I Just Read Vallista and Now I’m Hungry


I’m fat, mostly because I read a lot, and you can eat while you read.  I blame my parents, really; once they discovered that I was the only one of their progeny with any interest in words or edumacation (and therefore, by extension, the one who would have enough money to support them when they were old) they encouraged my reading habit by buying me endless quantities of both books and food, so that Moby Dick, in my Cheeto-stained fingertips, became something like a live-action roleplaying experiment in preventable diseases.

But part of the blame has to go to the people who write fantasy novels, because I’m not the only one apparently obsessed with literary food porn.  Take The Hobbit, for instance; I’m pretty sure there was some stuff about rings and goblins, but mostly what I recall is a lovingly detailed fifteen course meal including three cheese dishes.  Also, I seem to recall Tolkein rhapsodising at length on waybread, which inculcated in my adolescent self a craving for baked goods, which is why a normal meal for me consists of another person’s normal meal, and then two or three loafs of artisanal bread, which is why they had to invent a new numbering system to measure my blood sugar.

Not to mention that scene in Hawk: the Slayer, where they’re eating beef and cheese and onions and the barbarian shares his with the dwarf.  That scene still makes me hungry.  That was Hawk: the Slayer, wasn’t it?  Might have been Beastmaster.  One of those interchangable 80s Conan ripoffs.

Okay, I’ll admit that my book-induced hunger pangs might be a case of taking from an experience what you bring to it … which segues nicely to my next topic, which is the Death of the Author, and not from coronary artery disease.

The Death of the Author, at least according to the five minutes of lit-crit theory I can usually get through before passing out, basically says:

neener neener wurds don’ matter, we can pretend what we want hahaha

I’m not really fond of postmodernism myself; it’s generally be my experience that no matter your personal belief system, bad code still won’t compile.  Similarly, antibiotics work – and homeopathy doesn’t – and clapping your hands for the Alternative Medicine fairy will not make the reverse true. There may not be an Objective Truth, but there is certainly correct and not correct, and Huckleberry Finn does not have much to say about post-colonial feminism, nor bauxite mining in Uruguay, and anyone who says otherwise is more interested in political activism than literature.

On the other hand, here are some pictures of Disney princesses in Fallout.

Just the fact that we can use phrases like “Fallout universe” implies there’s some mental construct that exists beyond the actual words on the page.  Larry Niven calls them “Playgrounds of the Mind” – the rules and laws by which our hypothetical worlds operate, and a book is an entry ticket to that playground.

But more than that – any story, poem, song, or work of art interacts with the audience’s personality and history, so that what I imagine when I read Kay Ryan’s Turtle isn’t the same as anyone else; for one thing, I picture turtles with jet packs.

Or take, for example, Vallista, by Steven Brust.

Now, the Vlad novels are already basically the drunken love child of Zelazny’s Amber and the Food Network, so you can imagine the angst I have whenever I read one without also having immediate access to an all night cafe.

(Which is also one of the things I love about them – how many other fantasy characters have opinions on the poetry they read?  It’s those little details that make a world feel lived in.  Other franchises try to do that with encyclopedic extended universes, but Brust does more with one restaurant than Star Wars does with three prequels.)

But Vallista, for a change, isn’t about food – it’s about the lack of it.  A pivotal plot point in the story is Vlad’s discovery that the kitchen in the castle has never been used.  For me, that is the central image in Vallista, and it ties together all of the mental imagery that I took from that book and into my life.

That might, at some deep English major contextual level, be metaphorical of something or other, but at the not-very-deep level where I live, it’s because at the same time I was reading Vallista, we were remodeling our kitchen at the casino, which means that for a day, and around the same time I was reading Vallista, our kitchen was likewise empty.

Also, we cut back our prep counter by about a foot, so the kitchen appears a lot bigger than it did; big, and shiny, and empty, just like the castle in Vallista feels big and empty, even though there are people living there.

Vallista, for me, is about emptiness, and echos of the past spilling over into the present, and things unfinished.  Oh, and construction accounting.

Now, the question is – is that because it’s what Brust intended, or are those the themes I picked up on because I personally am obsessed with empty, lonely places, and have spent too much time in old server rooms and vacant buildings?  Would someone else think it was mostly about family, or even creepy demon children who remind me of Christina Ricci?  Would it remind me so much of a haunted house video game if I didn’t play video games?

But it’s not just the images we take from a work – literature shouldn’t be static.  Whenever I enter an invoice from our cafe now, I think of Vallista; as I check down the various itemized entries for their appropriate codes (napkins – cafe supplies, non-edible; limes – bar items, edible) some part of me is still living in that story.  When I visit my friend’s house renovation project, those two worlds come together – the art of concrete and foundation, and the art of numbers, and now Vallista is living somewhere in my head in a place I don’t think Brust could have imagined.

And that’s true of every single person who reads that book.  Or any book!

The beautiful thing about science fiction and fantasy is that it makes that experience explicit – fans take those worlds and make them their own, and then we have Fallout fan movies, and poetry about video games, and of course, we have cosplay.1

But I’m still not admitting the postmodernists are right; I don’t think you can dissociate the author from the meaning.  I don’t know what, if any, the deeper meaning of Vallista is; while I have occasionally been accused of being shallow, I don’t read to seek out topics for English dissertations.  I read because it makes pretty pictures in my head.  The more I learn about writing, the more I think a writer’s job is to provide those worlds and images.

Or maybe not.  I’ve been told (usually by my therapist) that I’m not like the other children.  I don’t know.  What I do know is, whenever I think of Vallista, I will think of an auditor doing a cost estimate on an empty, haunted kitchen before leaving to get some chicken nuggets2.

  1. You thought it was going to be weird, didn’t you?.
  2. We have awesome chicken nuggets at the casino.



Angry Nerd Mode: American Gods

A brief story to illustrate … well, me:
A long time ago, I read American Gods. It was okay. Liked the premise, did not care for the characters or world building. All in all, not my favorite book, nor even my favorite Gaiman book, but I continued to buy his work until we got in a Twitter spat about George RR Martin. Thus far, all was good in life.
Occasionally, people would mention that they really really liked American Gods. That’s fine; they’re entitled to their opinion. I personally thought Anansi Boys was better, and therein lay the seeds of many an interesting conversation. All was well with the world.
Then they made a TV show. And they will NOT FUCKING LEAVE IT ALONE. Every time I pick up a magazine, I have to read about how amazing American Gods is. Every time I get in a nerdy discussion, I have to hear how American Gods is the greatest television ever made. It’s on Yahoo. It’s on my Kindle home screen. I go online, and the headline is AMERICAN GODS CURED CANCER IN LAB RATS. I pick up the newspaper, and the lead is AMERICAN GODS WALKED ACROSS WATER TO HEAL AN INJURED SWAN.  They got advertising planes, and I think they may be sending people to my house.
And I am just – enough already. I am aware of the TV show. There is no way, not excluding frontal lobotomy or actual death, that I could remain unaware of the TV show, or the extreme excellence of the TV show. Unfortunately, since TV rarely improves the source material, I don’t think it will appeal to me. So just leave it alone, ok? Stop explaining to me what I am missing as if I just woke from a coma where the last book I read was the novelization for Hawk: The Slayer. I don’t plan on watching it.
But for the next six months, I will have to have everyone tell me how American Gods is the greatest show EVAR and OMG why aren’t I watching it and this Neil Gaiman guy, see, he’s a sign that fantasy isn’t as hokey as it was in 1995 and why aren’t you watching it and OMG it is just so amazing and on and on and on and on until I have to say, “If you mention American Gods again, I will fucking shank you,” and then they go, “why you gotta be that way Don?”

HPL: Original Hipster

We here at Orange Cat Productions are pleased to announce a new field of lit. crit. theory that we’re calling Experimental Literature.  Not Fight Club kind of experimental, or non-Euclidean poetry kind of experimental (although that would be kind of cool), but the hypothesis-testing kind of experimental.  We may even possibly  bust out some statistical analysis, but not Bayesian statistics, because I’m having a protracted nerd war with a friend over his obsession with socialist postmodern assume-your-conclusion Bayesian foolishness.  (Not that I have any bias there.) Anyway, here’s the theory:  I’m going to make a prediction, and then write a whole bunch of words about what the prediction implies.  If my prediction comes true, then the rest of the words must also be true.  I don’t do this seeking fame and fortune, but for the betterment of all humankind.  Although I wouldn’t complain if a grateful nation rewarded me with, say, a Caribban island.  I’m thinking Curacao.


Here goes: Jon Snow from Game of Thrones will live, because Game of Thrones is really science fiction.

Now, at this point in the traditional essay, I’m supposed to seque into the topic by busting out with Webster’s definition of science fiction, but fVck that.  I don’t know why essay writers do that, except to make word count.  Go look it up if you’re that interested, but if you’re reading my blog, I’m guessing you’ve probably already got a pretty good idea what science fiction is.

Anyway, it’s not the definition that’s important, it’s the tropes and storytelling techniques that come along with it.  You might think SF is robots and aliens, and fantasy is elves and wizards.  Or you might not think that, and I just created a straw man for the point of this essay.  Whatever, invisible person.  I have two words for you: Roger Zelazny.

The genre-bending of the 60’s New Wave showed that what a story was about wasn’t nearly as important as how it was told.  Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness is a fantasy novel told in a science fictional way, while Lord of Light is a science fictional novel told in a fantasy way.  Similarly, Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series is high fantasy grounded in a science fiction setting.

And science fiction’s fundamental premise is about exploration and learning.  There’s a big mysterious universe out there, and we’re gonna go check it out.  Science fiction’s catchphrase might be “there is nothing we cannot know” – while in fantasy, there really isn’t anything to figure out; it’s all magic, which almost by definition, is unfathomable.  Fantasy series may play at the “Laws of Magic,” but really, if you could figure out what made magic work, it would become science.

In fantasy, you have “powers” – the magic sword, the birthmark, the gift of magic, whatever.  In SF, you know stuff.

The crucial, crucial difference between these two is that anyone can learn something.  Heroes are made, not born.

And therefore, the hero in a SF story is the guy (or gal, or robot, or sapient cyborg octopus) who knows what’s going on.  Sure, Kirk gets the Orion girl, but Spock, McCoy, and Scotty are treated by the script with the same level of respect.  (Nor was Kirk, despite memetic mutation, a he-man womanizing moron.  He played 3D chess and quoted Shakespeare.  But I digress.)  The person who can figure out, adapt, and make use of the Cool New Thing is not only the hero, but the superhero – the one who wields seemingly magical powers over the environment.  Think Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land (a fantasy told using SF tropes.)

In Zelazny’s Amber series (the drunken love child of SF and fantasy) for all that the story is told from Corwin’s point of view – gothic, poetic, epic Corwin – he’s actually, um … kind of a chump.  He gets used and manipulated by every person he meets until nearly the end of the series.  The ones who really drive the plot are the wizards – Bleys, Brand, and Fiona.  And that’s because while Corwin was off being all Lord Byron, they learned what Dworkin had to teach them.  Amber is, by one way of looking at it, a 5-volume dissertation on the value of education.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones – Martin was a close friend of Zelazny, and I think the same tropes apply.  Westeros starts out as totally non-magical.  And then … magic!  And while politics and force of arms are still the main sources of power, I think this is going to change as the books go on.  As the power of magic grows and its practitioners become more skilled, magic (and by extension, spooky ice people and dragons and stuff) will become unstoppable.  It’s a SF world, and SF rewards the curious.

The three “early adapters” of magic, or at least POV characters who adapted, were Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Caitlin Stark.  None of them are wizards, as such, but Caitlyn became some sort of creepy undead preacher thing, Daenerys has her pets, and Jon Snow …

Jon Snow is the hero of the books because even though he doesn’t actually shoot fireballs, he was one of the first to accept that reality wasn’t what the others thought, and also because he is the most democratic of all the main characters – renouncing his nobility, marrying a wildling, leading by force of character.

I knew there was a reason I wanted to work the democracy angle in earlier, but I forgot ’cause they got a keg of Fall River Brewey’s Kilty Pleasure in at the casino.  Okay, so in SF, if power comes from learning, and not from being born the Seventh Son or being touched by a wizard or whatever, then the unspoken assumption is that anyone can be the hero.  That gives science fiction a fundamentally democratic streak that is the antithesis of most fantasy.

Nobody but Gandalf could be Gandalf.  The same goes for Luke Skywalker, once Lucas introduced those moronic midichlorians.  But while Kirk might be exceptional, he’s still human.  Anyone willing to work hard enough and sacrifice enough has the ability to attain what he did.

And that’s just what Jon Snow represents – not the divine magic of Caitlyn Stark or the luck of the Targaryens, but a willingness to embrace the hidden mystery of the world while treating everyone equally.

Plus, I mean, Caitlyn’s a freakin’ zombie.  No way is she the hero.



Okay, so what the heck does this have to do with our man HPL?  Well, by his own statements, Lovecraft wrote science fiction.  He wrote that what he wanted to do was instill a sense of “cosmic wonder” in his readers, and horror was the best way of doing that.  He peppered his writing with references to mathematical equations: besides the hoary old “non-Euclidean geometries,” you have the differential equations that so bothered Mr. Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch House;”  you’ve got scientific expeditions to Antarctica; you’ve got, HPL says quite forcefully, aliens, not monsters.

So if we take him at his word, and look at his work from a science fiction perspective, we need to consider the rules of his world – i.e., man is a worthless speck of protoplasm afloat in a sea of infinite darkness surrounded by unfathomable aliens to whom we are less than insects.

Hang on; writing that calls for a drink of beer.

Okay, I’m back.  We need to consider how his world works, and then look at who knows this?  Who are the early adapters, the ones who see the world for what it is?

Those very same subhuman, mongrelized miscegeneated races he hated!  The swarthy-skinned and shifty-eyed immigrants in Red Hook, the Southern blacks in the Louisiana swamps, rhe inbred hillbillies of Dunwich.

For all HPL hated these people they were, by his own rules, the ones who actually knew what was going on!  They were the heroes!  His own stuffy, straight-laced, tea drinking hyper-repressed professors were as ignorant as the savages they disdained!

You could, in that respect, view HPL’s writing as a way of him coming to terms with the fact that Victorian-era morality was a failure, that the future belonged to those teeming masses who drove him mad.  Indeed, as the scion of a fallen family, HPL might have subconsciously realized he had more in common with Wilbur Whately than Professor Armitage.

I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I can’t help but think that there is an element of tension in his writing because of it.  Perhaps that’s what horrified him about the universe – he loved the fading world of Revolutionary New England and its idealized inhabitants, and knowing it was dying, sought to pollute it in his imagination with monsters and hidden, horrible secrets, perhaps as a justification for its failure?

And the terrible irony of it is that what appeals most to us about HPL are the very same icons that represented what he hated – the monsters, the madness, the gibbering mad modern refutation of tradition and decorum in favor of techno-anarchist chaos …

… because, in the end, maybe we were meant to go mad.  Time and again, Lovecraft’s straightjacket version of sanity is shattered by what, we must more or less admit, is the real world.  We have come to the time when everything he feared has come to pass: non-Euclidean geometries?  I teach them to my students.  Hideous gulfs of space?  The Planck lengths of the atom.  Monstrous cities of stone and nightmare?  They cover most of the world.

And certainly, neither I nor any of my friends have any place within Lovecraft’s lily-white pantheon – perennial outsides, whether by choice or accident of birth, our fates must intertwine, inevitably, with the so-called “monsters” – Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, even Azathoth, who is nothing more than the uncertainty principle given shape.  It is time to realize that, in the end, what Lovecraft foresaw with horror was … the future.  Our future.
The stars are right.  Raise Them Up.