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Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

ImageI recently recorded three brief podcasts, each about two or three minutes in length.

I comment on different topics:  “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.

Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.

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boneclocksI’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.

There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…

But what?

Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:

Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”

I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.

What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.

Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.

Really, Mr. Wood?

I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and  “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.

Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.

I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.

If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.

Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.

David Mitchell is a marvel.

He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.

What a guy.

 

 

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DSC00555Extinct

 

It flutters and at first I think it’s a leaf or a feather.

Run to catch it.

But it moves in my hands!

Drop it like it’s hot.

Go and get Mother.

Telling me to shush as she kneels beside it.

Looking up at me, crying.

“It’s called a butterfly. Butterfly.”

Making me repeat it, so I’ll never forget.

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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100_1027…confined in some kind of plummeting spacecraft, unfamiliar controls, banks of switches and gauges, a bewildering array.

Extreme disorientation, not helped by the jolting descent, my capsule pitching and rolling, a sense of increasing speed and friction–

Fire! Fire! Engulfed in a sheath of flame, watching helplessly as long, thin tracks of plastic slide down the porthole-like windows.

I’m melting.

Turbulence reaching maximum intensity, violent gyrations and bumps, hearing the roar even through my helmet.

A shooting star.

100_1028

Something…heaviness! Good old gravity. Like a slow-settling weight. Or turning to stone.

The fires are going out, leaving behind a blackened cinder.

Me.

Outside: purple. Purple-blue. Blue.

100_1031Landing on water.

Bobbing on a choppy sea, weeping with relief.

Waiting for someone to come and get me.

Wondering how long it will take.

 

 

Copyright, 2014 (All Rights Reserved)

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I’m a space geek, a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool fanatic when it comes to anything to do with making the stars our destination.

I think it’s a complete drag how we seem to have stalled here in near-Earth orbit. Sending tourists up to the International Space Station at twenty million bucks a pop, while dispatching robot drone ships to the far reaches of the solar system, letting them do the work for us. No need for boots on the ground, expensive manned programs, grand visions…

I’ve loved science fiction all my life. Bradbury, Dick, Matheson, Beaumont, Ellison…those were my boys.

I’m also crazy about cinema.

Put it all together and you’ll (perhaps) understand what went into the making of “Planetfall”:

 

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SEX:coverTwenty-five years ago, I was a frustrated, angry writer.

I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.

Didn’t matter.

See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.

“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”

Heard that one a number of times.

But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this:  good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.

What exactly was “this type of thing”?

My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.

And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.

So my book was effectively dead in the water.

But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.

Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980’s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.

When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.

It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.

Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.

It was astonishing.

I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There were no returns.

The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:

“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”

Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.

I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.

I was hooked.

I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.

The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz.  Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.

Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.

So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years  and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.

I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.

Thanks for your support over the years.

The best is yet to come.

Write on…

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%22Beneath%22Sometimes the words run out.

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile my literary faculties abandon me and I’m reduced to a non-verbal level of communication. I have something to say but it can’t be expressed via text—and so I’m forced to rely on other, more tenuous, abilities to get across what I feel must be said.

Initially, I worked with collage, refusing to trust my “skills” with paint and brush. Then I shot some abstract films, usually with quasi-science fiction elements, incorporating some of the strange, spacey music I like to concoct with Garageband. You’ll find a couple of these cinematic efforts on my “Film & Music” page. I’m collecting footage for another short flick, which I hope to have ready in the new year (2014).

It took me awhile to work up the courage to paint but Sherron recently bought be a lovely set of acrylics and gave me various brushes and so…why not?

For the past month or so, I’ve labored over three pieces and I’m going to surprise my dear wife by posting them here. Y’see, normally I refuse to exhibit my visual work or allow anyone to look at it—my canvases are kept wrapped and stacked behind a chair in my office. Hidden from prying eyes. Sherron thinks that a waste and urges me to get them framed, hang them somewhere in the house (bathroom? basement?); so far I’ve resisted her prompting.

I’m not a visual artist, I have very little talent but a whole lotta inspiration and desire. An eager amateur, respectful and deferential of the painters who have mastered and transformed their discipline while acknowledging I possess none of their gifts or aesthetic affinities. My efforts may lack artfulness and sophistication, but they do pay tribute to true genius, those individuals who have transcended their medium and presented viewers with an innovative and impassioned view of the world they live(d) in.

Recently I’ve been reading about Mark Rothko and poring over his oeuvre. Simon Schama has a wonderful feature on Rothko, which can be found on YouTube. The story I love best about M.R. is when he received a huge commission to provide paintings for the Seagram building in New York and ended up giving back the money and keeping the gigantic canvases he’d executed because he dined in the restaurant where they were to hang and didn’t like the affluent patrons frequenting the establishment. Walked away from over a million bucks in today’s currency because, at heart, he was a leftie/anarchist who had little truck with institutionalized power.

My kinda guy.

%22Rosetta%22A casual glance at my daubs and smears reveals a chap whose influences are all over the place. Like my writing, my visual efforts are impossible to categorize, highly personal…and decidedly not for all tastes.

For instance…”Beneath”, the first painting (top of the page)—is that some kinda blundering swipe at impressionism?

And what about the second one (above), unhelpfully titled “Rosetta”?

Obviously influenced by my love of cave painting, ancient visions of the world as imagined by minds that were proto-human…and already beginning to question the solidity and permanence of the universe around them. Oh, for a few hours in Lascaux

Hard to do credit to these pieces in photographs—there’s lots of layering and texture that is obliterated, subtleties and nuances (yes, there are a few) utterly lost.

I use gobs of Wellbond glue, found objects, whatever I can lay my hands on to give an impression of a third dimension in my work. Scrape at the canvas with trowels, x-acto knives, sandpaper; employ toothpicks, Q-tips, styrofoam and (frequently) my fingers, often discarding brushes as too inexact.

How about this last picture (below), “Yule”, which started out as something completely different and gradually morphed into what you see here. I hope it’s apparent from this piece:  I love Christmas, a Grinch who secretly desires to run down and join in the fun with the good folks in Whoville.  Don’t ask me why, I won’t be able to supply you with a coherent, reasonable answer. Christmas morning, I’m the first one up, practically bouncing off the walls as I wait for our family to descend and gather in the living room for our gift opening. Possessed by child-like excitement. Hopefully, all that is evident in “Yule”.

The rest I’ll leave up to your imagination.

(Click on paintings to view enlarged versions)

%22Yule%22

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