Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

While I’ve read plenty of books with Jeff VanderMeer’s name on the cover, it’s generally been preceded by “edited by” rather than “written by”. As such, Finch is the first Ambergris novel I’ve read. It’s a very atmospheric novel, with a great deal of style. The city of Ambergris seems quite alive, just as China Miéville’s Bas-Lag is a rotting corpse of a city.

It’s a gritty detective noir story, and the fungal atmosphere really works. While there is obviously backstory with some of VanderMeer’s other Ambergris novels, each takes place at a different point in the city’s history, which means that the previous stories are alluded to, rather than requiring knowledge. It works rather well for those coming to his fiction for the first time.

VanderMeer seems at home with the mystery genre, and the plotting makes sense once the story is done. The further I got into this book, the harder it was to set down, as if fungal spores had grafted themselves from the book into my hands. The plot tension of the novel ramped up, and VanderMeer’s narrative kept pace.

VanderMeer plays with the liminal. The occupying forces are fungal creatures, not truly plant, nor animal. John Finch is a detective, but working for the occupying forces. Blending things even further are the Partials: human-spore hybrids, accepting greater power in the occupation, but equally feared by everyone. While there’s a strong sense of independence and rebelliousness in the human detectives like Finch, the Partials strongly evoke the feel of collaborators in the war-time occupations in Earth history.

Finch is a very stylistic novel, with a near perfect mix of plot and characterization. It raises issues of colonization and living in an occupied state, something which resonates strongly in many areas of the world today. A very enjoyable read.

Holiday Books

Books I received over the holidays include include:

  • Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. Edited by Mike Ashley
  • The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  • Media Writing: A Practical Introduction by Craig Batty and Sandra Cain
  • After Theory by Terry Eagleton
  • Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
  • Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m really looking forward to the Steampunk books, especially the anthology put together by the VanderMeers. My copy of their previous steampunk anthology is well worn, and has a lovely hand-drawn zeppelin drawn by Ann at the 2010 Montreal WorldCon.

The Media writing and Convergence Culture texts are for a course I’ll be taking in January on writing for the media. The course sounds interesting, and the regular written exercises should be good practice, thinking about writing in a different fashion.

Previous to Christmas, I picked up a few other books:

  • Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Stephen Jones
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
  • Mythologies by Barthes
  • Empire of Signs by Barthes
  • How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles
  • Terminal Identity: the Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
  • Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • Nothing Rhymes With Orange: Perfect Words for Poets, Songwriters, and Rhymers, by Bessie G. Redfield and Hope Vestergaard
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding

I’ve finished Dreadnought already, which is a brilliant sequel to Boneshaker. It’s a stronger novel than the first, and has a much cleaner narration. To be reviewed shortly.

The Necronomicon is a wonderful black faux-leather trade paperback. I’ve not previously read much of Lovecraft. From the few short stories I’ve managed out if this text so far, his writing drips atmosphere, although the serial nature of many of his longer stories adds a great deal of repetition.

Fast Ships, Black Sails

I picked up Fast Ships, Black Sails at Worldcon this year, and have finally gotten around to finishing it. This is a pirate themed, science-fiction/fantasy anthology of short stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and published by Night Shade Books.

Continue reading “Fast Ships, Black Sails”

Writer pay rates

There have been two stories going around recently, about writers and publishing. The first was the whole harlequin vanity press. The more recent story has to do with pay rates for different markets.

I’m a beginning writer. I have submitted a single story to the Tesseracts 14 anthology, which pays $50 for stories under 1500 words, rising to $100 for 5000 words. That works out to 3 cents a word for low word-count stories, and 2 cents a word for longer stories. This doesn’t meet SFWA requirements for a pro market — although it would have prior to 2004 — but it’s certainly better than the 1/5 of a cent per word that Black Matrix is offering.

The fact that Tesseracts is a well respected anthology of Canadian imaginative literature (SF/F/H etc) year is great. The editors of the anthology this year are John Robert Colombo, a much respected editor of Canadiana, and Brett Alexander Savory, publisher of ChiZine publications. I believe that having a publication in Tesseracts would enhance my career. Do I think this particular story will make it? I’ll find out soon, as they have a short reading period, but I’ll likely receive my first rejection.

As Jim C. Hines notes, “most of us suck when we’re new”. Rejection can be horrible, but it’s also a reason to get better. It’s one of those Calvin and Hobbes “character building” exercises. I would rather submit a reasonably good story and have it rejected than submit crap that does get published. Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to seeing my name in print someday, but I’m not looking for fast self-validation.

One thing that Scalzi notes, but which has been overlooked in some cases, is that there is a difference between “for the love, no one is making money” publications, and businesses launching multiple magazines, as well as two book lines.

Shaun Duke has thrown his two bits in. Small markets, such as the Survival by Storytelling magazine, are perfectly justified in their pay scale: a portion of royalties only. In fact, from their magazine’s submission guidelines, 2/3 of all profit goes to the issue’s contributors, while the remaining third goes to Young Writers Online. Duke isn’t making anything from this.

In regards to publishers such as Black Matrix, I can’t currently justify submitting a story to a for-profit company that pays so poorly. This is no longer a “for the love” market. Rachael Swirsky guest-blogged on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog about the value of certain publishing credits. I would have to agree with her, and with Cat Rambo, editor for Fantasy Magazine. Too many unknown credits on a cover letter are a possible sign that the author may have been underselling their work, and may be used to lower standards. As a slush reader, I have anecdotal evidence to support this.

Markets like this exist. They will likely continue to exist. The moral question here, is whether the publisher is making money without paying their writers adequately. What else do they offer? Why would an author submit to markets like this? I won’t, but others have and will. So long as they know what they’re getting into, that’s great.

Scalzi may have come across a little harsh. But really, when has he ever shown gentle softness and tact? This is the man who has published a Hugo-winning essay collection criticizing the hate mail he’s received. He may have seen a few more hits on his blog than usual from this incident, but he already has a big audience. Instead, he’s using his platform to call out a group that appears to be underpaying writers for profit. He’s trying to help the community out. It’s unfortunate that this comes across as an attack on all publications.

Jeff VanderMeer writes about goals in Booklife, suggesting that “many writers never progress in their careers — except in a shambling, two-steps-forward-one-step-back way — because they always focus on the moment, and the moment after that” (p 20). What does submitting to a market such as this accomplish for your long-term career goals, that submitting to a better paying market doesn’t? Maybe having to wait a little longer by submitting to multiple, more discriminating markets first might be worthwhile? After all, the story is written, you can start writing the next while shuffling the manuscript between markets. Writing and publishing books is a lengthy task. Use some discretion, and some patience.

New blog posts to this story include another Fantasy Magazine slush reader, and also now assistant editor, Molly Tanzer, which is full of fantastic advice.

Another post is from Nick Mamatas, a very “to the point” kind of response.

There has also been a followup to Rachael Swirsky’s posting on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog.