The Deepest Cut

Come October With Us
Come October With Us

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Come meet author Suhail Rafidi at the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Last week, Suhail Rafidi fielded questions about the editorial process for Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Here, the discussion turns to the specific matter of editorial cuts. We got a story from Suhail that we did not expect…

So you rewrote Cetus Finalis ten times. Does your editor Ryan see every draft?
No, I’m not that pampered. But out of personal interest, he reads about 3 or 4 of the drafts, mostly at the later stages.

Does your editor make a lot of cuts?
It depends on the project. He is true to the art, and cuts deeper than I ever would. He wants to see the vision of the book brought forth as vividly as possible. A good editor makes a great book possible.

cutskiThat’s a half-assed answer…
Yes, I’ve known him to make a lot of cuts. And when it’s time for that, my feelings don’t matter, the art does. My feelings can matter after the edits. The very first time we worked together, he was reading an early draft of TJ & Tosc. The first thing he did was throw away the beginning 15 pages, and say “This part is boring. Start here. Drop us right into the action.” I was stunned, but impressed. He was right and I never would have seen it.

I will tell you the deepest cut he ever made, and it may elucidate one of the reasons Cetus Finalis has been years in the making. Once, I think it was the 6th draft or so, I handed my editor a 170 page manuscript of Cetus Finalis. He gave me back 52 pages, saying, “This is the best part. Start over.”

Why did he cut that much?
He said, “This 50 pages is literature. The whole book has to be like this.”

Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol
Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol

Wow. What was in those 118 cut pages?
It doesn’t matter, ultimately. But since you asked: Cetus Finalis originated as a parallel story, an American Revolution historical fiction style book. Originally, two parallel storylines followed a pod of whales and a village of fisherfolk whose lives intersected at two critical junctures, at the beginning and end of the book. My editor cut out all of the human storyline. He said that he was experiencing his humanity more vividly through the whales than through the human characters, so get rid of the humans. Make it a whale story, a real whale story. Make the humans just one encounter with another species, just like all the other ones in the whale narrative. He was right. It made for a much more beautiful and otherworldly finished novel. But it also gave me a lot more work to do.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an editor cutting that much…
tantrumI was pissed, I’ll admit, but he was right. For a couple of days, I could barely talk to him. And he was staying at my house, so it was a little awkward. [Laughs.] In my mind, I was thinking, How could you cut so much? Did you even read it?! He was patient with my artistic moodiness.  He even let me throw a little tantrum a couple of days later. “Oh, that’s what’s bothering you?” The tantrum ended when I said, “I can ignore the changes you make any time I want to, but I trust your judgement.” He came to San Francisco to read the book. It would have been foolish of me to ask for his help then not accept it. Despite everything, the cuts improved the book. He takes personal interest in my work, and reads it thoroughly or not at all, with a keen eye for the story’s vision. Thank you, Ryan Hurtgen! I know you’re out there.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Please join Suhail Rafidi for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

The Editorial Skein

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. New book by Suhail Rafidi. September 2016.Last week, Suhail Rafidi discussed the significant amount of rewriting entailed in completing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Another essential factor of writing a novel for consumption by a paying audience is a good editor. There comes a time in every large writing project when the writer is in too deep, and needs the wayfinding insight of a good editor. In this week’s installment of Cetus Finalis propaganda, Suhail Rafidi answers more detailed questions about his editorial process, and his editor.

What does an editor do?
An editor pares away the junk of a book so the author’s vision can shine through. The author knows what they want the reader to see, but there so much extra junk in the author’s mind that invariably makes it’s way onto the page. The editor steers it ever back to the clearest vision of the story.

Why is an editor so important?

One Of The Ways It Works
One Of The Ways It Works

There comes a time in the process of writing a book when the author becomes too close to the work, too embroiled in the minutiae, and can lose perspective of the wholeness of the book, the totality of the story arc. A good editor will look at the work as a discerning outsider, with no sympathy for the invisible desires and motivations that can convolute the manuscript. A good editor can tell you honestly what needs to be cut (usually a lot), or about a character “I need to know what she’s thinking right now,” or about a scene, “This is weak storytelling.” Writers don’t typically like to listen truths like that, but I feel it makes all the difference.

Learn more at ryanhurtgen.comTell me something about your editor. Who is he? How did you find him?
My editor is Ryan Hurtgen. He is a composer living in Los Angeles, and one of my personal heroes. We met as strangers in Nashville in 2009 and formed our very own two man writing group. We could tell right off that we had compatible aesthetic sensibilities, and that was the magic formula for editing each other’s work. We could look at the work as disinterested and critical audience members, instead of the creator who still has a crush on his work. That was a big deal, and goes a long way to creating a finished product fit for mass consumption.

asleepingreenAt the time Ryan was composing Rene Breton’s debut album, Asleep In Green, which was released with a companion book of short stories. We agreed to exchange labor. He edited TJ & Tosc, and I edited Asleep In Green. When we began working together, we did not know each other, and we only got together to work on writing. After that, a friendship grew, helped considerably by our compatible aesthetic sensibilities. I mention the bit about not choosing a pre-existing friend as an editor because I think it is important to select an editor who does not know you as a person, because they’ll pay more attention to the writing then to you. They are more likely to be honest about the book’s audience and less likely to pull punches about how to improve your work.

Tune in next week when Suhail reveals a flabbergasting story about the deepest cut his editor ever made, and how he dealt with it. Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

The Art Of Rewriting (Or, The Ten Drafts Of Cetus Finalis)

Lots of this...Many readers are writers themselves, and take interest in the creative process of other writers. There is a substantiated rumor that Suhail Rafidi’s upcoming novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, was written and rewritten ten times. Or in Carl Sagan speak: A one with one zero after it. Ten times sounds like an exaggeration for effect, so we went to the source. We asked Suhail Rafidi if he actually rewrote the same book 10 times:

Yes, I actually wrote Cetus Finalis 10 times; though I don’t think it’s all that surprising. Any writing instructor will tell you that the bulk of writing is rewriting.

draftHow do you know when one draft is over and another begins?
Because I start at the beginning each time. What I consider a “draft” of a novel comes in two layers, or coats. The first draft is just that, a kind of soup stock. Once it’s written, I number it 1 and print it. Once printed, I begin reading the manuscript for rewriting.

What happens next?
For the first coat, I put the manuscript on my workstation with a blank notebook next to it. Then I read the manuscript with a colored pen, one word at a time, and mark it up, change things, delete things, rewrite things, add things. If the edits fit in the margins, I write them there. If I make a larger addendum – a paragraph or some pages – I inscribe a number with a circle around it on the manuscript. Then I write the same number in the adjacent notebook and compose the passage there.

Open notebook with a ballpoint pen in the centerYou still hand write your drafts? Why?
For the first coat, yes. I feel that I maintain considerably more focus when using a pen and paper. Though the power of desktop computing can’t be understated, holding a stylus and marking the page is an ancient human physical practice. I think it will take longer than a century or two to displace the efficacy of that writing process. Dante had no word processor.

writingSo, who types it up?
I do. Once the manuscript is read and marked up, and the notebook filled with new writing, I take the marked up manuscript and the notebook to my computer. I open the original file of the draft and enter in all the changes, now laying the second coat of the same draft. During the second coat, I do not read every word of the manuscript, I just enter the changes. Sometimes while entering the changes, I make a few more. So, the second coat does allow for that.

So every one of your drafts is TWO drafts?!
I don’t see it that way, but I understand what you mean. I don’t consider a draft done until it is ready to be printed out of the computer again. After I finish entering all the hand written changes, I save the file as the next draft, number it 2. Then print and repeat; on to the next draft.

And you got all the way to draft 10 doing it that way?

How much of a change is there between drafts?
Sometimes it is rather drastic; others less. I can’t keep a lot of what I write. The stuff I can’t keep often needs to be rewritten. To give the changes a sense of proportion: the 6th draft of Cetus Finalis contained 42 new numbered passages in the notebook, in addition to the markups I made on the pages. The 7th draft contained 37 addenda. The 8th draft contained 11.

Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky
Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky

Tune in next time when Suhail Rafidi goes into more detail for aspiring writers about editing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, including discarding rewrites, the role of his editor, and the editorial process which refines a novel’s relentless rewriting.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

World-Building & Whale Research

Come October With Me
Come October With Me

Party Note: Mark your calendars! Join the celebration at Suhail Rafidi’s Cetus Finalis book launch on Sunday October 2nd, 3:00-6:00 PM, at San Francisco landmark Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117) Remember, “book launch” is nerdspeak for “party,” so plan on drinks at the cash bar, autographs, and laughs.

This week we’ve got a fascinating tidbit about the world-building in Suhail Rafidi’s latest novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Also, why Cetus Finalis is unlike other books about whales or whaling.

Aside from children’s books, most books about whales are about whaling. (For example, there is a good book about whaling called Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolan. It goes into considerable and engrossing detail about the whaling industry in America, from colonial times to the Gilded Age.) But Cetus Finalis, though it involves an encounter with whaling, is not about whaling. It is about whales.

hope-orca-skeletonMany research and biological texts about whales are about their ecological placement, feeding patterns, and vocalizations. A small but growing body of research exists regarding whale communication, social patterns, and the contents and meanings of their songs. We do have superficial observational knowledge of some of their more conspicuous feeding and mating behaviors. But Cetus Finalis is something more than all of these, a novel which deals with the whales in their world, on their terms.

Gray whale at Anacapa Island, California (Courtesy of

Creating a world for whales on their terms, yet comprehensible to humans, required certain considerations. With an oral history millions of years long, whales may have some brand of cosmology, some stories about where the world, and whales, came from. The trick for Suhail Rafidi with Cetus Finalis was inhabiting whaledom enough to come up with plausible, yet inaccurate (or are they?) stories about the origins of whale reality.

treeFor example, in whale cosmology, the dominant life forms on dry land are the trees. Trees are the largest living things on land, they cover a great deal of it, and they seem to bring life with them. Since ships (at this historical moment) are still all made of wood, the notion that whalers somehow serve trees is reinforced. To say more would give away too much.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

The San Francisco book launch is on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117). Mark your calendars and join the fun!


Gray Whales: Just The FAQs

whaleinglassesSuhail Rafidi’s forthcoming novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey (Available September 2016), tells the journey of a pod of endangered Atlantic gray whales searching for their mates. In order to provide some background for the interested reader, we have some some interesting scientific facts about gray whales.

Whales are warm blooded mammals that live exclusively in the sea. They have an internal body temperature similar to ours. To maintain mammalian body temperature in a vast, cold ocean, they have evolved many fascinating adaptations, like blubber. They employ highly sophisticated breathing and sound processing techniques, and possess generationally transmitted intelligence; forming what we may call culture and society. Gray whales in particular are unique in the world of whales because they prefer to live near shore in shallower waters, and they are the only whales who are almost exclusively bottom feeders. Now for the questions!

Why are they called gray whales?
From their body coloration; gray skin accented by white barnacles and mottled patches of white where barnacles have dislodged. It is also common to see patches of orange whale lice.

How do I visually recognize a gray whale?
First, look for the whale’s spout when it surfaces. Because of the position of their dual blowholes (like our nostrils, but with muscle control, and on the top of their heads), a gray whale spout has a heart or V-shape to it. Gray whales’ streamlined bodies are marked by a few (2-5) ventral grooves along their throat.nicegray-whale-med These are pleats that spread open when the gray whale feeds, allowing it too scoop more sea bed. Grays have hatchet tapered rostrums, and a slight overbite, with their upper jaw overlapping the lower slightly. Another helpful visual characteristic is revealed when you watch a gray whale dive. Look at their backs and notice that gray whales do not have a dorsal fin; look instead for a dorsal hump, followed by 6 to 12 dorsal knuckles on the ridge behind the hump. Watch also for the fluke (whaleish for ‘tail’). The gray whale’s fluke is about 3-4 meters (10-12 feet) across, with a deep notch in the center, giving it a fan shape.

What is gray whale skin like?
Gray whale skin is described as feeling like a mushroom or a peeled hard boiled egg. Some of their skin is crusted with barnacles and clusters of orange whale lice, which eat the microorganisms and bacteria on their bodies. Most adult grays have raking and scar marks from orca encounters.

gray_whale_spyhop_chris_johnson_noaanmfs_swfscHow long can gray whales hold their breath?
Gray whales can hold their breath for 20 to 30 minutes. Unlike land mammal physiology, whale breathing is a voluntary action. This means they have to consciously control their breathing at all times. Consequently, a whale could never sleep for hours because it would drown. (Human breathing is an involuntary action, it happens automatically whether we think about it or not. Though when we do think about breathing, we gain a lot of range. Ask any diver or yogi.)

When do gray whales sleep?
There are a couple of scientific theories about whale sleep. One is that gray whales might sleep while swimming, effectively sleeping while in cruise control. Another theory is that whales ever take naps, typically submerged, for approximately as long as they can hold their breath, 20 to 30 minutes.

How big do gray whales grow?
Gray whales can grow to weigh 30 to 40 tons and be as long as 45 feet. Female gray whales grow larger than their male counterparts, reaching 50 feet.


Do gray whales sing?
Yes, gray whales sing. They use various low frequency warbles and gurgling sounds. No one yet understands the exact meaning of whale song, but there are a lot of good guesses. (Ahem, Cetus Finalis)

What are gray whales’ eyes like?
Eye of a Gray Whale, grey whale
The eyes of an adult gray whale are approximately the size of a baseball, and situated above the whale’s jaw. Gray whale eyes are very similar to human eyes and can see about as well. (If you’ve ever tried to see underwater, this might give you an idea why sound is so important to  whales.) A dead gray whale’s age can be determined during an autopsy by the quantity of a certain protein in its eyes.

What is the average life span of a gray whale?
Gray whales typically live between 40 to 60 years, though they can live as long as 80 years.

How long is gray whale childhood?
Gray whales usually hit puberty somewhere between ages 5 and 11. Given a typical lifespan, one female gray could give birth as many as 18 times.

How long is a gray whale pregnant?
Gray whale gestation is one year. Reproductive cycles are closely linked with migratory cycles, because it is best for mothers to give birth in warmer waters. Possibly for this reason, gray whales have adapted something called delayed implantation. A gray whale’s embryo does not begin to develop in the mother’s womb until some months after she has become pregnant (which usually happens at the birthing grounds). This presumably gives her a chance to have one arctic feeding season while pregnant so she can eat for the baby and still get back to warm waters in time to give birth.


Are gray whales attentive mothers?
Yes, gray whales make good mothers, being rather protective of their calves. In fact, one of the old nicknames for gray whales, “devilfish,” was derived because of the violence mothers were capable of when whalers killed their babies, including sinking entire whaling ships.

What are newborn gray whales like?
Newborn gray whales are dark in color, sometimes black, with the distinctive white patchy markings of their kind. They are born weighing between 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, and are about 15 feet in length. They are born with very little blubber and must spend 2 to 3 months in the shelter of the warm lagoons, feeding excessively on their mother’s nutritious, fatty milk (52% fat) until they plump up enough to make the trip north. Baby gray whales nurse for 6 to 8 months, consuming 50 gallons of mother’s milk daily.

What happens after a baby gray whale is born underwater?
The baby needs air, but can not yet swim. So for its first few breaths, its mother will give it a natal lift on her rostrum, bringing the baby to air. Within a couple hours of birth, the calf is able to swim and stay afloat on its own. Though when it tires, it is liable to rest on its mother’s flippers or back.

What is a gray whale’s diet?
Gray whale feeding in the mud flats near Tofino, Canada, 1984
Gray whales eat small shellfish, crustaceans, copepods, amphipods and tube worms embedded in the sediment on the sea floor. Grays sift the fauna out of sea bed silt in the same way that cattle crop an open range. When the food runs low, they move on. To feed, they dive to the bottom, roll onto their right side, and scoop mouthfuls of sea bed sediment. When they close their mouths, the water and mud are squeezed out through their baleen, leaving the food behind in their mouths. They scrape it off the baleen with their tongues and swallow.

How fast are gray whales?
Gray whales swim an average of 3-6 miles per hour. When migrating they cover about 100 miles per day.

Gray Whale Calf, San Ignacio LagoonHow far from shore do gray whales travel?
Gray whales hug the coast, staying within 5 miles of shore. Gray whales pay more attention to the depth of the water than their distance from shore.

When do gray whales eat?
Gray whales do the bulk of their feeding during summers in the arctic. Some suggest that this is the only time gray whales eat; they build up their fat reserves up north, then fast for months during the warm mating times at the southern lagoons.

How much weight do gray whales lose during their non-eating times?
A lot. Migration, mating, and nursing use up a great deal of energy. A 30-ton gray whale, for example, might lose as much as 11 or 12 tons of blubber weight during the breeding grounds and migratory parts of their year. So when they get back to the arctic feeding grounds, they really do have their work cut out for them.

Are gray whales endangered?
In 1994, the Pacific gray whale was finally removed from the endangered species list. The Atlantic grayGray_whale_skeleton whale became extinct in the late 1700s or early 1800s and is the only population of whale to ever be wiped out. Although, in 2010, a gray whale was sighted in the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequent scattered sightings off the coast of Africa, near Namibia, and far flung parts of the Pacific indicate that gray whales are migrating farther than ever before, and could possibly be reentering the Atlantic ocean after hundreds of years. This recent unexpected and unprecedented evidence of whale migrations may also be related to global ecological and climate changes.

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Left Hand Of Darkness

lefthanddarknessLast night’s The Left Hand Of Darkness discussion turned the genre on its head! A bevy of enthusiastic readers pitched in to rock some pizza and admire the handiwork of this deep and multifaceted novel.

In precisely the way Bacigalupi does not, Le Guin actually goes through a lot of trouble to imagine other ways of being. She has crafted a world that does not [yet] know war, coupled with a powerful vision of a world where genders are removed from gender roles.

An interplanetary human Envoy has landed on the planet Gethen, with invitation from the stars to join the interstellar planetary community, the Ekumen. The natives of Gethen are a snow dwelling ambisexual species of humanoid which – though their radios work – have not invented flying, or war. Will complex political intrigue threaten the success of the Envoy’s mission, or rescue it?

Ursula K. Le Guin takes us deep into the pliable notional mysteries of human relationships and meditates on our inclusion in the tapestry of life. Now for the notes!

David: From Le Guin’s introduction. How sci-fi is not limited to extrapolation. Sci fi is thought experiments! Le Guin wrote in the intro, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Meg: Le Guin uses elements of the travel narrative and anthropological soft science fiction to justify her rich and verbose info dumps. She sets the tone for this as a collection of field notes, more than a novel. Erik, who has read “more anthropological field notes than I have read science fiction books,” said that much of this novel read very naturally as if it were field notes and did not smack of a novel. Interesting to note that Le Guin is the child of two heavyweight anthropologists, not just scholarly types, but real celebrity status anthropologists in the Bay Area. (Alfred L. and Theodora Kroeber. In addition to many other things, the Kroebers are the scholars who cared for and documented the life of Ishi.)

Screen shot 2016-07-11 at 7.47.19 PM

Which genres is she blending? Fantasy and Sci-fi, of course, but many more. The travel narrative, hard sci-fi, political intrigue, romance novel. It’s so fantasy in some regards that readers crave a glossary and maps, the way lots of fantasy books give. But she leaves it to the reader to deduce the world around Genly Ai. Readers are along for the same ride as Genly Ai, to figure out how this world operates, and where its variations are.

Where is the romance novel? Which two main characters begin by disliking and distrusting one another, but discover by the end a deep loving intimacy, but because of their social circumstances are prevented from acting on their newly discovered love…? C’mon, it’ll come to you…. Exactly! A romance novel.

Le Guin’s using high-falootin’ Big Idea sci fi here, like Asimov in the Foundation works. Big political and social spectrum considerations. Getting the reader to think about social structure in the abstract, yet so strongly grounded in these everyday characters.

Erik remarked on the contemporary anti-war climate of the writing at that time (This book was published in 1969.) She is laying out a very strong thought experiment to imagine a world without war. Killing and crime, sure, but not war. (Or as she does in The Dispossessed a thought experiment of an anarchist world and how it might actually operate.)

Screen shot 2016-07-11 at 7.47.23 PM

Powerful theme of questions and answers. The value of not asking unanswerable questions. P.70 “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” P.151 “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

Tangent about Cordwainer Smith as a very important author of the New Wave, and a discussion about reading some of his short stories this Autumn.

Erik: Tangent about Micheal Saler’s book, As If, which discusses the growth of fandom in literature. “Enchanged disenchantment.” Playing with the idea of literary characters being partially factualized and tracked, like with Sherlock Holmes, and later with Lord Of The Rings stuff.

The Foretellers’ ceremony: WOW! It’s about the question, the journey. The answer doesn’t matter. A good question is more valuable than its answers. Just knowing that the planet will join the Ekumen does not tell enough. Nothing about Estraven and Genly’s character changes. Even knowing the Foreteller’s answer does not shorten the road.

She’s advocating a great model of the anthropological approach to everything, being changed by the other and them being changed by you.

p.135, The Ekumen “is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political,”
We talked about the implication so that short statement for sometime. When were they ever united in the first place? Perhaps in pre-literate oral cultures, where all documents were spoken and remembered only?

Erik: Regarding the Ekumen, Erik mentioned “a sensibility that encourages an incounter with the Other. That interaction has a mystical and spiritual dimension.” Also, A “Human quality of being open to otherness, but with care. To be open to the other, you have to in a sense be broken open to the other. Be at ease with the tension and uncertainty (including the erotic tension) that comes with the charge of difference.

Suhail: Le Guin is even dispensing with the assumption that we have to resolve or somehow flatten or homogonize that charge of otherworldly difference before we can begin meaningful interactions and exchanges. The uncertainy is permanent. Dualities are experienced simultaneously instead of with mutual exclusivity.

See you next time!

Struck off on a tangent of other sci fi writers culminating in the most humorous comment of the night, from David Gill: “If you’re into Dick, you can’t go deeper into Moorcock.”

Commentary about the modern syndrome of needing security, security fetishization, security theater (in Naomi Klien’s words), and how creepy it is.

Meg: By being ambisexual androgenes, the Gethenians are an embodiment of the contradictions. Making peace with permanent uncertainty.

Meg: When this book 1st came out it was derided as a radical feminist screed. Le Guin actually had to write an apology article to the male sci fi scene. Male sci-fi writers attacked her for being a feminist. But she did not describe herself as feminist, as much as they introduced the label into the discourse for the purpose of sullying it and her. She was criticized for the sexuality and kemmering stuff, and the foretelling. But they did not note her very powerful vision. Or maybe their attack is how they did note her powerful vision. As Le Guin says in chapter 11: “To oppose something is to maintain it.”

Le Guin’s incredible versatility. She writes all sorts of stuff: Poetry, children’s books, YA, essays, etc.

Meg: “She brings optimism, but she is not sentimental, and that’s why it’s so great. She deftly illustrates the sophistication of all these mixed emotions and THAT is the greatness of literature.”

Erik: “She’s super smart, super aggressive, but not sentimental.”

This novel actually tries to imagine “other ways of being,” a phrase Le Guin uses in her National Book Award Acceptance speech. We ended our session by watching this elegant 6 minute speech. Now here’s a link for you to watch it:

Screenshot 2016-07-12 at 12.04.17 PM

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Windup Girl

windupgirlLast night’s The Windup Girl discussion was a real deal literary salon! Distinct opinions arose. The scope and technical skill of Windup Girl were undeniable; complex, impeccable world-building, a vast swath of ultimately interconnected characters, none seeming more important than the others. Of the half dozen people who attended the meeting last night, 3 of the 6 did not finish reading the book. Two of the 6, one who finished and one who had not, did not recommend the book. Four of us thought it was excellent, even masterful.

David said, “If a student asks, ‘What is the state of science ficiton today?’ then it is this book.” What did he mean by that? Well, we asked: This book, in contrast to Metropolis, is entirely mimetic. It has limited itself to completely believable descriptions of a material world and the mundane movements of people within it. Using that vehicle, it delivers an extraordinary vision that must be largely deduced by the reader.

“He never lets you peek behind the curtain,” said Suhail.

“Nary an infodump. Not a single one,” noted Meg. Every piece of information regarding the very masterful and complex world building is embedded in the prose and actions of the characters. Show-don’t-tell is followed to the letter, with incredible discipline. So much discipline that the reader is wondering, David observed, “Am I seeing this right? Is this what’s happening?” We must rely entirely on the slow and gradual reveal of contextual details. Chris says that this “puts the reader in the same position as every character in the book!” And there was a murmur of assent that this was a good thing. Suhail replied that “there are different philosophies about how a reader should be treated.”

Suhail was one of the people who did not finish the book, and did not recommend it to others. Nowell finished it, but also did not recommend it to others.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.16 PMNowell: This guy needed an editor. The book is at least 100 pages too long for what it does.

Suhail: This is technically masterful, socially innocuous, status quo-reinforcing fiction in the same ilk as Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It is written so well that it doesn’t suck, so you can get to the end, but so what? I don’t care about any of the characters, no matter how well rendered, and I’m not surprised by any of the plot developments. Some sci fi does a good job at making the present feel like the future. But this makes the future feel like the present. The calorie man is the oil baron. The kink springs are steam industry. White men in corporations are going to fuck everything over in the process of taking it for themselves, and the brown people will run off into the woods again. Too bad, folks, get used to it. The megodonts are Jurassic Park. I just couldn’t stay interested, no matter how MFA the writing was.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.05 PMAu contrer, say Meg and Chris: This book asks for more patience than the average one-off sci fi book. “It is a slow burn,” said Meg. [To which, Suhail responds, a slow burn leading to a meager guttering puff of expiration.] This slow burn concept came up a few times. It takes a while for all the seemingly unrelated characters to get laid out, but then when their lives start intersecting, you see how masterful and mesmerizing it is.

David was ambivalent, but still interested, as he had not finished the book yet, but wanted to see it all pulled together. Meg assured him the payoff was gratifying. Suhail was resistant, “I hypothesize that you will feel exactly the same way about it after you finish the book.” Suhail also added, to mild disapprobation, “I did not finish reading this book, and may even tell others not to read it.” “Now that’s a little harsh,” replied Chris.

Meg also admired the significantly researched hard science in this science fiction novel. Every technology Pacigalupi described was backed up by present scientific knowledge, so detailed in fact that it is a little opaque to the reader. This lead to a tangential discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson, and perhaps reading him next year.

Meg also said she could not teach this novel, because she’d have to spend so much time explaining and rationalizing to the students the literary purpose of the very “triggering” scenes and images strewn about the book. (Like the way Emiko, the Windup Girl, is treated, as well as other vivid, normalized depictions of racism and oppression; but mimetic, like David said, purely descriptive, not judgement-laden.) Suhail connected this need for filtration with the implicit status-quo whiteness of the book’s backdrop. “For people (like multicultural university students) who are less sympathetic to white privilege, I imagine this book has a lot less luster.”

Suhail admitted toward the end something about his prejudice. “Regarding David’s accurate observation that this book is entirely mimetic, it gives no symbolic trapdoor for interpretation, it is so antithetical to the storytelling style of Metropolis (which I enjoyed so much) – I think that fact motivates my prejudice against this book; because ever since I began reading books, I’ve gravitated more toward the symbolic, representational, iconographic flavor of storytelling. Also, thank you for trying to convince me to read The Windup Girl. I promise in the future I will not abuse this indulgence of skipping the reading.”

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.52.21 PM
Pizza Party!! I love this group!

Wrap up: 3 of 6 finished reading The Windup Girl. 4 of 6 recommend reading The Windup Girl. We’re taking off July 4th, but be reading LeGuin!!!

See you July 11th for Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. [Geek trivia: One of David Gill’s cats is named Ursula.]

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!