Big Picture, Small Picture: Context for Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE LATHE OF HEAVEN


This blog series, Big Picture, Small Picture, provides a contextual collage for a chosen piece of literature. The information here is culled from newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and other primary sources from the date of the text’s original publication.

“If we shadows have offended,
Know but this and all is mended.
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear,
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding, but a dream.”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“I am a sportswriter’s dream,” Muhammad Ali muses during a March 1st, 1971 press conference, seven days before his first heavyweight title fight against Joe Frazier. He has a hopeful vision of the future: “I’m going to give him a boxing lesson. I’m going to enjoy myself for five or six rounds.” One week later, Ali and Frazier go fifteen rounds. Ali wins five or six of them. Frazier wins the rest, along with the heavyweight title.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, classified ads in the Oregonian urge readers to stop putting their plans off until the future. There are dream jobs, dream deals, dream bosses, and dream kitchens available right now. “Do You Dream of a Large Home by the River?” an ad wants to know. There it is, waiting for you. There are dream homes for families, young professionals, pilots, ceiling watchers, golfers. An Admiral brand refrigerator is priced “much lower than you would ever dream possible.”

In Ashland, Oregon, a professional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kicks off the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. On stage, an actor portrays Bottom’s bewilderment: “I have had a most rare vision. I have/had a dream—past the wit of man to say what/dream it was.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Men and Women Like Him” by Amber Sparks


In “Men and Women Like Him” (Guernica), Amber Sparks explores dark tourism from the perspective of a time traveling tour guide who must ensure that historical tragedies don’t change—even when those tragedies become personal.Sparks drops us right into scene in the first couple paragraphs, letting the action and scenario reveal much of the situation at hand.

“It’s raining when Hugh arrives at the gates of Jerusalem, and the skirmish is already well underway. Roman legionnaires are hacking at faceless creatures in dark blue skin suits. The skin suits are shooting back with laser cannons. The bone-thin, nailed-up figure moans and bleeds, the usual morbid backdrop to this muddy melee.

Hugh sighs. He affixes his pocket amplifier, tells the time pirates that if they don’t stop shooting and come quietly, they’ll all be neutralized…”

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Reading Across the Great Genre Spectrum: A Cheat Sheet for Transliterary Consumption


When I teach creative writing at the college level, one of the tasks I always assign early on in the semester is to have my students pick out a short work outside (preferably diametrically opposed to) the student’s preferred genre, read it, and offer a brief informal presentation of their experience. These reports always vary from pleasantly surprised (“I guess I never gave it much of a chance before, but I really enjoyed this”) to predictably frustrated (“Yep—this is why I’m not and will never be a poet”), but there’s rarely any question as to the value of the assignment. I’m forever asserting the importance of reading not just vertically—that is, deeply within one particular tradition—but also horizontally across the vast continuum of genres. Still, my conviction that writers of ilk A have much to learn from writers of ilk B sometimes goes challenged by one of my more strident students, and when that happens I’m quick to offer this little chart I scribbled upon a napkin one day, a modified version of which I share with you now.

(*Bold portions offer a hint as to which kind of reader may benefit most from being exposed to this genre.*)

Why Read . . .

Because there is nothing better for bolstering one’s underdeveloped vocabulary. Because for logically-minded people especially it is stubborn, resisting one pat easy answer; wild interpretations abound. Because it teaches the art of uncertainty. Because it helps one develop a sense of musicality and rhythm. Because it lives for strangeness and surprise. Because everything is possible here, and for type A rule worshippers it’s a welcome challenge to see controlled chaos poured out on the page so uninhibitedly. Because it insists feeling is first.

Because it breeds empathy, forcing those stuck firmly in their own skin into the body of another. Because it teaches the difference between an artless lie and lying in order to tell a greater truth. Because it offers a million free lessons in voice. Because it waltzes gracefully through memory, helping those incapable of wrangling their own to come to terms with their own testimony. Because it serves as a potent reminder that life is often far more interesting than fiction if only we strive to pay better attention to the seemingly unimportant minutiae.Continue Reading

Five Speculative Tales Still Relevant Today (And What They Can Teach Us)


1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Seven-Word Summary: Women enslaved by tyrannical dicks with dicks.

Excerpt: “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

What It Can Teach Us: Recently I overheard a male student say feminism was really trending right now, as if it were a fad that would pass sooner or later, as if it were not inalienable, unimpeachable, and incontrovertible. At a time when prominent feminists are forced to cancel lectures because they receive death threats, in which women still make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, while action flicks like Mad Max: Fury Road are boycotted for having a feminist agenda by “men’s rights groups” (an oxymoron befitting of morons), as women continue to fight for control over their own bodies, and shirts like this one still exist, it’s easy to see the relevance of Atwood’s dystopic novel. The cruelty of subjugation against women is taken to the extreme, stripped of all subtleties, as women are kept as “concubines” to serve an Old-Testament, ultra-conservative regime. Not as far from fiction as one might think, The Handmaid’s Tale remains more necessary today than ever for its dramatic reminder that inequality is not just an abstract concept but a living reality, one that does irreparable harm to women everywhere.Continue Reading

Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

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Don’t Go See World War Z!

WorldWarZ_200-s6-c30Hollywood’s latest apocalyptic zombie romp, World War Z, could have been great. If it followed the lead that the book set out, it could have portrayed a nuanced view of life ten years after the world was overrun by zombies. When the book was turned into a movie, however, it lost the breadth of human experience that made it a story worth telling.

In the book, the zombie pandemic—or “World War Z”—completely transforms both human society and the natural environment. Most nation-states collapse and leave fragmented armies as their only remnant; the skies become clogged with ash; children (dead and undead) are eaten.Continue Reading

Chainmail Bikinis and Other Sexism in Science Fiction and Literature


Winter 1939 issue of “Planet Stories”

If you’ve seen older issues of popular science fiction magazines—think from the 1930s to the 1960s—you’ve seen cover art of half-naked women being abducted by aliens or saved by a ‘handsome’ white dude in a spacesuit. (If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve even seen a cover with both at the same time!) Done up in garish oranges and yellows, the paper covers were a staple of dime-store adventure novels as well as sci-fi magazines that published stories by writers who are now well-known: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, to name a few.

In these science fiction and fantasy stories, as you might expect, women were rarely protagonists; more rarely still were women authors of such stories. And while much science and speculative fiction nowadays is written by women and features strong female characters, nerdrage is still occasionally directed at women as poseurs in fantasy and scifi communities, and sexist novel covers still sometimes depict women posing suggestively.

Chainmail Bikinis

Recently, the cover of Issue #200 of the bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) featured such an image: art of a woman wearing a chainmail bikini. (The SFWA is the pre-eminent organization for professional writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction—think the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) of sci-fi). While the president of SFWA, John Scalzi, has officially apologized for the bulletin’s content, it has scarcely quelled the controversy, nor failed to invite serious criticism. The sexist cover art sparked vibrant and lengthy debate in the larger sci-fi community, on SFWA forums, and on blogs and Twitter—particularly because an attempt to process the snafu incited demeaning commentary within the next few issues of the bulletin.Continue Reading

The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 6: Save a Horse, Write a (Space) Cowboy


Over the past few months, the Myth of the Literary Cowboy has explored how and why Willie was spot on when he observed that our “heroes have always been cowboys.” White hats, singers, anti-hero gunslingers, poets, pop music subjects—the role of the cowboy is part of the collective American pop culture conscience. What is left for the cowboy to conquer?

Anything he wants.

Part of the beauty of the cowboy character is the possibilities for rebirth and interpretation in the hands of the right creator. Annie Proulx took the cowboy through the realm of taboo love in “Brokeback Mountain.” Clint Eastwood, the last living American cowboy star, dissected the limits of masculinity, forgiveness, and redemption when he revisted the classic Western in Unforgiven. And Joss Whedon invited the cowboy to the final frontier in his space Western cult-series, Firefly. In fact, Whedon’s beloved series features a new form of cowboy that has shown up in various mediums for years: the Space Cowboy.Continue Reading

Episodia 1.7: Lost Novels and Love Triangles

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Lately I’ve been thinking about beginnings, endings, and that terribly murky time between a writer completing one project and starting another. After recently finishing a memoir, I’ve been itching to write a novel. I have a strong start to a new one—it’s always thrilling to be at the beginning of something, when all you see are possibilities instead of flaws—but there’s just one problem.

There’s this other novel I wrote five years ago, lying dormant in my computer files, taking up space in my writer’s psyche. It’s finished; I revised it steadily over a period of three years. But however “complete” it might be, the sad thing is systemically flawed. The plot is static, the themes are too forced, the melodrama too ever-present. So what to do?

My puritanical pride demands that I fix my drawer novel, dammit. Surely if I re-read it, re-think it, and re-work it, I’ll be able to turn it into the book I always dreamed it would be. Right? But as was written in the holy scrolls from “Battlestar Galactica”—which I watched obsessively during the hand-off time between my two projects—All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. No less than three times, I have taken this novel out, dusted it off, and gave revision the old college try. All three times, I arrived at the same end—and with a few nods to BSG and its eponymous spaceship, I’d like to share with you the process I went through to determine that my novel is better left in the drawer.

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Ambiguity: The Boundary Between Psychosis and Reality in Science Fiction


Philip K. Dick.
by Pete Welsch 
CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Television culture means that we often lack the depth to deal with ambiguity. The complexity of novels eludes our attention; we often prefer the truncated and clear narratives of sitcoms, where a plot line is fully resolved in forty-three minutes. The beauty of ambiguity, and of the blurred line between reality and divergent reality, is underrated.

Consider alternative mental states, including states of mental illness, which can often feel like occupying another universe. Functional people glide by on their electric Segways outside the space pod of your apartment. Meanwhile, you exist in another space: the world of couch and ennui, late-night TV, and mustering the courage to get out of bed. Your mind constructs this other space, which intersects with reality only at tangents. This construction mimics the world created in science fiction: an alternate universe only in your own mind.

Within one’s own mind—and within a character’s mind—only a psychologist or a reader (read: impartial third party) can determine where the boundary between reality and fiction “really lies”. But the true location of the boundary between mental illness and reality in science fiction is an unknown quantity, an ambiguity. What is real and what is, in fact, imagined?

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