A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Shannon:

I discuss a less brutal and, I think, more realistic approach to the post-apocalyptic novel in this essay published on my blog Sci Femme.

Originally posted on Sci Femme:

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996);A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and…

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Notes on The Creative Habit

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is the first of several books I’m planning to read on the creative process. Tharp’s book is a great place to start, as it contains many nuggets of useful information on fashioning a creative life that can be put into practice immediately. Although Tharp’s art is dance, her advice is general enough to apply to any creative pursuit, even cooking, yoga, or gardening, and of course, writing. I found it very inspirational and wanted to share my reading notes, which may be of interest. I hope if you are intrigued that you go ahead and read the whole book–it’s worth it.

Rituals of preparation: Begin each day the same way. Commit to a creative practice by starting with a ritual. Create a working environment that’s habit forming. Distractions and fears are the enemy!

Twyla says: “…there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself.”

That’s why following someone else’s prescription for creativity may not work!

Creative DNA: How do you see? What is your focal length: close up, medium, or long view?

Harness memory: Experiences and memories are the source of art. Find new ways to connect the memories that you’ve stored.

Twyla says: “Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art.”

Start with a box: When starting a new project, put everything about that project together into a box,* including research, notes, inspiration. (*A blog can be a “box.”)

Scratching: the process of getting started and finding ideas. Look everywhere. Read! You can’t stop with one idea–a workable idea is the combination of two separate ideas.

Accidents: Have a plan/don’t over plan. Be open to luck and happy accidents. Run with them when they occur. Limits on resources can help creativity.

Creativity as an act of defiance: Why do I have to obey the rules? Why can’t I be different? Why can’t I do it my way?

Spine*: the first strong idea/your intentions/motive for existence. Stick to your spine and your piece will work. The audience does not have to know what it is. It guides you and keeps you going. It’s a gift you give yourself to make the work easier.

*This is the key chapter in the book, the one most important piece of wisdom to take away.

Thought: Could you have a spine not only for creative projects, but for phases of your life?

Skill: You need to develop your skills to be truly great. Combine skill with passion. Learn to do for yourself to broaden your skills. Practice (diligence+habit) to keep your skills. Never take fundamentals for granted.

Inexperience erases fear–you don’t know what is not possible. Switch genres or to another skill set.

Ruts and grooves: There will come a time when creativity fails you. A rut: you’re spinning your wheels; the world is moving on while you’re standing still. Ruts are caused by bad ideas, bad timing, or bad luck. A rut is sticking to old methods without taking into account how you’ve changed (“always done it this way”). Question everything except your ability to get out of the rut.

First see the rut; second, admit you’re in a rut; third, get out of the rut. You may need to change your environment. You may need a new idea; set an aggressive quota. You may need to challenge or reverse your assumptions; practice this.

A groove: moving forward without hitches; learning, growing, stretching, being at your best. The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture. Does it give you pain (a rut) or pleasure (a groove)?

Build a bridge to the next day. Write your intention down and read it first thing on the following day.

An A in failure: The creative act is editing out the ideas that don’t work. You do your best work after your biggest disasters. Failure is necessary, but you must be willing to learn from your failures. Build failure into the process; invite criticism and learn from it.

  • failure of skill: develop skills
  • failure of concept: move on to something else
  • failure of judgment: be a tyrant
  • failure of nerve: looking foolish is good for you
  • failure through repetition: try something new
  • failure from denial: admit when something is not working

The long run: Be in the bubble. Be willing to subtract everything that disconnects you from your work. (The most difficult advice to put into practice!)

The slippery genre of slipstream…

Of all the sub-genres crowded under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction,” slipstream is probably the trickiest to nail down. Bruce Sterling, who coined the term, called slipstream “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” (Presumably, his comments extend to the early twenty-first century as well.)

Also referred to as interstitial fiction, slipstream blurs the conventional boundaries of genre (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and literary fiction, and thus, by its very nature, is difficult to categorize. The end result is often surreal or weird, so slipstream can be called “the fiction of strangeness.”

Franz Kafka might be considered the grandfather of slipstream writing, and its forefathers were unquestionably the classic science fiction authors Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Magical realism was another important influence, including the authors Gabriel Garcia Marques, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, and Salman Rushdie.

Recently, slipstream has become more “mainstream” as contemporary literary authors regularly experiment with blurring the genre lines. Notable examples include:

Even though slipstream is tricky to define, I enjoy reading it whenever I happen upon it (and most often, I just know it when I see it). Examples that I have read this year and would recommend include A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber; and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. For more reading suggestions, see this expanded list at LibraryThing (based on a list originally created at Readercon).

Horror is a feeling, not a genre

Shannon:

Yes, I’ve started a new blog project called Noir Femme. This one is kind of a sister project to Sci Femme, about women writing horror and dark fiction, as opposed to science fiction. But before I could get started on the reading, I had to identify (for myself, anyway) exactly what horror is. Here’s my stab at it.

Originally posted on Noir Femme:

Horror has one goal: to disturb. To remind us that we don’t have all the answers. To explode our illusions of being in control.

There may be monsters or the supernatural, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be blood, gore, and guts, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be psycho killers running around with axes, but again, it’s not necessary.

Horror can be, and often is, scary, but more important is a lingering feeling of unease, a delicious sensation of being unsettled.

The best horror takes place in our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. The best horror shatters the comfortable little worlds we’ve constructed for ourselves. It pulls back the veil and reveal the things in the shadows. Horror helps us understand exactly how insignificant we are in a vast, unknowable universe.

It reminds us that we are animals, and sometimes we are monsters. It reminds us…

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Become a friend of your library

Following on my last post, I agree with Neil Gaiman that libraries are of vital importance to our society. Like many readers, I grew up in a library, basically, quickly graduating from the kids’ section to the adult books. I remember systematically reading my way through every Agatha Christie (she wrote something like 85 of them). For a kid like me, the library was my refuge.

Libraries are frequent targets for budget cuts by government officials who don’t understand the vital link between reading and developing minds that can think, imagine, and innovate. Many children don’t have access to books and computers in their homes, and libraries are the only place where they can foster a love of reading. That’s why it’s vitally important for those of us who love books and reading, and who understand just how important they are, to support our local libraries as much as we possibly can. A good way to start is by joining the library’s Friends group. Take part in library activities. Support events featuring writers or aimed at improving children’s reading experiences. I recently joined the Board of our Friends of the Library group, and it has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me as I take part in supporting library programs and our local literary scene.

Books and reading are my primary passion in life. Even though almost everything I read now is on the Kindle, I believe the need for strong libraries is greater than ever. Libraries are the repositories for our culture, the archives of our rich wealth of information, and increasingly, librarians are the experts who help us navigate it all. Libraries create future readers, and they in turn become the thinkers and innovators that make our civilization strong. What could be more important?

The benefits of a book journal…

First, it was slow food, then slow blogging — now slow reading is the latest watchword. In our fast-paced world, movements designed to get us to slow down and really experience what we are doing always have my support.

Here’s a great way to practice slow reading: start a book journal. Whether it’s a notebook or a blog or an online tool like LibraryThing, journaling every book you read forces you to slow down and really think about what you’ve read. For me, my journals — which I started keeping in 2001 — have made me more thoughtful about what I’ve read and helped me form connections I might not otherwise have made. Since I started journaling my reading, I’ve chosen better books to read and integrated my reading more meaningfully into my own writing and my life in general.

I still keep a paper journal in which I write the title, author and publication date of each book I finish or abandon, my initial impressions of the book, and the date I finished it or abandoned it. For books I really like or that spawned a lot of initial thoughts, I write a second, more polished draft of the review and post it here or on LibraryThing.

How do you journal your reading and how has your journal benefited your reading?

Most influential authors…

I keep a record of what I read in LibraryThing. I haven’t recorded every book I’ve ever read, because I don’t remember (boy, I wish I had started keeping a list at the age of 5 or something). But I have recorded almost 1,200 books, so I thought I’d take a look at my authors list and see which authors were most influential on me.

It seems I read widely, because there are only 2 authors with more than 10 listings, and only one, Stephen King, with over 15 listings. I think being an eclectic reader is a very good thing. For purposes of this little poll, done for my amusement only, I decided to count any author with more than 5 listings as highly influential.

Here they are then, in order of influence:

  • Stephen King
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Jonathan Lethem
  • Edward Gorey
  • Christopher Moore* (once, maybe, but not anymore)
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Austen
  • Michael Chabon
  • Fred Chappell
  • Nick Hornby* (like Moore, this one is dubious, unless it’s him writing about books and reading)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Octavia Butler
  • Tom Perrotta
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Roald Dahl
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Shirley Jackson
  • Francine Prose

What’s the point? None, really, just thought it was interesting data.