Monthly Archives: November 2016

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

After Virtue

After Virtue: A Study in Moral TheoryAfter Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MacIntyre wants to understand virtue. In particular, he wants to know not so much why virtue seems to be lacking in society today (this isn’t book moralizing on the problems of a post-modern society); rather, he wants to know why social discourse about virtue seems so incommensurate, so broken, so pointless. My first thought on reading the initial portions of this book was that he was simply critiquing the advent of post-modernity, but what he’s actually doing is something more sophisticated and systematic. Yes, he’s acknowledging that our dialogue on any sort of moral issues or claims seems to be absolutely stymied today, but he wants to rigorously explain why and analyze how it came to be this way. And the answer, according to his historical and philosophical treatment, is the loss of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

After Virtue is largely a historical analysis of virtue. MacIntyre’s central claim is that moral discourse is broken because there are no central agreed-upon premises to begin with and that historically Aristotelian virtue ethics has proven one of the most fertile starting grounds for questions of morality and ways of living. (I admit the philosophical sophistication of this work was such that my review may simplify to the point of obscuring.) He’s careful not to idealize Aristotle’s system of virtue, and he points out the failings and shortcomings of the Philosopher’s model, but historically he looks at the primary aspects of Aristotelian ethics, how they were abandoned in the Enlightenment, and the failure of the Enlightenment project to construct alternative groundings for morality.

There are two central aspects to MacIntyre’s reading of Aristotle’s concept of the virtues, two primary characteristics the abandonment of which have bankrupted societal dialogue and endeavors on morality today. For MacIntyre (as for Aristotle) an understand of virtue was tied to an understanding of the good of man—the intended end or telos of humanity—not as individuals (the individual rights and internal morality that have dictated how we talk about these things since the Enlightenment is a central problem for MacIntyre) but as the good of communities. A community exists and evaluates virtue in terms of those things that are useful between individuals in relationship with one another for the good of the community.

But this isn’t a utilitarian good; MacIntyre’s resurrection of Aristotelian telos is something more philosophically nuanced. It is related to the internal goods of practices, for instance, and here’s where his argument seemed most profound (and most apt to slip away from me). Internal goods are those goods that are intrinsic to the practice itself (excellence in the practice of chess-playing or baseball, for instance), as opposed to external goods (money, fame) that might be found through those practices but aren’t the intrinsic telos of the practice itself. If we lose a sense of humans in community working toward common, intrinsically-valuable ends, sharing practices that have internal goods—if we give this up for an Enlightenment sense of atomistic individuals pursuing their own self-interest—then MacIntyre says we don’t have a grounds to understand virtue.

The second aspect was that virtue can only exist in the context of narrative, also tied to Aristotelian views of telos. If we don’t have a clear understanding of our own story, of our own participation in narrative, and of our communities and institutions as also having narratives, then we won’t have a grounding for understanding virtue that is defined in terms of ends and intrinsic goods. Aristotle writes that it’s impossible to say someone has been happy until their death, until their story has played out. MacIntyre says profound things in this work (quotes I wish I would have saved, as they speak directly to the power of narrative) about the necessity of narrative and the view of humanity in a narrative structure to our understanding (or lack thereof) regarding virtue.

The problem with this book is illustrated by the fumbling manner in which I’m generalizing and vaguely pointing to the different aspects of the work. In reading it, one can follow MacIntyre’s thick analysis more or less. He’s building an argument for something that seems quite counter to modern analytical philosophy, but because he wants to engage philosophers he has to do it in a very careful and analytical manner. But because his ideas are radically different—a view that ethics and morality as a logical, analytical exercise is vacuous and things like history and narrative and practice have to come into play—he’s constantly reaching beyond analytical philosophy to make a bigger argument. It’s an argument that has a direct bearing on how we live (something that also makes it perhaps unique among analytical philosophies), yet it’s a book that’s out of reach of most, I fear. It would be ideal if there were a quality popularization of this work, something that pulled out MacIntyre’s central themes and set them out for the interested undergraduate or popular reader.

MacIntyre’s work has been influential (there’s a paper, for instance, in the latest issue of ISIS, applying MacIntyre’s concept of goods internal to a practice to the practice of science), but I’m not sure whether such an explanatory derivative work based on After Virtue exists. The posts of Father Stephen, an orthodox priest who maintains a popular blog, often draw on his arguments and in fact were where I realized I should probably read this book. (I don’t have an excuse for waiting so long, as an undergraduate roommate did his thesis on virtue ethics, and I ran into MacIntyre at least once during my time at Notre Dame.) Father Stephen goes so far as to say that he finds it useless to have discussions about modern morality (or lack thereof) unless his interlocutors have first read McIntyre’s work. I find that frustrating, as I imagine most people would find this book difficult going indeed. But the central concepts here are indeed crucial and deserve a far wider hearing. Indeed, the energy that most of us use arguing about morality, I would venture, would be far better applied to attempting to work through MacIntyre’s analysis.

A Story about Gene Wolfe (and me)

This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.

In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.

At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.

The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.

When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.

I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.

And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.

I started writing.

I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.

Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:

“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”

And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”

Sound familiar?

So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson tries to do everything, and it totally pisses me off. It wouldn’t bother me so much if I could dismiss him, if what he did didn’t really matter very much or if he did it badly. But he does it with a certain curmudgeonly panache that makes it all the more irritating when he succeeds. He gets to travel to interesting places and write about how they make him cranky, which is pretty much the height of achievement for a writer. But when he takes on something like the entirety of the physical world itself in A Brief History of Nearly Everything and comes across even more genuine and reflective, I want to either give him a huge high-five or push him off a cliff.

The thing about this book, Bryson’s first work of natural history, is that it retains most of the best parts of his writing style and drops the most irritating aspects. That is, in Bryson’s travel writings I’m always annoyed at the way his cranky “get off my lawn” disposition stands in tension with a clear-eyed excitement and wonder about the places he’s going and the things he learns there. Much of this, at least in his UK work, is because he’s seen these places before, has spent much of his career trying to preserve them, and is embittered about the way they’re changing. In A Brief History, the subject matter precludes some of this personal irritation but retains his wonder about the nature of reality itself and the story of man’s investigation of it, and this to great effect.

Bryson is a writer who can pretty much—it seems—do whatever he wants. So when he came to the realization that he didn’t know much about the natural history of the planet he’s spend a career traveling around on, no one told him that he didn’t have the training or the background to write a compelling treatment. He just started reading books and talking to specialists, and A Brief History is what we got. Despite my expectations returning to the book after nearly a decade and a PhD later, I think he largely succeeds.

Now, of course there are errors and misrepresentations. Any specialist reading a book in which Bryson tries to cover so much ground is going to find one or two. At one point, for instance, Bryson causally mentions a distance to Betelgeuse that I think is off by an order of magnitude. But in general terms, he does a remarkably good job of taking a non-specialist on a tour of the physical world, through space and time but focusing primarily on our own planet and our own (sometimes misguided) attempts to understand it, highlighting all the while just how amazing it all is. And, of course, because it’s Bryson, all the weirdness and randomness and strange stories involved in the (largely male) folks who figured this stuff out figure prominently.

Of course, that approach lends itself to certain pitfalls in writing historical treatments of science, and Bryson doesn’t avoid these. The entire work is suffused with Whiggism. That is, Bryson is interested in explaining how we “got to” our (assumedly correct) modern understanding of things. In fairness, he recognizes how much uncertainty and conjecture there is in discussion of, for instance, our early history and origins as a species. But largely, his story is a narrative of how different scientists “got it right” or “almost got it right.” What they did is interpreted with the final modern synthesis in sight. He’s not interested in understanding the context in which someone like Isaac Newton was working or evaluating his theories by their own terms and historical context; he holds them up as a modernist looking through interesting oddities, pulling old things from a drawer and laughing at how quaint certain aspects appear.

But I can forgive a lot in this work, because there are so many interesting things to bring to light and Bryson still does such a great job of unearthing them. He admits that his work is in no way a standardized, authoritative, or comprehensive treatment. It’s not a textbook, and a different writer would have pulled out different interesting bits. Rather, as with Bryson’s other books, it’s a meander. But here we don’t get vignettes of Bryson falling asleep on a bus only to wake and berate the fate of a random seaside village; here we get instead a lot of genuine wonder and accessible prose leading us along into this big wide world and our long and tangled explorations of it.