The City & The City

China Mieville’s 2009 novel The City & The City is a true masterpiece. It won a lot of awards, which I realize will turn some people against it, but even a blind hog finds a truffle now and then.

Now, I did find out that the BBC made a four episode mini-series of the book, which I have not seen.  From the episode guide it seems they took some liberties with the storyline, because they do that, but the clips I’ve seen look good, so if I can find a way to watch it I’ll check it out.

But I’m talking about the book here. Let me start with the most important part, the story. This is a Police Procedural Mystery. The main character is Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel, somewhere in Eastern Europe. The exact location is never specified, but from hints dropped it seems to be on the Black Sea, probably between Bulgaria and Turkey.

Besźel is a fairly poor city, technologically and economically still trying to recover from the collapse of the Soviet bloc, eager to join the West but not entirely certain how to go about it. This is reflected in Tyador’s working environment, we see him trying to use the internet via old Bell Europa exchanges that can’t handle caller ID and relying more on grunt work and the occasional enhanced interrogation rather than high tech wizardry.

He’s no Sherlock Holmes.  Nor is he some deeply flawed vigilante with a tragic history, or a madcap loose cannon who ignores his superior’s orders, or any of the other traditional police cliches. He’s a working man, with a moderately difficult job that he does moderately well. It is his very ordinariness that draws in the reader. Tyador is a relatable, believable character.

We see him working a job that starts going sideways almost from the beginning, an unknown woman killed and her body dumped in a park. As Tyador works the case, Mieville works the genre trope of The Case That Is More Than It Seems flawlessly, throwing one clue after another in Tyador’s path, gradually building a picture of a shadowy conspiracy reaching far above the level of a working detective.

It is a fine, solid piece of work, and if that were all that was going on this would simply a very good mystery.

But that’s not all that’s going on.  See, Besźel has a rather unusual geographical situation. It occupies the same space as another city, Ul Qoma. Ul Qoma has a different language, customs, economic status (it has a somewhat better grasp of capitalism than Besźel).  The cities are not entirely different, they have both been shaped by the history of the region they inhabit, but they are distinct cities.

Distinct cities that just happen to share the same real estate. Literally. This is not a matter of alternate dimensions or some kind of space warp, the two cities are in the same place. The separation between them is not physical, it is epistemological. The natives of one city have learned to ignore (to “unsee”) the other city. Cars and pedestrians from Besźel avoid their opposite numbers in Ul Qoma without consciously being aware that they exist.

There are signifiers–styles of clothing, architecture, the way that people move, even certain color shades–that let the inhabitants of the two cities know at a glance if someone or something exists in their city or the other.

It is an unusual conceit for a story, and Mieville makes it work beautifully, giving the reader the facts of the situation painlessly and gradually letting the implications sink in. And the strange relationship between the two cities becomes an integral part of the case Tyador is working to solve.

Really, I can’t recommend this novel enough. The link I have above leads to the Audible edition, read wonderfully by John Lee, but if you’re the sort of person who prefers to read with your eyes, the Amazon link is here. 

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Cirsova: The time to jump on the bandwagon is now.

I know a lot of good independent writers. I know a number of good independent artists, and few really top notch independent editors. I even know several good independent voice actors for recording audiobooks.

All of which is great, because it means that new, original fiction is being created and brought to market on a regular basis.

Today, though, I want to give a shout out to an independent publisher who you need to watch. Publishing, as near as I can determine, is kind of like juggling snakes while killer cyborgs throw dry ice snowballs at you. While balancing on 2×4 over a wood chipper. I mean, it’s hard. I’ve tried it, and it is not for the weak.

Cirsova is good at it. And I’m not just saying that because he’s published two of my stories and has another one that he’s bringing out in the Winter issue of Cirsova Magazine. Or because he pays authors and artists top dollar, and in a timely manner. Or because he has a unique visual style that has created an instantly recognizable brand from the magazine’s first issue.

Cirsova is consistent. That’s about the rarest trait you’ll find in creative people. It has now been just over two years that Cirsova Magazine has been published and every single issue has come out as scheduled, with a consistent level of quality genre fiction. Issue #8 is currently available for pre-order.

And Cirsova is expanding into book publishing, having just announced the upcoming release of Michael Tierney’s Wild Stars III. I don’t know this particular franchise, myself, but I know Cirsova, and I’m sure it’s going to be a quality product, because that’s what Cirsova does.

This is a publishing company that is going places. Right now the advertising space is dirt cheap in Cirsova Magazine, but as the audience increases (and it is) the price is sure to go up.  But consider–the ad that you buy today isn’t like an old style traditional magazine where the issue is out for a month and disappears–it won’t ever go out of print. And as new readers discover the magazine what are they going to do? Buy the back issues. With your ads that you bought cheap.

Such a deal.

But even if you don’t have a product to sell you owe to yourself to check out the magazine because it showcases some of the freshest, most interesting short genre fiction available today. A publisher who treats his authors well is going to get the best talent. He’s in a position to pick from the brightest stars of the indie publishing scene, and it’s just going to get better.

Trust me on this.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, pulp revival | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Projects Update! Wild Stars III and Cirsova #8 & #9

Big things coming from Cirsova!


First, we’re gearing up for Wild Stars III: Time Warmaggedon.

This is a high-octane space and time-travel in the vein of Gardner F. Fox, Albert DePina, and Raymond F. Jones. Written by Michael Tierney, whose 4-volume history of the Art of Edgar Rice Burroughs is coming out this summer, and edited by Brian Niemeier (The Soul Cycle) and yours truly, I can assure you this is gonna be one heck of a ride.

What does Brian think about this project?

Wild Stars III is just what fans of fun, heroic action stories have been starving for. How do I know? Easy. I’m the book’s editor.

Michael Tierney has been a joy to work with. He is a true pro whose style and outlook remind me of the old pulp masters. His latest book is a whirlwind space adventure that will become the gold standard for putting fun first.


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Infinity Wars: Earth’s Mightiest Baking Show

Okay, this will be a critique of the film Avengers: Infinity Wars.  There will be spoilers. If you have not seen the film and intend to, read no further.

Spoilers beyond this point.  Continue reading

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Last Call for Issue 8 Advertisements!

If you want to reach readers with great taste and a burning desire for quality SF/F, this is how you do it.


We’ve got 12 10 slots left for advertisements in Cirsova #8!

We’re trying to get space filled by this Friday.

250 Character Text Advertisement $15
1/4 page Advertisement $25
1/2 page Advertisement $40

Advertisement images should be 300 dpi, with the following measurements:

1/2 Page – 7.5″ w x 4.5″ h or 3.5″ w x 9″ h
1/4 Page – 3.5″ w x 4.5″ h

128 Subscribers will be receiving copies.

Advertisers will receive PDF copies of the issue featuring their advertisement. To keep advertising costs low, we are no longer including physical copies with ad purchase-you are only paying for your adspace. If you would like physical copies, you may add $10 for a single copy or $30 for a bundle of 5.

Contact us at cirsova at yahoo dot com for details.

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Big Top Storytelling

On Sunday I attended the matinee of this year’s Circus Flora performance. I have mentioned before in this blog how much I love having a traditional small circus based in my home town. I strongly urge anyone who can arrange the trip to come to St. Louis to see their show–it is well worth a long drive and a night in a hotel. I will happily offer travel advice to anyone who wants to look into it.

Unlike the Barnum-style mega-circus in an arena, Circus Flora works in a very intimate setting.  It’s like the difference between seeing a band from the 82nd row in a sports stadium and seeing them play in a nightclub. In this day of massive CGI spectaculars, the feel of watching a live act of athletic prowess close enough to nearly touch the performers is amazingly powerful.

Today, though, I want to talk about the circus as a model for storytelling. Because Circus Flora also holds to the traditional European style of making a show a story, rather than just a succession of acts.

This sort of storycrafting could be characterized as Talent Driven Plotting and you can see it in the heirs of the old Carnie traditions–Professional Wrestling, Stage Magic, and Burlesque. (What’s more, I recall reading that several of the classic Pulp writers had Carnie backgrounds, but I’ll be hanged if I can find that reference now.)

The short form is that you start with your “bits” and you build the story around it. Let’s say that you’re putting together a circus season and you’ve managed to secure the services of a high wire act, a troop of trained miniature horses, some tumblers, and a fire eater.

Using those acts to construct your story, you could decide to put on a show involving the search for a mysterious lost city deep in the jungle. You start with the expedition setting out with their pack animals (the miniature horses) and along the way the explorers have to cross a perilous mountain gorge (the high wire act) battle against a tribe of savages (the tumblers) and at last confront the sorcerous high priest in the lost temple (the fire eater.)

Stage magicians use a similar method to script their patter for a show, starting with the tricks and building a monologue around them. Burlesque Shows (if you can find one that follows the traditional model) and old style Variety Acts do the same. Pro Wrestling (which is scripted, but not fake) works up stories from the different athletes particular signature moves.  Many older musicals (White Christmas is a perfect example) were written around a collection of songs.

So how does this apply to writing fiction?

Well, what are your “bits”? What are your strengths as a writer of fiction–what kinds of scenes do you do well? Not just broad categories like “action” or “romance”, but as specific as possible. The “moment where the boy and girl first notice each other” or the “lone hero with his back to the wall” scene.

Take a look back over your body of work with an eye for picking out what parts you are really pleased with. Make a list of a half-dozen scenes that you feel represent your best work. Then give each scene a brief description, and lastly, devise a story that incorporates those types of scenes to make a story.

Let me try with my own work. Taking scenes from my Book Of Lost Doors series, the ones that come to mind of the top of my head…

  1. Exquisite’s eulogy for Sublime in The Worms Of Heaven.
  2. The reveal of the city of Zenith in Gingerbread Wolves.
  3. The battle with the kraken in Cannibal Hearts.
  4. Morgan’s offer to Catskinner in Catskinner’s Book.
  5. The Orchid’s labyrinth in The Worms Of Heaven.
  6. Godiva’s negotiation with Agony in Catskinner’s Book.

Let’s look at those. The first one is really tough to sum up (one of the reasons I like it so much) but I’ll call it Weird Tragedy. The second I’ll call Enter The Nightmare. The third I’ll call Group Melee. The fourth I’ll call Evil Genius Talk. Number five is very similar to number two, so I’ll use Enter The Nightmare again, and number six is another Evil Genius Talk. (Catskinner’s Book, my first novel, is kind of talking heads intensive.)

Still, this gives me four separate bits that I think show my strengths a fiction writer: Weird Tragedy, Enter The Nightmare, Evil Genius Talk, and Group Melee.

So… let’s go with a Weird Tales story. We’ll start with an office building late at night.  Strange malfunctions begin happening, and the night crew find a new floor in the building that they have never seen before (Enter The Nightmare). They are attacked by alien demonic creatures (Group Melee) and then are confronted by the cause of the event, a sorcerer/scientist from an alternate world who attempts to bribe the crew into joining forces with him (Evil Genius Talk). The majority of the survivors reject the offer and escape back into their own universe. Once there, one of the group has an emotional realization that his life in the real world is barren and empty, and he wishes he could go back to the alien world, but the way is forever closed (Weird Tragedy).

Now this is just a quick and dirty example, but I have to confess I find myself wanting to write that story. (I’ll put it on the list with the dinozillion other story ideas I’ll get to one of these days.)

In any event, if you find yourself stuck for something to write, consider giving this method a try and seeing what comes of it. I’d be interested in hearing about what you come up with.

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18 examples of the spectacularly wrong predictions made around the first “Earth Day” in 1970

I grew up on Panic Science–The Population Bomb, Silent Spring, and the like. After a while you don’t even hear the cries of “wolf!” anymore.

Watts Up With That?

Tomorrow, Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day 2018

In the May 2000 issue of Reason Magazine, award-winning science correspondent Ronald Bailey wrote an excellent article titled “Earth Day, Then and Now” to provide some historical perspective on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day. In that article, Bailey noted that around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, and in the years following, there was a “torrent of apocalyptic predictions” and many of those predictions were featured in his Reason article. Well, it’s now the 48th anniversary of Earth Day, and a good time to ask the question again that Bailey asked 18 years ago: How accurate were the predictions made around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970? The answer: “The prophets of doom were not simply wrong, but spectacularly wrong,” according to Bailey.

Here are 18 examples of the spectacularly wrong predictions made around…

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