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Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

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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Picture 2To me, he was the best.

When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.

More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.

He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.

I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.

And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.

I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.

There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.

The King is Dead! The King is Dead!

Long will we mourn his passing.

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I’ve okayed the proof and now one hundred copies of my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions are jetting my way.

Should be able to start filling orders within a week—and I’ve already received numerous inquiries.

Click on the “Book Store” tab at the top of the page or go here for ordering details.

Support an indie publisher and get a head start on your summer reading.

And I promise: you’re going to love this book…

Exceptions:cover

(Click on image to enlarge)

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