| Dispatches From Smaragdine|
|A column by Jeff VanderMeer|
| December 2006 |
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]
November is not just the month in Smaragdine when things turn a little colder. It's also the month when Smaragdineans announce the winners of various literary awards. Fisticuffs have been known to break out at the award ceremonies. These people take their awards seriously, and they expect the finalists to be full-blooded Smaragdineans.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I attended one such awards banquet, accompanied by Big Bad Bear (still in trouble with the police, so I cannot reveal his identity) and Michael Haulica, a Romanian who edits Tritonic Press's cross-genre line of novels. Michael was there to see if he could track down a couple of Smaragdine authors and to observe the local spectacle. He was not disappointed.
This particular award roughly translates as "the International Genre Fiction Shovel," because the award is literally a golden shovel that relates to some Smaragdinean folktale about the price of fame. Beyond the dais sat ten golden shovels, each corresponding to some esoteric category. The category translations I received from Bear didn't make too much sense, but I reproduce it here nonetheless:
Although some of these categories clearly correspond to categories more familiar to Western readers (like "Best Novel"), Bear stressed, when Michael questioned him, that to reduce the translation to something more familiar would lose the nuance of the award.
"Take, for example, 'Professional Cockroach.' In Smaragdine folklore, the cockroach is a trickster creature, like the Native American Wiley Coyote. Also something with a divided nature, both good and bad. Thus, they can reward dual nature in this category—perhaps an agent who has done good but also screwed a lot of writers over."
Bear went on to say that the winners of such awards sometimes suffered terribly and became a target in Smaragdinean literary circles. In other words, there were several nominees who were hoping to lose.
"Why show up?" Michael asked as we sampled our rather limp salads while a Smaragdine comedian gesticulated and made jokes incomprehensible to us. The awards program would start in a few minutes.
"Because it is a horrible social faux pas not to show up for the awards ceremony," Bear explained. "If you lose but do not show up, it is as terrible as if you show up and win."
For this reason, most Smaragdinean writers and professionals try their best to avoid being nominated for any award. Several people told me that only the poor wind up on the finalist lists since the richer writers manage to bribe their way out of consideration. This creates a vicious cycle, although in Smaragdinean the term for "vicious cycle" refers to the teenage bicycle gangs that have roamed the countryside since the depression of the 1970s.
In any event, Smaragdineans even treat being nominated for awards by people in other countries with the utmost suspicion.
Michael and I looked at each other with some trepidation as the ceremony began, but at first it looked as if everything would be okay, as in the first two categories a judgment of "No Award" was given out.
"No doubt some last minute bribes," Bear whispered to us.
However, in the Best Related Amateur Cockroach category, two men tied for the award and immediately began trying to get the other to accept the award. This led to a brawl and a stabbing, whereupon the category became untied. The man who accepted the golden shovel was set upon as soon as he left the stage after an abrupt acceptance speech.
Upon the announcement of the winner of the Best Recollection of Related Stories by a Snitch award, several people drew their guns and started firing.
Bear, Michael, and I retreated to the relative safety of the street, leaving our somewhat cold boiled chicken and potatoes main course on the table.
"What was that all about?!" Michael asked.
Bear sighed. "It is complicated. In that category, the text is nonfiction. But Smaragdineans have no libel laws. So you can publish any lie you like. Most nonfiction books in the country are full of lies so no one believes any of them. But for this award, the judges thoroughly check the veracity of the text. If you win, everything you wrote is deemed to be true. This usually upsets the people you wrote about. In this case, almost everyone in the room."
We would have lingered in the street, but the violence had begun to spill out of the banquet hall. The judges had been tossed out onto the sidewalk in their tuxedos. Several of them were screaming as they were pulled apart limb from limb by the finalists and their families.
As we ran to safety, I told my companions I hoped I was never translated into Smaragdinean and Michael expressed a rather fervent if garbled wish to get back to Romania soon.
Bear, of course, was having a great time clearing a path for us, having come armed with a Glock, an ankle pistol, and a shiv.
And that was November in Smaragdine. Luckily, there are no awards announcements in December.
Sebastien Guillot works for Calmann-Levy in France, editing various imprints. The most recent is an interstitial fiction imprint that features work by Sean Stewart, Ellen Kushner, myself, and many others. Sebastien was kind enough to subject himself to an interview while I was in Paris this summer. In this excerpt, he talks about his views on fantasy fiction and on publishing in France. Please also see the related interview below.
Noted novelists Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman are two of the many writers involved in the Interstitial Arts in the United States, and good friends of French editor Sebastien Guillot. Kushner's latest novel is The Privilege of the Sword and Sherman's latest is Changeling. I thought it would be interesting to interview them about that association and the Interstitial generally.
Delia: I think it has moved more towards formal experimentation. One thing the writers who submitted to Interfictions seem to be fascinated with is seeing how far they can push the conventions of popular narrative without tipping over into pure literary experimentalism and surrealism.
Ellen: It's also starting to become very popular with visual and performing artists: high-end craftspeople—doll-makers, puppeteers and other—are finding the concept very relevant to them and their experience of marginalization in the world of the arts as they now exist. And since the self-identified "interstitial" world is so small, there's bound to be cross-pollination of some sort between the disciplines. I'm not talking about multi-media works, necessarily (though it's not out of the question—look at what Connie Toebe and Lisa Stock are doing with art, text and music on "Through the Cobweb Forest!", but awareness of boundaries people are breaking in other disciplines can always fuel the same in one's own.
After some trouble with customs related to a few "non-traditional leaves," as it was put to me dryly by an official, a battered box from Night Shade Books made it to my doorstep, containing three beautifully designed tomes: Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake, Majestrum by Matthew Hughes, and Grey by Jon Armstrong.
After reading both the Lake and the Hughes, I think of them as opposites. Lake's novel is wild and untamable, pushing the envelope on the New Weird while also sending up some of that material. It depends on hierarchy in terms of how that hierarchy denies humanity to those shackled by it. The plot in Trial of Flowers is simply the city itself: under attack from various internal and external threats, with various political and social entities working to various degrees to save it. Yet as the reader delves deeper and deeper into the book, every character becomes as disfigured in spirit as Bijaz the Dwarf has been disfigured physically. I began to realize with mounting joy—what with riding giraffes, lawyers (of all things), dangerous clowns, and perverse sex—that Lake's nod to Order was exactly that and nothing more. This novel rewarded repeated re-readings and is clearly the most ambitious and interesting book Lake has yet written.
By contrast, Majestrum by Matthew Hughes is a very civil novel that hides its strangeness under social conventions and polite conversation. The Hughes is the direct descendent of Lord Dunsany and the more shackled Lovecraft. It contains mannered prose and mannered plotting at the heart of which is a kind of frustrated anarchy. From that frustration arises the appeal of Hughes' character, Henghis Hapthorn, described as "Old Earth's foremost freelance discriminator." Loosely put, Hapthorn is a detective and his job is to restore order to a universe that seems stratified and straitjacketed by order already. It's hard in the era of China Miéville, Jon Courtney Grimwood, and other fantasy writers injecting politics into their work, to accept the old-fashioned English-style caste system envisioned by Hughes. But if the reader can get past that, there are many pleasures in this slim volume, foremost from the interplay between Hapthorn and his familiar, and in detailed set pieces that contain a coiled tension.
As for Grey by Jon Armstrong, to be published in January from Night Shade, it's worth noting that this book came out two years ago in Smaragdine and the author's book tour promoted quite a bit of controversy, resulting in riots and some book burnings. I haven't yet read the book and have had to hide it under my bed for fear of being beaten up for having it, so a review will have to wait for now.
December and January in Smaragdine can be bleak or bracing, depending on your disposition. I'm expecting visits from writers like Alan De Niro, but it all depends on things like visas and who survives the border crossing.
If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at email@example.com or via my U.S. snail mail address:
There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.
Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.
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