Sunday, August 22, 2010

Preparations for traveling to Australia

First preparations for attending Aussiecon 4 in Melbourne involved choosing movies to watch over the preceding months.

These included Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which holds up quite nicely, re-watching it after many years. Gorgeously photographed, it retains a sense of wonder. The story concerns the inexplicable disappearance of members of a private women's school at a remote rock-outcropping in 1900.

John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005) is a gritty, violent film about the murderous Burns gang in the dusty Australian outback in the 1880s. It features excellent actors including Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, John Hurt, and Danny Huston. The movie is well done throughout. Not for the squeamish or faint-hearted.

Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) is, I think, the strongest film of the three, and the most open to interpretation. The simple narrative follows a white school girl and her young brother, abandoned by their father in the outback. They wander and struggle to survive. Eventually they encounter an Aboriginal boy who has the skills to survive and he helps them and travels with them. There is little dialog and the Aboriginal boy doesn't speak English. The version I saw had quite a bit of nudity, which supports the unrealized sexual tension between the school girl (Jenny Agutter) and the Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil, who is also in The Proposition). The cinematography is exceptional. The film intelligently touches on issues of race, gender, language, culture, sexuality, survival, and death.

Preparations included listening to Midnight Oil, a rock band from Sydney. I remember buying their CD (or was it a cassette?) Beds Are Burning shortly after its 1988 release. I listened and appreciated once again the songs "Beds Are Burning" and "Truganini" (1993).

And then there are the books. I will highlight three.

Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (2000) is both informative and funny, which is a winning combination in a travel book. It's well-written, too, and Bryson has a wonderful eye for detail.

Robert Lawlor's Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime (1991) is a mixed bag. It's quite good when describing Aboriginal culture and ceremonies, and the photos and artwork throughout the book are fascinating. On the downside, the author has his own pet theories about various issues that are best passed over lightly.

Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt's The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia (1988) is packaged as a dry, academic book. It turns out to be a treasure trove of oral myths and stories told by Aboriginal story-tellers and translated into English. This book is endlessly rewarding for anyone with an interest in mythology or anthropology (or even science fiction and fantasy).

The last two books were loaned to me by Monkeyblake. Many thanks.

On the practical side, we have applied for and received three visitor visas for the three members of the Strangelove household who are traveling to Australia. We will arrive first in New Zealand (not in time for the Au Contraire science fiction convention in Wellington), then to Melbourne for Aussiecon 4, then to Adelaide, and finally to Sydney before heading for home. There will be blog posts and tweets if all goes according to plan.

Related posts:
More about Aussiecon 4
2010 Hugo Results and Reactions
Day Two: Robinson and Silverberg in Conversation
Day One: Environmental Politics in SFF

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Notes on rereading Dhalgren during the Summer of 2010

A guest-post and photo-illustration from Monkeyblake, a simian friend of ours:

Unreal City. Moscow. Set off by a historic heatwave acrid smog from the fires burning across the forests outside the city is seeping into apartments, offices and even the underground  Moscow metro, forcing many Russians to abandon the city. All over Russia, the worst heatwave in memory has blanketed the region in 110 degree or more heat, triggering wildfires, igniting peat bogs in central Russia, and choking Moscow with dense unbreathable smog for days on end. Plumes of smoke have gone as far away as Finland. At the same time, a heatwave has descended on the Eastern Coast and parts of the Great Plains of the United States this August. On the the radio reports of flash floods across Pakistan, thousands killed,  many others swept away and marooned, 600,000 homes destroyed, the worst flooding in 80 years...

"Unreal City," Eliot repeats like a refrain in The Waste Land (1922).  "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many," He quotes Dante in hell: "I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet..." like cars bumper to bumper fleeing New Orleans during Katrina.

Unreal City. Suburban wasteland. Nameless. I live where the heat usually goes above 110 even into the 120s during summer.  This summer is unusually mild. Rarely above 90. I am reading Dhalgren again this summer. I was a boy of 15 the summer it came out, the summer I read it, lured by the image of the giant sun on the cover and the thickness of the paperback that to my 15 year-old-mind meant quality, meant serious, Russian-serious. The paper I remember smelled quite  good, though it has since browned quite badly. The summer of 1975. 

When the book came out cities were not like Bellona, the city that is Dhalgren -- cities were not abandoned, off the grid, emptied of most of their populace... Describing such a place was Science Fiction: Dhalgren, Stalker.

No longer. Unreal cities are no longer rare. When I read the book in ‘75 no American city had been abandoned like New Orleans to disaster and its own fate. Not in living memory anyway. Not like Europe or elsewhere. Abandoned. Ruined. Emptied, the fleeing, the fled.  Some survivors and hold-outs trapped or lost.  Standing on roofs to keep from drowning. Shitting in stadium corners. A hole ripped in the man-made dome. Unreal New Orleans. 

Dhalgren was my first Unreal City. It helped me -- withstand the shocks of the later ones I became exposed to, Dresden, Hiroshima, Detroit. A homeopathic post-apocalyptic gem or germ. A shot in the arm for a 15 year old.

Why am I rereading it now? Harder to answer -- and more personal -- the kind of ruins you see around you at 50. A booster shot maybe. That and Samuel R. Delany was suppose to come and visit where I live to receive a prestigious Science Fiction award. We waited for weeks foolishly hopeful after the award was announced that he just might come. He declined. This place, nameless, too much of a wasteland even for Delany.*

As a genre descended from the Gothic, science fiction has many ruined landscapes to roam around in.  Post-apocalyptic novels are made from them. The gritty winds blasting the streets brownstone tenements of 1984. J.G. Ballard's divine books, The Drought and The Drowned World are alike post-apocalyptic and set in ruins. 

Some are even as beautiful as Dhalgren. Though they have plot. Things they say, mean. Things happen in Dhalgren, sure, but really, Dhalgren feels more like a place than a story. A landscape that is coextensive. Not a narrative, an unfolding. As a place, it is one of the most vivid places in letters you can roam in. Roam like the Kidd. You don't care if things happen or don’t happen, don’t care where you go or don’t go, you are happy to forget yourself for a while, keep reading, keep roaming, all 879 pages and then read again.

*Though the guy who is getting the same prestigious award, the Eaton, the guy with a big mouth who must scream, is coming (though few I know can reread him, though we try, no longer 15). He hated Dhalgren by the way.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: More on the Shortlist

This is the third post regarding voting for the Hugo Awards to be presented September 5, at Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Melbourne, Australia.

Belatedly, since the voting is over now, I would like to describe how I voted in the remaining fiction categories that haven't been discussed in previous posts.

SF Strangelove's Hugo ballot for best novel:
1. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (review)
2. Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson (review)
3. The City & The City by China Miéville (review)

First, it must be said that having three novels this strong on the ballot is a good thing for the science fiction community and for the Hugos. It's been a few years since there were three novels this strong on the Hugo shortlist (2005 to be precise). I would not be disappointed if any of these three won. Of course, there can be no certainty that one of these will be the winner. The other novels on the Hugo shortlist include the Locus Award-winning Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. I already have written about my concerns regarding it (review). I have started reading Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente and I continue to dip into it from time to time to enjoy the wonderful writing. The conceit of a city which only can be reached by having sex with someone who already has been there is delightful (and makes me think, for some reason, of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany). I haven't read far enough to be able to vote for it. Also, I haven't read WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer, the remaining novel on the shortlist.

After I voted, I noticed that the recently announced John W. Campbell Memorial Award matches my Hugo ballot exactly:

Winner: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Second Place: Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
Third Place: The City & The City by China Miéville

My vote wasn't influenced by this result, still it does fuel my suspicion that my taste in science fiction is more closely reflected by jury-chosen awards such as the Campbell Award, rather than popular-vote awards such as the Hugo.

SF Strangelove's Hugo ballot for best novella:
1. "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald
2. "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" by James Morrow
3. "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" by Kage Baker

"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is wonderful. It is a free-standing story that is part of McDonald's cycle of stories about a future India. It first appeared in Cyberabad Days, which was one of the best single-author collections to appear in 2009. "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" is a fine nostalgic mashup of 1940s Hollywood and a secret history of World War Two. I found that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" was enjoyable, if short of Baker's best. The remaining novellas on the shortlist, sadly, I have not yet read. Someday I will learn to leave more time to read the shortlists.

Before leaving the topic of awards, I want to note that one of the truly excellent short stories of 2009, "The Pelican Bar" by Karen Joy Fowler (review) won the Shirley Jackson Award for best short story. The Jackson Award is a relatively new jury-chosen award for horror, psychological suspense, and dark fantasy. It didn't occur to me that "The Pelican Bar" was a horror story when I read it. Nor does it concern me, since I am not interested in using genre categories as blinders. I am glad to see the story get the recognition it deserves.

Related posts:
2010 Hugo Results and Reactions
The 2010 Hugo Awards: Short Story Shortlist
The 2010 Hugo Awards: Novelette Shortlist