Friday, May 22, 2015

Simak’s City (1952): The Best Science Fiction Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

For years I’ve vaguely heard of this novel, considered a lost classic of SF literature, often invoked in the same exalted company as Asimov, Clarke, Stapleton, Bradbury and company.  Yet the book itself is out of print, hard to find, and there are no adaptations to stumble on.  And the name, “City,” doesn’t leap out at you like 2001, I, Robot, or The First and Last Men.  Luckily, my university library teems with old science fiction and fantasy classics (thank you to whatever professor bequeathed them to the library!), including a stray copy from 1976.  The book captured me from the start not only from its beautifully clear (yet at times poetic) writing, but from the sheer scope of its themes.  City communicates on the same level and shares the same themes as works such as 2001 and Planet of the Apes, yet at times seems to go far beyond them, if only in its playful humor which never quite takes itself too seriously.  Written on the heels of WWII, the book deals with some of the great themes left in its wake: the importance of tradition, the persistence of civilization, and the question of racial identity.  Do we have a duty to our “race”—and should we win this race?  Are we doomed to destroy one another?  Can humans truly make a better, more peaceful world?  And if destruction is our fate, who will inherit the Earth?  Do we have time to appoint our successors? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Read and Vote for The Winged Turban on Inkitt!

Van Weyden's Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Turban 
There's a great new site for posting fiction of various kinds (though mostly fantasy and science fiction), getting reviews, and entering contests: Inkitt.  It's a great company out of Germany which is dedicated to finding new and indie writers and helping them find a voice in an on-line community, as well as possibly tracking down the next big work to take the publishing world by storm (as many works, notably Fifty Shades of Grey , started on-line--and as fan fiction, as that).  I usually avoid sites like this, Wattpad, etc., which are depositories for the worst kind of drivel, but the quality of writing on Inkitt is surprisingly high and the editors have a great eye for talent.  

I recently posted the first 6 chapters of my novel-in-progress, The Winged Turban, as an entry in their current contest, Epic Worlds.  You can read the story here, and if you like it, give it a vote by clicking the "heart" at the bottom.

I'm very proud of this story and consider it my best work to date.  The only trick is figuring out how to finish it.  The story is constantly evolving and my original conception of the ending went out the window months ago.  It's a better story now, but it's also a much more frightening one (for the author, that is!).  Any feedback on the first six chapters is welcome!  Thanks!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Bard of Finland: Jean Sibelius

If you had asked music lovers 100 years ago (around 1915, in other words) which living composers were most likely to stake a claim at immortality, one of the leading candidates would be Jean Sibelius, the pioneering Finnish composer whose works had taken Europe—and then America—by storm.  Along with contemporaries such as Mahler and Rachmaninov, Sibelius represented the last gasp of Romanticism, which both he and Rachmaninov were doomed to outlive.  But whereas Rachmaninov largely held onto the principles of Russian Romanticism, Sibelius found his own way to adapt to Modernism, producing works that are today every bit as bold and enigmatic as they were in the early 20th century.  Strangely, Sibelius quickly lost his foothold after WWII, dismissed as a cheap Romantic, either jeered for his “big hit,” the sentimental Valse Triste, or grudgingly tolerated for his moody tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela.  Serialism and the twelve-tone technique had no place for such a throwback to fin di seicle emotionalism, even if concert halls never entirely banished him to the purgatory of forgotten composers.  Important works such as Symphonies 1, 2, and 5 remained in the repertoire, and occasionally masterpieces such as En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, and Tapiola would make an outing.  The advent of CD technology encouraged complete cycles of his symphonies (notably by Simon Rattle in the late 80’s), and forced a reassessment of his symphonic legacy.  For someone considered a purveyor of second-rate Tchaikovsky, Sibelius conjured up works which defied all the “isms” of his day, whether Romanticism, Serialism, or New Classicism.  His stark, introspective Fourth Symphony left most scratching their heads, as did its polar opposite, the sunny, lyrical Sixth (can something so undramatic be a symphony, many asked)?  And what about the Third Symphony, which is neither Romantic, nor classical, nor Modernist, but a strange form which the composer, himself, never really followed up on? 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Does Genre Fiction Need to Evolve?

I was reading Lin Carter’s extraordinary little book on the history of fantasy literature, Imaginary Worlds (1973), and came across an impassioned defense of “Sword & Sorcery” literature, by which he means the subgenre of fantasy dedicated to Conan-like exploits in antideluvian worlds.  Responding to charges that Carter and other practitioners of Sword & Sorcery are merely writing the same thing over and over again, he writes: "Must a school of writing evolve?  I wonder why.  Evolution implies a change into something else.  But mere change for the sake of change, experiment for the sake of experiment—the apparent aesthetic of the New Wave school of science fiction writing...seems to a rather backwards looking conservative like myself a pointless exercise in futility.  Must the sonnet sequence evolve into some form other than that of the sonnet sequence, or opera into something that is not opera?  Must Sword & Sorcery turn itself into something radically different?"  (146)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Escaping the Cliche of Canon: 5 Lesser-Known Works of Mozart

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as canonical as Shakespeare, no longer a matter of taste but a statement of musical fact.  However, as with Shakespeare, this is a double-edged sword, since once anything becomes a museum piece we begin to lose our connection to it.  The nervous, mercurial energy of Symphony No. 40 becomes background music in Panera Bread, and the bitersweet lamentations of the Requiem floats through a car commercial.  It’s a sad fact that even the most inspired music, if played too often—and in the wrong context—can become a cliche.  So how do we rediscover the Mozart that his contemporaries heard, the one that made Haydn (arguably the greatest composer of his age) to exclaim, “I tell you before God and the world, he is the greatest composer known to me”?  In the end, you have to “unhear” every musical cliche and start from scratch, listening to the music of his contemporaries and work your way forward to the musical masterpieces.  Or, perhaps more simply, you could listen to the lesser-known works of Mozart which, for one reason or another,  have escaped the broad brush of cliche.  Here are 5 works which I think represent every facet of Mozart’s genius: his melody, his harmony, his orchestration, his eccentricity (especially his penchant for the minor mode), and his forward-thinking appeal to modern audiences (at times you really think Mozart is a Romantic).  There is no good reason these works have not passed into the public domain, so to speak, but I’m glad they haven’t.  When you listen to them, you almost go, “my God, what music—who composed it?” and then remember, right, it’s Mozart.  Then you start to realize why great composers become great; not just because your teachers said so, but because you, too, can hear this greatness.  Just don’t tell the people who supply music to on-hold services and Panera Bread! 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vote for "The Cutpurse Code" on Inkitt's "Echo of Another World Contest"

I recently resurrected a novel I finished about 10 years ago to see if I could still stand to look at it.  Though written when my first son was born (he's about to turn 11!), I had revised it in subsequent years, so not surprisingly, it wasn't as awful as I feared.  It's called The Cutpurse Code, and follows three down-and-out thieves (in the quasi-18th century world all my stories are set in) as they are given an impossible mission: to steal the minute hand of the Great Stanislav Clock that looms over the city on the coldest day of the year.  This, however, is merely a test; their true commission awaits them once they return with the hand...and it will make stealing 50-foot minute hands seem tame by comparison!   

For fun, I entered the first 5 chapters in Inkitt's Echoes of Another World contest, where voting determines the top 10% of entries, and these go on to win prizes.  So far I'm in position #5, so please check it out and tell me what you think (or just vote for it!).  If I finish editing it this summer and get a decent-enough response, I might publish it next year.  You can find the story here:  You'll have to sign in with FB or create a login.  Once you do, click the "heart" at the bottom to like the story, and/or leave comments on the right-hand side.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tarzan of the Apes at 100 (well, 101)

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan in 1914, after successfully serializing it in 1912, and it quickly became a modern myth: radio adaptations and movies followed as soon as technology could catch up, as well as a bewildering 22 sequels from Burroughs himself.  While the character of Tarzan is certainly nothing new, as he is equal parts Caliban, Crusoe, and Mowgli, it goes much further than any of these in its frankness about racial identity and the true meaning of civilization.  Few readers know the ‘real’ Tarzan, as the 21st century has to combat the cultural dissonance of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies (he never says this or speaks like ‘Tarzan’ in the books), or the New Age noble savage we find in Disney.  Probably the closest media depiction of the book occurs in the 1984 film, The Legend of Greystoke, which preserves many of the trademark elements of the book, and interestingly casts Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, as Tarzan (since Tarzan initially learns to speak French, not English).  What we find in the book is astonishing and quite unusual: a Tarzan who kills indiscriminately (often for the clothes on a natives’ back), yet is capable of compassion and downright maudlin behavior.  The book is at once better than you were lead to believe while at times staying true to its pulp origins.  Is it great literature?  No, but it has the makings of a great myth, and there are moments that match Kipling or Defoe, and at times anticipate the darker worlds of Conrad.  If nothing else, it merits its inclusion as a seminal work of 20th century popular culture, and should be read widely (and by young readers) because, when all is said and done (and making allowances for some of the dated contents of the book), it is full of imagination and delight.