Author Archives: aahabershaw
Now that I’m back from Finland and suitably recovered from jetlag to do substantive work, I feel ready to tell you all how it went. Curious? Read on!
One of the primary reasons for me to go to WorldCon this year was to just check out Helsinki, as I rather doubt I’ll have many excuses to get to that corner of the world again. Overall, it was a really nice place – calm, clean, and easy to get around. The convention gave all members a metro pass for the duration of the convention, which was super convenient.
Though I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of the city, what I did see showed me a few things about how much nicer some American cities would be if they made necessary investments into public transit and bike infrastructure. The noise level in Helsinki was surprisingly low, traffic and congestion were minimal, and everybody seemed fairly calm. The quality of life there looks pretty high.
I was worried when going over that I would have trouble communicating, as I was having a hard time picking up any Finnish. Lucky for me, most of the Finns I met spoke enough English for me to get by (and a great many were wholly fluent). Everybody was very nice and I really don’t have much to complain about regarding my stay.
The Convention Center
It became clear really early on that the Finns had vastly underestimated how many people were going to want to go to WorldCon this year. This wasn’t exactly their fault – they based their estimates on previous years’ WorldCons in Europe and expected, based on membership sales, to host about 3500 people. They evidently got about 6500, many of whom purchased in the final week leading up to the kick-off.
Messukeskus, the Helsinki Convention Center, isn’t the biggest convention hall and, with that many extra bodies, it was really crowded. The corridors were kind of narrow, making it hard to get around, and getting into panels was difficult. You really had to line up at least a half-hour ahead of time to make it into any given panel, meaning the best you could hope for was a panel every other hour. The first day I was there (Thursday), I failed to get into most of the panels I wanted to because I hadn’t quite figured this out yet. It was a bit frustrating.
To their credit, the organizers *did* manage to get some extra space for Friday and Saturday panels, but even still it was a mob scene.
My book signing was on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t exactly crowded, but I did manage to sign a few things and even sold a book to a convention goer (I had brought 4 books of my own, since the dealers floor didn’t have any of them – largely my own fault, as I should have been in better communication with my publisher). I also met urban fantasy author Russel Smith (writing under RA Smith), who was sitting next to me. We had a lovely chat.
Of the panels I attended, perhaps the most interesting was the last one – it was on how to write a fight scene and featured Elizabeth Bear, Sebastien de Castell, and a few others whose names are slipping my mind at the moment (sorry! Can’t find my program schedule!). Anyway, there was a lot of back and forth about how detailed a fight scene should be, but the biggest take-away was that fights aren’t interesting or entertaining unless the stakes were clear and the audience is engaged with the characters’ plights, which I agree with and is good to be reminded of sometimes.
I attended a bunch of other panels – too many to go over individually – but one thing I will say is that this particular convention had a much more academic slant than other conventions I’ve been to. Pretty much every panel had one or two academics on the subject present, rather than just a table of writers, editors, and agents. This gave a lot of the panels a more serious tone than usual and meant that a lot of the discussions reached into realms of literary criticism and academic theory rather than concrete craft-building advice or idea brainstorming. The academic side of me found this really interesting (at times), but the writer in me kinda wanted a little bit more practical and concrete writing discussion and less theory.
My own panels went well. The first – “Any Sufficiently Immersive Fantasy is Indistinguishable From Science Fiction” – featured me as moderator, Max Gladstone, Finnish academic Hanna Rikka-Roine, and British academic Farah Mendelsohn. The discussion was basically a genre distinction discussion: does Science Fiction do worldbuilding differently than Fantasy? The basic answer there was “not necessarily” and we talked a bit about what allowed fantasy or science fiction to be what was termed as “immersive.” One interesting point brought up was that science fiction more often had a clearer “what if” driving concept that affected how worlds were built, whereas fantasy often did not. Of course, all of these distinctions were subject to exceptions and variations and we were hasty to point out that rules in literature were made to be broken.
My second panel, on Saturday, was “It Can’t Happen Here.” It was a panel about the horror show of modern politics and how science fiction and fantasy can (or should) work to improve the world around us. It featured Cenk Gokce as moderator, me, Edmond Barret, Evil Ivo, and Cat Sparks. Overall, this panel was a surprising amount of fun (especially considering the subject matter) and, while we did spend a lot of time complaining about politics, we also spent a lot of time talking about how science fiction has the means to potentially reach people, give them ideas, and present problems in such a way that future generations can be inspired to find solutions. That is, of course, if global warming doesn’t kill us all first, I guess. Fun times!
While there, I met with my agent and my editor (good discussions both) and saw a few friends. I also made a bunch of new friends, too, including Russel Smith (my signing buddy), fellow swashbuckling fantasy author Sebastien de Castell, German military scifi author Robert Corvus and his friend Martin Schneider (who runs one of the best scifi conventions in Germany). I met a variety of Finns (Pasi Kallinen, in particular – hello!), Dutch, Irish, Americans, and British – new friends all. I also spent quite a lot of time alone, riding the trams and looking at the city.
I saw Max Gladstone (again) – I seem to see him at every con these days – and I met Joe Abercrombie for the first time (though I doubt he remembers me). I saw George RR Martin everywhere I went, but I didn’t talk to him (he always had a gaggle of fans around him). I met my editor’s wife (whom I gave a copy of
my book), and met a great many other people besides.
Overall, a successful trip to Finland for WorldCon 75! Hopefully I’ll be able to go next year, too. Maybe I’ll see you all in San Jose!
In a few hours, I will be boarding a plane. This plane will cross an ocean and land in one place, and then I will get on another plane which will cross a continent and land in…
That’s right, campers – I’m off to Worldcon! To distant Scandanavia! So close to Russia and yet so far from Japan!
(but seriously, I need to get that song out of my head. The Finns will think I’m insane.)
Hopefully I will see some of you there. If not, hopefully I’ll see somebody I know. If, by some lucky confluence of events, you will happen to be there and happen to also wish to see me/meet me/accost me, this is where you’ll be able to find me:
Panel #1: Any Sufficiently Immersive Fantasy is Indistinguishable from Science Fiction
Thursday 15:00 – 16:00, 216 (Messukeskus)
In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn made the observation that “immersive fantasy is that which is closest to science fiction”. Might there be any corollary on the side of science fiction, and what rhetorical devices make a work feel more as fantasy or as science fiction? And can the method used in Rhetorics of Fantasy be used fruitfully on science fiction too?
Signing: Auston Habershaw
Friday 14:00 – 15:00, Signing area (Messukeskus)
Panel #2: It Can’t Happen Here
Saturday 18:00 – 19:00, 216 (Messukeskus)
It can’t happen here: Looking at the headlines these days, and many people seem to be thinking bad things can’t happen where they live, but then we get Brexit. President Trump. Turkey sliding into authoritarian theocracy. Russia annexing Crimea with the international community watching. What can history teach us about things that can happen, and how do we write SF that is not going to be dystopias after dystopias? Heinlein’s story, Logic of Empire ends with the line “Things are bound to get a lot worse before they can get any better.” Is this inevitable? What can we do about it, and how can SF offer hope for the future with our fictional worlds?
So, there it is – my schedule! I hope to meet new people and see new things and learn new stuff. I also hope my book signing isn’t an hour of me sitting alone at a table (grand ambitions, I know).
See you all on the other side!
Hey everybody! I’m not dead!
Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.
But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.
When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:
The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.
When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.
To which I say bullshit.
Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.
The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.
Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”
This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.
To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
Say it with me, now:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.
Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.
The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.
Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.
Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.
Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.
When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.
Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.
The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.
Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.
You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.
I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.
Adding to my joyous publication news, I’d like to draw your attention to the July/August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) wherein you will discover my story, “The Masochist’s Assistant.”
I’m pretty proud of this one, folks, and I’d love for you to read it. Set in the same world as Tyvian Reldamar, it tells the story of a young Akrallian famulus and his struggles to cope with the master mage who employs him to assist with his various plans to commit suicide and then resurrect himself. Sounds fun, eh?
But it’s not just me in there! There’s a whole host of other tales by extremely talented authors whom I am privileged to share a table of contents with. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far:
- William Ledbetter takes us on a search for a lost sister in the far-flung reaches of space in “In a Wide Sky, Hidden.”
- Robin Furth gives us a spine-tingling tale of necromancy and fey bargains in “The Bride in Sea-Green Velvet,” which I found both beautifully written and seriously creepy.
- David Erik Nelson’s novella “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House” is a grade-A horror tale about a creepy house in Detroit with a dark secret. This one had me flipping pages as fast as any Stephen King novel – you’ll love it!
- “A Dog’s Story” by Gardner Dozois is a short but touching tale of the secret lives animals lead when humans are out of the picture. Very well realized and a lot of fun.
- G. V. Anderson’s “I Am Not I” so far wins the prize for “creepiest story I’ve read in years.” So imaginative and so, so well done – I’ll be thinking about this one for a long while.
- “Afiya’s Song” by Justin C. Key is a powerful alternate history of slavery in America in the early 19th century. Stomach churning and beautifully done – you’ve got to read this one!
There are two more stories I’ve yet to get to yet, but both of them look pretty cool and I couldn’t wait to blow the trumpets on this one. Go get it! There’s book reviews, too, and a ton of other stuff.
You can subscribe to the magazine through their website and it can also be found on Weightless Books or on Kindle via Amazon. If you’re just looking to buy the paper copy in person, though, it is carried in most Barnes and Noble locations nationwide.
Go and check it out – you won’t regret it!
Got something to show you guys:
Amazon has the release date as March 27th, 2018. Go here to pre-order.
What’s it about? Well, here’s a brief teaser I whipped up just now (I’m sure it will be subject to change):
After years of staying one step ahead of his enemies, Tyvian Reldamar has finally made it. He and his friends now live incognito in the posh city of Eretheria, living the high life and rubbing elbows with the city’s elite.
That is until someone starts a vicious rumor about Tyvian – they say he is the long-lost heir to the empty Eretherian throne.
Now, hounded by assassins in a city on the verge of popular revolt, Tyvian has to find a way to placate the devious noble houses while also protecting the peasantry and avoiding civil war. And all with that damned conscience-amplifying ring fused to his hand.
It’s a tall order, but if anybody can do it, it’s Tyvian.
But it just might kill him.
Exciting, no? Hold on to your powdered wigs, Tyvian fans! More adventure is coming your way in March!*
(*-barring any unforeseen delays or changes beyond my control)
Okay, so this is a partial writing update of sorts: I am currently buried in novel projects. On the one hand, Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed (which needs to be turned in to my editor by January) is perhaps 1/3 of the way through the first draft. I need to finish this draft by late August or I won’t have time to revise. That’s something of a tight deadline for me at the best of times.
Additionally I just received back Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed from my editor and I need to have all the edits done on that by July 12th. I bashed my face against this book so many times I’m still recovering from the scars, and yet there are more substantive edits I need to make and I’m literally driving myself crazy in an attempt to solve them.
This leaves me in the unenviable position of trying to both write a novel and edit a novel at the same time on the same days (since I can’t afford to take a break from writing book 4, but I also have to edit book 3 pretty quickly). I think a fair approximation of this feeling would be if your brain were both on fire and freezing at the same time. Sure, you can cool yourself off, but then the cold gets you OR you can warm yourself up but then the fire becomes unbearable.
The crazy thing is, though, that this is what I signed up for. Many authors, if they’re working at a good pace, have to deal with overlapping projects on short deadlines. It’s part of the deal – it’s another gate to pass through, another notch in your axe. You know, assuming you can do it.
And I can do it. It’s just fiercely difficult and very stressful and I spend a lot of time being short of breath and faintly sick to my stomach as I think about what I have to do and how quickly. I’m sure many of you understand what that’s like.
So, I am leaving you all (and myself) with this for inspiration:
Thank you all for allowing me this brief moment of procrastination. Now, back into the word mines with me.
As my summer reading-for-pleasure run continues, I’m in the midst of Cline’s Ready Player One. I’m enjoying it – certainly more than my last half dozen reads or so – and this bodes well. There is, however, one (fairly large) aspect of the book that I’m not enjoying half as much as I feel I should, and I kinda want to talk about that. It has to do with the 1980s.
Now, I’m a bit younger than Cline, but not by a lot. I remember the 1980s well – they were my childhood. So far, I’m picking up just about every 1980s reference the book is laying down (which is a LOT) with the possible exception of Zork, which was a bit before my time. I’m getting the impression (and have picked up from others) that this incessant river of 80s nostalgia is part of the book’s appeal. But, like, it isn’t really doing anything for me. I mean, I nod my head every so often and think to myself “oh, right – WarGames. I should watch that again,” but I do not, myself, feel anything upon the reference to WarGames. Reciting dialogue from the movie does not have the same feel or magic as actually watching the movie.
And this is where I think the book is failing to grab me: I love the 1980s, but I don’t especially love a non-stop discussion about how much I love the 1980s. That kind of nostalgia-based story doesn’t grab me, because it does not, in and of itself, actually do anything but reference the existence of some other story I liked. It’s like watching a clip show of your favorite show in lieu of an entirely new episode.
Now, to its credit, Ready Player One does have its own story and its own characters and plot and so on, and the aspects of the book I’m really enjoying are entirely in those parts. The problem develops when we have a five paragraph explanation of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times and then I have to be led through it all again, scene by scene. Cline does his best to get through these things with efficiency, but the fact is that I’m not so much getting a new story as a re-shoot of a classic thing I’ve known since childhood. I don’t really want to play through the Tomb of Terror again, since I’ve already done that before.
What I’d really prefer is a story that takes the elements of the movies and stories common to the 1980s that I enjoy and see those elements used to make a new story in the same loose genre. Ready Player One is, on some level, telling a “1980s” story in a number of ways (the love interest, the down-on-his-luck kid, the evil rich guys, etc.), but it isn’t doing it as well as I feel Stranger Things does, and that’s because too much of Ready Player One expects me to cheer when they reference Joust or Back to the Future without actually replicating the emotional content or importance of either of those properties.
Now, in Stranger Things, I felt real, actual nostalgia. The film looks, feels, and sounds like the movies and books I watched and read as a kid. However, it does all of this without constantly bashing us over the head with “ain’t the 80s cool” stuff. Yes, yes, many of the camera shots are direct homages to Spielberg and Zemekis and others. Yes, a lot of the elements are things we’ve seen in Stephen King novels or Richard Donner films. However, the show is not actually about any of those things. They are incidental – they’re establishing a mood, but the mood is not the main course. Even if you don’t pick up any of those references, the story is, in and of itself, is emotionally compelling and interesting. This is in large part because it is telling the kind of story that is emotionally compelling in a similar way to its forebears. It is not, however, a simple retelling of any one story, nor is it a ripoff or shallow imitation. It is a new, legitimate entry into a genre of film that has been somehow forgotten.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about Ready Player One. If you don’t get any of the references, a significant aspect of the plot and action is going to be lost on you. Yes, Cline does a pretty good job of trying to get you up to speed, but if there is no actual preexisting emotional attachment to the things referenced, the book isn’t going to work half as well as it should.
Here’s another way to look at it: we are currently as far away from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. So, let me ask you this question: does Back to the Future still hold together as an interesting, emotionally compelling film even if you don’t know jack about the 1950s? Of course it does! Because, even if you don’t get the “Marvin Berry” joke, more or less everything of significant import in that film is relatable to anybody. Now, if, on the other hand, the movie asked us to follow along as Marty went through an incessant primer on 1950s scifi from his father, all the way to the point where he began summarizing Asimov’s Foundation and Marty started quoting passages, you’d lose the audience. Because at that point you are more interested in making references than you are in telling your own story, and story always has to come first.
I realize that I’m coming down a bit hard on Cline here, and I don’t really mean to say that Ready Player One isn’t a good book – as mentioned, I’m enjoying it a good deal – but I think the things it does best are not the things everybody seems to pay attention to and the things it struggles the most with are the things everybody assumes are the draw.
Part of the whole point I (and many others) read science fiction and fantasy is that we really love going to new, alien worlds and living there for a while. Exotic landscapes and bizarre technology and magic are part of that, and if you read in these genres, you get pretty good at acclimating yourself to weird new worlds. There are, however, limits to how far we are willing to go. Stuff can get too weird.
Case in point, when you get to the last two books of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, shit goes seriously sideways. You’ve got aliens now, and Severian is traveling through space/time, and becomes Archon (or Emperor…or something) based on no clear reason and the whole of everything you’ve read previously becomes dreamlike and vague. To be honest, I have trouble even remembering what happens in the end of that book thanks to how bizarre it is.
Even when the storytelling is trying to be concrete, however, there are ways a world can knock you out of the immersion just by how alien they want their world to be. I have a lot of trouble, for instance, getting acclimated into worlds where there is no common units of measurement or time. Bad enough I need to balance a dozen different alien species and understand how psychic symbiotes work, but now I also need to know how long a “krandak” is?
Now, I totally realize that in far-future scifi and secondary world fantasy there is no good reason for people to measure things in miles/kilometers, do things on “Thursday,” and drink tea. Obviously, since these worlds are so far removed from our own, there would be very few common threads. However as authors we also need to remember that this is a story intended to be read and understood by the people of Earth. If you’re going to be writing the book in an Earth-language anyway, you can take a bit more translator’s license and talk about “inches” and “noon.”
There is a balance here to be struck, of course. The author wants to create a new and unique world and they want it to feel weird and alien at first. They still want you to be able to connect and understand what’s going on, though. If they go along and eliminate every single reference to our 24 hour day, we are going to have a lot of issues understanding what day and night are and what they signify (or, at least not without a lot of work on the part of the author). If this is central to the plot and to the concept the book is trying to explore, then this is fine. But if it’s incidental – if it doesn’t really matter – you should probably leave well enough alone and let the people live in a world with grass and trees and call them such. I’d even argue that leaving a few things of common reference makes the rest of the world seem more real and even more exotic, since you have something to compare it to.
I’ve been struggling with this kind of world-building myself for a little while now. On the one hand, I’ve created a scifi setting in which there are no humans (or even descendants thereof). Everything is very weird in a lot of important ways. As a compromise, I’ve decided that this alien culture is going to use hours, minutes, seconds, and the metric system. Should they? Well, no, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be able to describe anything to anybody if I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve got a fantasy setting that is an ancient world (say, ~800-500 BCE) in which there is no sun or moon. There are things that give light up there, yeah, but they aren’t the sun or the moon. This is proving to be wildly difficult to explain in any kind of elegant way, since nobody in the world itself would find this weird and yet everybody reading would find it fantastically alien. My solution (thus far) is to not bother explaining it unless I absolutely have to. But, you know, pretty soon I’ll have to. So, by way of balance, I’m doing my absolute best to make sure a lot of the other things the characters wear, say, and do are recognizable and clear. There’s only so much weirdness the reader can take, after all.
If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.
I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.
Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.
The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.
This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.
But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.
And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.
I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.