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Brian Slattery

End of the Line: Jeff VanderMeer and the Southern Reach Trilogy

Since the first and second interviews with Jeff VanderMeer, his Southern Reach Trilogy, which concluded with Acceptance in August, has appeared on several Best Of lists this year. Meanwhile, an omnibus edition of the entire trilogy has been released in hardcover and VanderMeer, on tour again in support of the books, has been interviewed many times.

For this third and final interview about the Southern Reach Trilogy, then, we talked more about the overarching themes of the trilogy, the places it was written from and about, and what’s next—for VanderMeer and for us.

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Bigger on the Inside: Talking with Robert Jackson Bennett about City of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs—available now in the US (Crown Publishing) and October 2nd in the UK (Jo Fletcher Books), and excerpted here on—is both a murder mystery and fantasy novel.

A spy from Saypur, a colonial power, is investigating the murder of a historian in Bulikov, an old city that is one of Saypur’s colonies. The murder investigation, however, requires the spy to deal with the histories of Saypur and Bulikov themselves; along the way, she discovers that Bulikov’s dead gods—deities on earth defeated in warfare when Bulikov fell to Saypur—may not be exactly dead after all.Gideon Smith amazon buy link

I recently talked to Robert Jackson about this new direction in his writing.

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“Shark Bad, Lemur Good”: Jeff VanderMeer on Annihilation

Annihilation tells the story of a scientific expedition into Area X, a remote part of the continent in which strange things have been happening. The expedition is the twelfth; previous expeditions have ended in suicide, murder, and rapid death from sickness for the survivors. It is the first in a trilogy. Annihilation will be released on February 4th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The second book, Authority, comes out on May 6th, and the last book, Acceptance, arrives on September 2nd. I had a chance to talk with VanderMeer by email as he was gearing up for his book tour.

Brian Slattery: Annihilation is getting compared to the work of all kinds of other people, from H.P. Lovecraft to J.J. Abrams to Stanley Kubrick. The closest one for me, though, was Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. In both your book and theirs, people are being sent in to investigate a geographic area that has been… changed… by forces that are, pretty much from the get-go, beyond our comprehension. In Picnic, though, the forces are overtly alien. In Annihilation, they appear to be natural. Putting those two together offers a neat comparison—Annihilation seems to suggest that the natural world is like your archetypal alien civilization in a first-contact book: way more advanced than we are and therefore essentially incomprehensible, at least until we catch up—if we ever do.

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A Literal Space Opera: An Interview with the Composer of Red Giant

Red Giant is a science-fiction operetta about three people in a spaceship fleeing a planet in orbit around a dying star that’s about to go supernova. The story and music are by composer Adam Matlock, who asked me to write the libretto (we just happen to be in a band together). The operetta was commissioned by Rhymes with Opera, a Baltimore-based company; RWO will be staging and performing Red Giant in Baltimore on January 11 and 12 and the New York City area on January 18 and 19.

On the eve of its tour, I got to chat with Adam about our collaboration, and what can happen when you put science fiction and opera together.

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Behold the Machine: The Vernian Process and Steampunk Music 2.0

Last year, I wrote a little piece for about the music of steampunk. Looking over it now, it’s easy to see that I had far more questions than answers, and also that steampunk music was very much in flux at the time. That still seems to be true now. The two pervasive eras of influence on steampunk, musically speaking—the gypsy jazz and darker folk music of the 1920s and the haunted side of the pop music of the 1980s—have something in common in vibe and attitude: In both, you can trace a running thread of despondent yet hopeful urgency, a response to some sort of decadence, whether it’s the people wallowing in it or the people left out.1 But practically speaking—that is, at the level where you’re putting your band together and deciding which instruments should be involved in your sound—these two eras are very hard to marry.

[This really is an album review; read more]

Series: Steampunk Fortnight

The Men Who Stare at Goats

In 1967, the CIA conducted Operation Acoustic Kitty, in which it surgically wired up a cat with a microphone and antenna to spy on the Russians. The project is rumored to have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. Its first mission was to spy on a Soviet facility in Washington, DC. Shortly after being released, the cat was killed by a taxi and the project was declared a total loss.

This story—firmly in the so-wacky-it-can-only-be-true category—is just the kind of thing that inspires The Men Who Stare at Goats, a movie about the rise and fall of a unit investigating the military possibilities of New Age spirituality and the paranormal within the U.S. Army in the 1970s and 1980s and its effect on the current war in Iraq. In place of the “a true story” tag that opens so many movies, Goats tells you that “more of this is true than you would believe.” This, like the rest of the movie, is fun and funny, but the tension between what’s real and what isn’t is a tightrope that Goats, unfortunately, can’t quite walk without falling off.

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What’s the Soundtrack of Steampunk?

Every aesthetic movement has—or should have—its own soundtrack. I would argue that an aesthetic movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack is doomed to an early death;1 having music to gather around, after all, makes it a lot easier for like-minded folks to hang out together and have fun, and isn’t that part of what any decent aesthetic movement is about? (Apart from making cool stuff, that is.)

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Series: Steampunk Month

Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness” and the Music of the Future

Hip hop’s connection to science fiction goes way, way back—to these ears, it’s encoded in the genre’s DNA, thanks to its heavy sampling of P. Funk—but some groups make the connection more explicit than others (OutKast, Kanye West). Kid Cudi‘s album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, is the latest addition to this lineage.1 This isn’t a novel observation by any means; it’s part of the album’s marketing strategy. In the week since its release date, the buzz around this album as a step toward the future—starting with the future of hip hop itself—feels fairly relentless, even for someone like me, who doesn’t keep up with current music nearly as much as he should. At a late-August listening session the record label (UniversalMotown) held, Kid Cudi was described as “the Jimi Hendrix of rap” and the album as a work that would “change the game.” Is it?

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A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 3

This is the third part of a three-part interview with Robert Charles Wilson about Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. The first part, along with an introduction to the book, appears here. The second part appears here.

Brian Francis Slattery: What’s your opinion of James Howard Kunstler? [Ed. note: Kunstler is a journalist, novelist, and cultural critic; he is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a critique of suburbia, and The Long Emergency, a rumination on what could happen to us when the oil runs out.]

Robert Charles Wilson: Unlike most science fiction, Kunstler is predicting the future, and I freely borrowed much of the worst-case scenario he presents in The Long Emergency. (You might say the keys to Julian Comstock are Kunstler, Gibbon, and Oliver Optic.) Is he right? Well, he makes a good case for the absolute unsustainability of our way of life. The idea is that we’ve basically fed on oil for 150 years—literally, in the sense that we used oil to bring marginal cropland under cultivation and to create the system by which we transport food worldwide. And like any animal population, our numbers increased accordingly, to such a degree that the system would be strained even if we weren’t facing radical oil depletion. Not to mention the dozens of other potential ecological and economical disasters implicit in the problem.

I don’t think science fiction writers are obliged to be optimists or pessimists. I do believe in the possibility of progress—but not its inevitability.

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A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part interview with Robert Charles Wilson about Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. The first part, along with an introduction to the book, appears here. The third part will appear on Friday.

Brian Francis Slattery: In essays, reviews, and popular conversation about science fiction as a genre, one of the constant questions is to what extent science fiction attempts to predict the future and to what extent it seeks to comment on the present day. This has always struck me as a silly question to ask of the entire genre, but a good one to ask of individual books. With Julian Comstock, how much are you in the prediction business and how much are you in the social commentary business?

Robert Charles Wilson: I don’t believe science fiction is about prediction, except in the sense that we try occasionally try to explore some obvious contingency like nuclear warfare or space travel. What interested me in writing Julian wasn’t the particular minutiae of change (about which I’m as ignorant as anyone), but an attempt to represent a realistic degree of change.

I mean, how bizarre would contemporary headlines look to Herman Melville or Harriet Beecher Stowe? Air war over Afghanistan, a black Democratic president, gay marriage: this stuff would never have been considered “plausible” prediction, back in the day. And yet here we are. And that’s how it works. The future is contingent, deeply and intrinsically unknowable. Much of the background stuff in Julian Comstock that seems kind of off the wall—the U.S. battling the Dutch for possession of Labrador—is there to represent the changes that are both inevitable and not linearly predictable.

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A Conversation with Robert Charles Wilson, Part 1

Robert Charles Wilson‘s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America opens on an America 163 years from now that looks a bit like the 19th century but feels, in unexpected and delightful ways, very much like the present. In Julian Comstock, with the demise of oil, America has returned to preindustrial levels of technology. The nation’s calamitous fall—involving a thorough depletion of the population and the collapse of the political system as we know it—is a hazy historical memory, replaced by a larger-feeling country, more sparsely populated and more difficult to control. The much-weakened government vies for authority with the Dominion, a huge religious organization with theocratic aims, while waging a war with a European power for possession of a recently opened Northwest Passage.

Into the political, military, and religious tumult steps Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current president, Deklan Conqueror, and—inconveniently for Deklan—also the son of Deklan’s brother Bryce, the former president whom Deklan had executed in his ascent to power. Julian’s own artistic and political ambitions carry him and his best friend, Adam Hazzard, from the Midwest to Labrador to New York City, from homesteads to army barracks to the halls of power. The novel, narrated by Hazzard, is funny and sad, accessible and thought-provoking; a story of the future written in the style of the past; a light romance and a war saga; a novel of power plays and intimate friendship, where the personal is political and the political is personal.

When asked me if I’d be willing to interview Wilson about Julian Comstock, I quickly said yes and then became intimidated, wondering how I’d manage to ask him questions that he wouldn’t think were stupid. As it turned out, Wilson was as generous in reality as he is in his books. The interview, conducted over email, took several weeks. I originally imagined that, after editing it, I’d come up with a good 1,200-word piece. However, Wilson kept answering my questions in such entertaining and intriguing ways that I had no choice but to keep asking more questions. I’m thus dividing the interview into three parts, of which this is the first. The second part will appear on Wednesday; the third part on Friday.

[Interview below the fold!]

Who Gets to Write Reviews?

It’s considered good form for novelists to maintain a serene distance from reviews and critical essays of their work. After writing a book, they’re supposed to be quiet about it unless asked to speak (e.g., in an interview, on a panel, in fan mail), and there are a lot of good reasons for this to be so; in a big way, the novelist has already had her say by writing the book in the first place. But many novelists can’t completely play dead like Roland Barthes they should, as they (which would include me) work with words in other ways. They are editors, essayists, and publishers, and—even more problematic—review books themselves.

In celebration of John Updike’s life, Paper Cuts recently drew attention to a Critical Mass post detailing his . The meat of his approach, to me, is contained in two points—”Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt1…. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”—and in this longer passage:

Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

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Nothing is Weirder than the Truth, Part 2: Kleptoplasty

My last post about how came from history. This one comes from biology.1 is the ability of one organism to steal the intact cells—and incorporate some of the abilities of—another organism. The term is most frequently used to describe how certain sea slugs can retain and utilize the chloroplasts and (as far as I understand this)2 genetic material of algae after ingestion so that they can photosynthesize; in somewhat plainer English, the slugs eat the algae and afterward can be considered to be . Depending on the species, the slugs are able to photosynthesize for anywhere from a few days to several months.

As a sheer natural phenomenon, it’s pretty crazy, a little bit like someone being able to sprout wings after eating a live chicken. It’s also a shot across the bow to creation science, as it may be an honest-to-God example of a species in the early stages of from one type of animal into another—the paucity of obvious cases of which creation scientists use to argue against the theory of evolution. Sorry, guys.

1 Thanks to a friend who’s also a PhD candidate in oceanography for this one.

2 People who know more about biology than I do—and believe me, it doesn’t take much to know more about biology than I do—are hereby welcomed and encouraged to walk all over this post.

Nothing Is Weirder than the Truth, Part 1

One of the many reasons I prize science fiction, fantasy, and the more psychedelic aspects of other branches of fiction is the simple thrill of watching writers unfetter their imaginations on the page. Most of my favorite books take me on a trip, usually the longer the better.1 Yet for fiction to work, there are rules to follow and conventions to at least nod to. Expectations must be set up and employed, if not necessarily satisfied. There must be road signs, something like a beginning, middle, and end. We like to be surprised, but not too surprised. We like our irony, but not too tight. Fiction, in short, has to keep it between the ditches: For each reader, there is such a thing as “too much”—on one side, too much randomness or craziness, too much suspension of disbelief, and on the other, too much familiarity, predictability, inevitability.

Reality,2 however, has no such constraints. Things can just happen, seemingly unconnected to anything. In our interpretation of actual events or facts, coincidences can pile upon coincidences, or absurdities upon absurdities, that would seem altogether too forced if they appeared in a novel but delight us when they appear in nonfiction. And the natural world often seems to outstrip the human ability for invention, leaving us in awe. Really, nothing is weirder than the truth.3

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