts of Lost that made me love that TV series so much.

Authority (Book 2) — We’re introduced to a new Southern Reach director who calls himself ‘Control’. The book amps up the tension as the pervading sense of weird and danger affects members of the Southern Reach. There is an entertaining battle of wills between Control and his assistant director, Control and his mother, and Control and the biologist from the first book.

Jeff VanderMeer masterfully explores interpersonal dynamics and uses them to create a book examining how we react to an unknown, looming danger.

Acceptance is the third book of the trilogy. The blurb on the back cover promises that answers will be provided. Ha! This ain’t my first rodeo, blurb author, I know how these things play out. A few answers will be provided, a few more will be hinted at, and a whole bunch will forever be left hanging loose.

Acceptance is a swirl of identities and personalities. The mystery of Area X is not the main concern of the author. I would propose it has much more to do with concepts of isolation, mistrust, loneliness, and, yes, acceptance. All our protagonists are somewhat difficult people, certainly lighthouses of individuality. They’re outsiders to the world. The metaphor here is that we all feel safer within boundaries we understand and control. Area X is that safe place.

VanderMeer enhances the separation the characters feel via the trick of points of view. First, second, and third are presented in Acceptance. He also employs timeline hops as a means of filling in the gaps. All this jumping in POV and setting gives a fair approximation of the disorientation the characters must be feeling.

Many of the wondrous and bizarre incidents and creatures that inhabit VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy are never explained beyond an extrapolated metaphorical sense. It *can* be a frustrating read for this reason. But to deny yourself the pleasure of reading VanderMeer’s masterpieces would be a shame. How else will you learn how to clean a mouse in a pond?

Click to purchase

Click to purchase

 

Sci-Fi/Horror Writers Group SPRING session

Carnegie-sub-pages-logoI’m leading a Spring SF/Horror writers group session at the Carnegie Center for Literacy in Lexington starting this coming Monday. It is a six week session, 2 hours per session, 5:30-7:30pm.

You can register here: http://carnegiecenterlex.org/adult-class/spring-sci-fihorror-writing-group/?class-name=SPRING:%20Sci-Fi/Horror%20Writing%20Group&class-price=$72

I’ve been asked how I run my groups. I started to write up some commentary, but then I found these methods from a post titled “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community” by Jane Friedman that describes my philosophy spot on.

Structure. In some groups writers read their material aloud, but I’ve found that e-mailing work in the days prior proves more productive. First of all, it gives readers time to think about the material before offering feedback, and second, it presents work in the same way it’ll be seen by editors and agents.

Feedback. Some groups elect to have writers sit silently while receiving feedback, but this may limit the constructive dialogue that can happen. The trick is for the writer not to become defensive, and for the readers to stay focused on what the writer is seeking to accomplish rather than what they would do differently themselves. If the dialogue remains honest, open, and patient, it will prove useful to the writer’s process.

For the first session, writers should bring something to read for the group to critique. All following sessions, writers will be expected to email their work to the group at least 3 days prior to our meeting if they wish to receive feedback.

I hope to see you there!

For Exposure: Prelude

Jeff VanderMeer, one of the world’s best writers, posted this picture to his Facebook profile.

Ready for a cock fight!

Ready for a cock fight!

Why he did so is not important for the purposes of this post. What’s important is the picture: a man, looking unhappy, dressed as a giant chicken.

During a recent meeting with my writers group, I was asked about the first story I had had published. I made a choice that day to share a shameful moment from my past. Now I do it openly on the internet.

Way, waaaaay back when, I was a grunt programmer who worked in a small cubicle. On my cubicle wall I had  displayed a large, colorful calendar that I had picked up at a local Mexican restaurant. The calendar promoted the restaurant, of course, and displayed the months of the year (of course). The artwork adorning the calendar was something like a scene straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel: a group of wild-eyed Mexican men and scantily clad ladies stood around a bloodied cockfighting pit, many of them holding money in their fists above their heads. Two fighting cocks were engaged in a horrible fight and feathers flew all different directions.

Looking back, I shake my head at the young Jason. I can’t believe I hung such a racist, violent calendar in my work office! At the time, I reasoned that Hey, the Mexican restaurant gave it to me, so it must be okay.

The restaurant’s calendar inspired me to write a terrible short story titled…well…I’m not going to divulge the title in case the story exists somewhere. I don’t want anybody reading it. Ever.

I can tell you about the story’s plot, though. There is an unhappy young man working in a cubicle farm. He is called into a meeting by his supervisors. The bosses tell him he’s going to be fired, but he can save his job by agreeing to do some cleanup work in the basement of the building. He agrees to do the work. In the basement, he’s clubbed over the head, locked in a steel cage, and fed nothing but cans of corn for 3 days. After three days, they force him to wear an armored chicken suit and then throw him into a pit with another, larger man (the pit champion!) and tell him to fight or die. The senior management of the company he works for all sits around the pit on leather couches while betting on the outcome.

The cubicle flunky loses the fight and is pecked to death. Finis!

I warned you it was a terrible short story. But I got it published in one of those ‘for exposure‘ do-it-yourself underground zines. I bought 20 copies of the issue and gave them out to family and friends.

I wish I hadn’t done that.

I see chicken suits all the time. And every time, I’m reminded of my shame.

(Author note: This is not an essay in my upcoming book, just an essay about a sale I made to a “for exposure” venue)

For Exposure cover reveal

Behold, the cover art to FOR EXPOSURE:

For Exposure_CVR002sm

Click for a larger, better view.

Justin Stewart did the art and design. Dude has mad skills!

The book is coming along. It’s about 50% written. The “Eyewitness Rebuttals” by Justin, Maurice Broaddus, and Sara Harvey are great. The ‘Oral History’ piece is nearing completion. The ‘Apex in 10 Years’ essays are a hoot. I think folks will enjoy For Exposure immensely!

This comes out on June 20th, at the Apex 10th Anniversary Party.

A few people have asked about preorders. Our target date is late April/early May.

Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Hard to Be a GodThe last five years has seen a resurgence of interest in non-Western European (for the sake of keeping things simple I’ll include the United States, Canada, and Australia in this group) genre fiction. I can speak to this personally, as I’ve had much success with The Apex Book of World SF anthology series. We’re seeing fantastic translated work such as The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu from China, fine work out of Viz Media, and a rise in the number of translated stories appearing in the short fiction zines.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the tone and flavor of eastern European genre work. Stanislaw Lem was one of my earliest favorites. The Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko is a fantastic modern fantasy thriller. When a publicist for Chicago Review Press queried me to review their new translation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic Hard to Be a God, I ditched my usually policy of not doing solicited reviews and accepted the challenge.

Admittedly, part of my decision was influenced by the release of a new film adaptation of the novel by the recently deceased director Aleksei German. German’s film is a messy, muddy, and bizarre affair…and quite possibly one of the most realistic portrayals of early Medieval times ever put to the visual medium. A respected reviewer on RogerEbert.com declared Hard to Be a God one of great films with a capital ‘G’ (I take this to mean it is up there with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather). It is a challenging 3 hour slog, so I’m not prepared to agree, but I do encourage my readers to look it up.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The novel is the story of Anton, an operative from our future who is placed on an alien planet to observe a world that has not advanced beyond the technology of the Middle Ages. On this world, Anton is a powerful and infinitely wealthy nobleman named Don Rumata who lives in Arkanar. Through the course of the book, Rumata works in subtle ways to obstruct the usurper Don Reba (a vile, evil fellow) from taking over the region of Arkanar. Reba orders all “learned men” to be killed (the literate–scientists, artists, writers, etc.) and installs a vicious order of monks to carry out his instructions. Rumata despairs at such inhumanity, but hands are tied, as he is bound by the code of his profession to not interfere with the machinations of history. In the end, Reba has his way and Rumata goes on a killing rampage and has a nervous breakdown.

It’s all some deep and depressing stuff. It’s also entertaining and a page turner. While not loaded with action, the dialog is often humorous and ironic in the darkest ways possible. The plot moves along at a fast pace. There is one sequence that will always stick with me…Don Rumata and a rebel friend discusses the role of God and why he should or should not help His suffering people…the sadness in Rumata’s replies and the desperation in the rebel’s questions strike the heart hard.

The thrust of this classic novel is a common one: that religion and misguided faith can be effective tools of the wicked. It’s title is in reference to the technological powers Don Rumata has at his disposal, yet he has to stand by and watch his people murder and torture each other. Rumata is a literal placeholder for God. The metaphor is quite explicit and Rumata does plenty of despairing about his predicament in the narrative.

I know little about Russian history in 1964 (when the novel was published), but based on an essay by Boris Strugatsky that accompanies the book, writing a novel that openly questions and challenges the role of religion and the stark authority of those wielding during that time could be bad for one’s health. It is an impressive thing that Boris and Arkady did.

As a fan of science fiction, I believe Hard to Be a God to be essential reading. As a display regarding the power of literature, Hard to Be a God is a shining example.

I’ve included a trailer to the movie adaptation below.

Millennicon + Apex + Me this weekend

I will be attending Millennicon this weekend! If you’re going, look me up, I’ll be easy to find. I have the red hair, the accent, and an Apex table in the vendor’s hall.

Millennicon is a science fiction and fantasy convention that caters heavily to the literary crowd. This year’s GoH is Laura Resnick.

Millennicon info
When: March 20-22
Where: Cincinnati, OH
Website: http://mvfl.org/millennicon/

Dealer’s Room Hours:
Friday 5-9pm
Saturday 10am-7pm
Sunday 11am-2pm

Please overlook the website they use. It does not reflect that this is a fairly well-run and fun convention.

 

For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher

Embedded in yesterday’s announcement regarding the June 20th Apex 10th Anniversary Party was a not-so-hidden mention of a new Sizemore book release. Five different people have asked me about it. My viral marketing plan has worked!

The book is titled For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher. It will be a collection of essays detailing some of the more entertaining shenanigans I’ve gotten into over the past ten years. A memoir of my time running Apex, if you will. The essays are all written in a “creative nonfiction” style, though everything I share is rooted in actual experience. Because this books ties in so closely with Apex, it will be published through Apex Publications.

The title is, of course, a sly double reference to exposing my ten years to the public and the small press habit of offering to pay contributors “for exposure.”

Justin Stewart is providing the cover art.

Past/Current Apex authors and editors are contributing to an “Oral History of Apex” and a chapter outlining where they think Apex will go in the next ten years.

The book releases June 20th! Another reason to attend the history making 10th Apex Anniversary Shindig.

In the next few days, I hope to share the Prologue on the blog. Until then, here is a taste:

See the child cower behind the pew. He’s a matchstick of a kid, pale with a ball of thick, curly red hair towering outward like a healthy flame. At the age of ten, his imagination is an uncontrollable beast, and he can imagine the demonic afflictions that affect the men and women jerking about on the worn brown carpet of Big Creek Baptist Church.

Mark your calendar: June 20th, 2015

Ten years ago today, we released the first issue of Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. It featured an original cover by Justin Stewart and new stories by MM Buckner and Lavie Tidhar.

It is time for a celebration!

Apex Publications, in league with Joseph Beth Booksellers, will be hosting an Apex 10th Anniversary Bash at the Joseph-Beth Booksellers Lexington location on Saturday, June 20th.

We’re still putting together an official guest list and official activities, but we wanted to announce the date so that you can set aside the time if you wish to attend.

Here are some of fun things that I know so far will be happening:
*The release of my new book FOR EXPOSURE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A SMALL PRESS PUBLISHER.
*A reading from FOR EXPOSURE with a signing afterward.
*Door prizes throughout the evening.
*A Q&A with prominent Apex editors and authors (and sure, the publisher).
*Dinner with Apex from 6 to 8 p.m. with a special ‘Apex’ menu at Bronte’s Bistro.
*A cocktail mixer with Apex from 8 to 10 p.m. with a special ‘Apex’ shot and mixed drink.

Other stuff in consideration includes: A group signing for Apex authors, a panel discussion regarding the small press, a workshop for writers, special appearances by a number of authors, an art display… Ideas are still brewing!

JUNE 20th! I better see you there!

(PS: I normally don’t copy posts from Apex directly here, but this is too big a deal not to share!)

FB event page for the Apex 10th Anniversary Celebration. Everyone is invited! https://www.facebook.com/events/364986863693946/

Apex_Digest_(front_cover)

The cover of issue 1. History, yo.

 

Saying Good-bye to Another Friend

On Wednesday, we lost our other furry family member. Shadow was fifteen years old.

Shadow, 2000-2015

Shadow the Cat, 2000-2015

Shadow was the strangest and sweetest animal I’ve met. His personality was eccentric and funny, which made him popular with other family and friends. My family has an incredible number of great memories about the different weird and amusing personality tics Shadow had. He and Phantom had a love/hate relationship, but they did love one another…he passed away two weeks to the day after Phantom.

My wife and I found Shadow at a pet store that was adjacent to our vet. Dr. McClain and his staff had found a group of tiny kittens (they had just opened their eyes) and the pet store had them on display in their window. One little black kitty shivered in the corner, all big eyes, scared and malnourished. Susan and I had our hearts stolen immediately. We adopted him and named him Shadow, the black counterpart to the white Phantom. Instead of doing kitten things, he liked to play fetch and have his belly rubbed like a puppy dog.

Shadow went from a fragile little creature that fitted in the palm of my hand to a large 20+ pounds adult cat who could nearly knock you over with a pounce. In a quiet house, his rumbling purr during a good belly rub could be heard in the next room.

Lymphoma took him away from us Wednesday. The same vet that had found him 15 years ago, still next door to the location where Susan and I saw Shadow for the first time, administered the compound that put our baby sleep. We scratched his chin and rubbed his stomach the way he liked.

Fluid in his lungs and around his heart made breathing difficult in his final moments. Yet, Shadow purred until the very end. It wasn’t the rumbling, room shaking purr of old, but a soft, weak purr. Susan and I like to believe he was saying “Good-bye, I love you.”

 

Give me your suggestion. I give you my book.

I need your suggestions. I have an old iPad that I’m placing in a display frame. I plan to run an image slide. What type of slides would prompt you to consider buying one of our books? The frame/iPad setup looks a bit like this:

zions_bank_table_top_ipad_display

This will be in a vendor hall at a fandom convention.

If I use your idea, I’ll give you a free copy of Irredeemable (or any Apex book)!