Chatting is the thing | Worldcon 75

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Being overwhelmed is part and parcel of going to any convention. I would argue that it’s actually baked into the experience from the word go — the idea that you shove yourself into a large space — usually one with inordinately high ceilings — to experience specialised events and ‘network’ incessantly is not a recipe for being chill, exactly.

Worldcon 75, having taken place at the Messukeskus in Helsinki from August 9 to 13, was certainly one such experience for me, and judging by the exhaustion of many other science fiction, fantasy (etc.) writers and fans who I came into contact with over this intensive batch of days, I wasn’t the only one.

But neither would I say that it was all draining, or particularly difficult to grasp.

Part of this is down to just how much better a time I had at the Worldcon this year than I did back in 2014 — the so-called ‘Loncon’ in the — you guessed it — still-not-blighted by Brexit UK capital. Perhaps the event itself is not entirely to blame for my awkwardness (and I had my good friend Alistair Rennie guiding me through the worst of it anyway) but learning the ropes and pacing yourself is what the convention should be all about.

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Day One!

There’s also the fact that Helsinki seems to have attracted a batch of people whom I knew online but hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet ‘IRL’ — largely thanks to the fact that I had lured them to participate in Schlock Magazine in some capacity, which now being more than ably run by my little sister. There was an especially nice symmetry to the fact that the lovely trio of Gregory Norman BossertKali Wallace and John Chu served as both a welcoming and a farewell committee for myself and my new bride (who was bemused by the whole affair but, I’m sure, enjoyed the company and is bound to have taken some lovely (film) photos of our various gatherings).

In what was to become another through-line for the trip, that trio are alumni of the celebrated Clarion workshops — just like two other friends I was lucky enough to chat with on more than one occasion during the Con; Haralambi Markov and Karin Tidbeck. The latter, whose novel Amatka you should definitely check out and who was among the many people kind enough to write me a recommendation letter as I applied for — and won! — the Malta Arts Council grant that allowed me to come to the Con in the first place, openly recommended that Clarion should be the next step forward for me.

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We shall see what the future holds in this regard… actually, let me rephrase that: I will have to see just how I can manage to rustle up the necessary funds to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, since its benefits were made empirically evident for me throughout the Con.

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On a panel about European Myths and History (ambitious, much?)

Standing — or as was more often the case, sitting — shoulder to shoulder with the Clarionites for the best part of a week could easily have made me feel out of place, were it not for the fact that they were, for the most part, really nice and accommodating every step of the way. Perhaps the knee-jerk clubiness of Maltese culture is what leads me to assume that everyone ends up that way. When in fact, it’s certainly not the case; and going to events like this Con is a clear reminder that pretentiousness and ‘attitude’ of any kind is never helpful if you want to get ahead in any creative industry — be it based on writing or otherwise.

Indeed, I will remain forever humbled by some of the writers I’ve met and who, despite their success guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy, still found enough time to speak to me one-on-one and offer their professional advice in a candid and expansive manner. Part of that, I think, is borne out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ after your own creative trajectory has been so tough (even if the rewards came, in the end).

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Sith Happens

It could be a dispiriting fact to remember, but I also find it inspiring. It’s a reminder this word-wrangling business isn’t just a ghostly pursuit, but a field whose steps you can climb.

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There’s a lot more that could be said about the Con; or at least, a lot more that I could say from my perspective of it, which — owing to the overwhelming-by-proxy nature of the thing I detailed above — would necessarily be subjective to a fault. Starting with my own discomfort with certain performances of ‘fandom’ — hence my unsurprising focus on the dynamics between writers — and ending with my own perceptions of Helsinki itself — a beautiful, calming place that will hopefully get its own separate blog post — but I’d much rather leave things as they are: an airy but fresh perception typed out during a balmy Mediterranean night (so different to the cutting freshness of its bright, Finnish counterparts).

Because the fruit of the many conversations that happened at Worldcon 75 — and, should it not be obvious enough by now, the conversations are what I valued the most out of the entire experience — will be made evident later. When I actually have the time and energy to write out the ideas sparked off by these chats, and to follow up on the networking possibilities that they suggest.

Let this be a promise, to myself above all.

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Thanks to Gregory Norman Bossert, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, T.E. Grau, Jon Courtney Grimwood, KJ Bishop, Chris Gruppetta and the organising team behind Worldcon 75 for helping me get to the con. My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 was supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund. 

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Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

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For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

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And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

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Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.

Wishing you a better, stranger future

Schlock Magazine, Utopia Issue (June 2016), Cover (detail) – Daniela Attard

Schlock Magazine, Utopia Issue (June 2016), Cover (detail) – Daniela Attard

Schlock Magazine has finally emerged out of – only slightly self-imposed – hibernation with a special issue on the theme of ‘Utopia’, guest-edited by my good friend, the anthropologist Elise Billiard.

In a lot of ways, and particularly in the way that its entire thrust is based on a healthier attempt to look at the future, the issue lays the groundwork for how I’d like to see the magazine develop too.

Check out Schlock Magazine’s Utopia Issue (June 2016)

It’s been through many permutations over the years, and I refuse to see this as anything but a good thing. More than anything else, our ability to change according to whim (though mainly circumstance) is the most honest way to leverage our ‘amateur’ status with all the possibilities offered by online publication methods for lo-fi operations such as us.

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Speaking of imaginary structures given added life through creative impetus and irony, the Romanian film Hotel Dallas has proven to be my favourite from the selection at the second edition of the Valletta Film Festival so far.

A mockumentary built on a quirky historical factoid – Ceausescu allowed Dallas as the only American broadcast on Romanian TV for the express purpose of showing how decadent and corrupt American society was – its weaving together of musical, surrealist road trip and an overarching quest narrative never felt forced, pretentious or weird-for-weird’s-sake.

The reason for this is simple: the film’s inherent – sometimes cartoony – strangeness is implicit in the topsy-turvy political situation it seeks to dissect. But it’s the dissection of a trickster, not a surgeon.

 

Turning Thirty to Rampant Development and Literary Nourishment

I turned 30 this May, to a welcoming committee of good friends at a terracotta-walled chillout bar – the same colour that adorns my old room at home and the same colour that will adorn my new room as I settle into the sleepy coastal town of Marsaskala with my girlfriend and Olivia, the fluffy ginger cat.

Or, at least, it will remain sleepy for the odd few months or so, until yet another ludicrous development takes over the ever-diminishing unspoilt land on the island, this time right under my (new) doorstep.

More on that later, for now here’s a few things that have kept me busy over the past month.

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Photo by Jacob Sammut

Photo by Jacob Sammut

Schlock Magazine’s May issue – The overall brief was ‘Spring’, and I think we’ve succeeded in creating an eclectic and visually sumptuous edition, if I may say so myself. Check it out and give us your feedback, if you’re so inclined. It would be appreciated either way, as we’re planning some pretty big changes in the near future any constructive crit will go a long way. Click here to check it out.

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Some cool interviews – Got to chat to the great Jeremy Robert Johnson about his blistering bizarro-noir debut novel Skullcrack City (once again, for Schlock) and the day job got a bit more interesting when I scored the chance to speak to David Bowie’s former guitarist turned newspaper mogul Mark Pritchett. It made for a curious afternoon, though as ever, the more memorable insights were kept off the record.

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Fun reads – Apart from the aforementioned Skullcrack City, I thoroughly enjoyed Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion – a weird western with touches of Chinese mysticism and trans-continental vampire lore. We’ll be interviewing Tanzer for Schlock Talks too, and I’ll be reviewing the book for May’s edition of Schlock’s Pop Culture Destruction. Tanzer also featured in an anthology I’ve enjoyed and chatted to my Schlock interlocutor Marco about for Schlock’s podcastLetters to Lovecraft, edited by Jesse Bullington. My dear friend Pyt also gifted me a sumptuous coffee table volume of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands, which now sits atop of The Steampunk User’s Manual (ed. Jeff VanderMeer & Desirina Boskovich) – another birthday gift, courtesy of my sister and her boyfriend. These are the books that are imagination fuel as I type or sketch away.

Reads I’m looking forward to in the near future: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace and – perhaps above all – Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The massed effect of this reading schedule seems to point to a keener environmental awareness, and a desire to get at something obstinately ancient and ‘quiet’, as a counter-reaction to the ADD generation. And what better way to do that than through rocks?

Bits of October | The Favourite Season

Eye of the storm: M'Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

Eye of the storm: M’Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

The heat has finally decided to recede but the weather is still nice – October is equivalent to spring in Malta but it comes with Halloween attached, therefore it wins.

Traditionally associated with decay, the season has actually borne some fruit for me already, so it’s just a matter of maintaining a productive momentum now.

Some moments to boast about, because that’s how the web-generation rolls.

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Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

The New Weird anthology of short fiction and essays (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) may not be the absolute best and/or influential book I’ve ever read, but it’s had a strong enough impact on my post-adolescence creative life to warrant at least its own custom dust jacket.

The anthology introduced me to M. John Harrison – ‘The Luck in the Head’ is proof that genre-inflected surrealism could really be a thing, with atmosphere to boot – and it made me sit up and pay attention to Clive Barker, as ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ showed me that far from being superficial trafficker in splatter, Barker is interested in tapping into the primoridal (at a stretch, ‘pagan’) strain of horror fiction. It has even led to friendship, as Alistair Rennie’s blistering, shocking and hilarious ‘The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines’ (the only original story in the anthology) made me seek out the author online, and a couple of years later I found myself sitting on the sofa of his plush Edinburgh pad showing him a video recording of a round-robin reading my friends and I performed of the story (in funny voices).

Its carnivalesque meld of genre elements and literary fiction made me feel like kindred spirits were around: that I could consolidate my since-childhood love of genre fiction with a newfound love of carefully constructed language and intertextual lit games. This spark was an extra kick in the butt to kick-start one of my enduring (collaborative) passion projects, Schlock Magazine, and the addendum essays gave a necessary backbone to my MA dissertation on the New Weird.

I knew my friend Sarah Micallef – aka The Secret Rose – would be able to meet this challenge, and then some.

Click here to get the full lowdown on how she put this baby together.

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Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Speaking of Schlock, this month we’re resurrecting from our summer-slumber (blame the aforementioned heat) just in time for – again – Halloween, and I’m quite happy with what’s in store.

Already up is our interview with prolific writer and editor of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Mark Morris, along with a profile of Spectral publisher Simon Marshall-Jones.

I like the unsentimental approach Morris has towards fiction writing; an inevitable survival tool, perhaps, considering he’s written tie-in material for properties like Doctor Who, Spartacus and the Dead Island video game.

Here’s my favourite extended quote from the interview:

“I accepted the ‘Dead Island’ commission – an 80,000 word novel in four weeks, based on nothing more substantial than 15 pages of gaming notes. I panicked and sweated over that one for an hour or two after accepting it, and then knuckled down and within half a day produced a novel plan and writing schedule, which I stuck to rigidly. That then gave me the confidence to write a Spartacus novel, which again was an 80,000 words in four weeks job. I’d never seen the TV series and knew nothing about the ancient Roman Empire, but I said yes and just got on with it.”

In the weeks ahead we’ll also be featuring analyses on Penny Dreadful, along with an excellent essay on the ‘splatpunk’ horror sub-genre that delightfully skates a fine line between academic rigour and fannish enthusiasm.

Click here to read our full interview with Mark Morris.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

It has also been a good season for reading so far. I’ve finished Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves last night; having zipped through it in little over a week (a busy work week, I hasten to add). Though I think it’s ultimately not as hard-hitting and profound as it could have been (strong ideas are suggested but never allowed to fully take root), it remains an endearing and touching read. Fowler is clearly an effortless storyteller; there’s a fine balance of heart and mind all throughout, and the back-and-forth narrative is effervescent and rich.

On an entirely different tangent, Jeff VanderMeer’s conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy was both obliquely satisfying and inspiring. To some readers’ frustration, Acceptance deliberately refuses to wrap up every single mystery at the heart of Area X. But I found its oblique approach to be its most powerful quality.

Acceptance

In fact, ‘oblique’ is what is best about both the VanderMeer and the Fowler book. Among other things, memory is Fowler’s theme, and the fragmented hopping back and forth of her narrator Rosemary is what lends the book both its charming conversational rhythm and uncanny poignancy.

VanderMeer, on the other hand, enhances his genre-collage by coming at everything sideways and leaving plenty of leftover gaps for the reader. Gaps which, thanks to his left-field manipulation of genre details, create a creepy – in the literal sense of ‘creeping’ – effect over the proceedings.

I will be talking about the Southern Reach Trilogy with my good friend Marco Attard, for an upcoming edition of his Pop Culture Destruction ‘Destructcast’.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy is also about our mistreatment of the natural world and its enduring power despite all of this, so I was glad to experience some of nature’s wrath first-hand during a picnic-cum-hike at one of Malta’s few remaining spots of unblemished ‘nature’.

Far from being a damper on our outing, a sudden storm lent a welcome atmosphere to our adventure. We found shelter and watched the rain and lightning, and the mud-caked trip back ensured we experienced something of an adventure too.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to usher autumn in (see image above).