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2012 Feedback

At Swancon robshearman and I formed a fast, and I think lasting, friendship. We talked a lot about reading and writing and we both left the con promising to read - me his Tiny Deaths and he 2012 and send detailed feedback. He has kept his end of the deal and me? I'll get there eventually ...

Anyway, he gave such lovely feedback that I wanted to share it with at least the writers and for any readers out there who might be wondering just want the book is actually like. He kindly let me excerpt his letter below:

2012 is as good an anthology as I have ever read - and despite my rollercoaster reaction I have read rather a lot! Collectively, I think it's a terrific book; you read these stories back to back, and you get these wonderful shards of paranoia and concern and honest-to-Gpd passion for our planet. I love that. I told you I think short story collections should feel as if they're a single whole, not a mishmash - and this is exactly what 2012 does so brilliantly. Each contribution collides off another in a way that deepens the one you've just read. (And the recurring theme of dwindling water takes on an ever greater power.) It sounds, at best, a rather backhanded compliment when I say that no individual story is as impressive as the entire book. There are some very good stories in here, I think, and some which don't work for me, but are propped up by the cumulative effect of the themes they explore.

Deborah Biancotti is a smashing writer. Her handling of the dialogue in the first half of "Watertight Lies" is so dizzyingly skilful I went back to reread it several times; it's revealing, and funny, and does so much to make us feel sympathy for those two characters grasping on to normality against the rising panic. It's all the more upsetting when the violence breaks in. It does what few short stories have the space to do - it makes you care without forcing you to do so. Actually, it's probably the only one in the book which does that so subtly and so cleverly. It's intriguing and perfectly paced. I want to read that full collection by Deborah now. It's a great start to the book.

"Fleshy" doesn't work for me. Which is odd, because I thought I'd love it - of all the stories, only two are close in tone to the sort of stuff I come up with. But I think that if you take a 'what if' premise like this, which is obviously meant to ask questions about identity, about alternate versions of people and whether you can divorce physical appearance from personality, then you really need to make it about the two human characters who are being turned into the alternates. And I don't believe in them - not in the forced dialogue, or in the way their relationship progresses. I think that when the story tips towards the banal, with Fleshy bonding with the narrator watching soap operas, it nearly finds a groove. But it's not funny enough to be a comedy, and not real enough to be anything else. And I found the constant hectoring tone of the narrator very wearing.

"Oh, Russia", though, is lovely. I'm glad I bought Simon Brown's Troy book - I look forward to reading that. This is sincere and heartfelt, and if it's a bit obvious, then it's the right kind of obvious. And it very elegantly puts centre stage what feels like the big dramatic conflict in the book - the collision between Issue Concerns and Personal Concerns. I loved the way it contrasted Mother Russia with a human mother, and made the decay of both so moving - even when it's tackling the corruption of an entire nation, the story remains intimate. I liked it a lot.

I think structurally "Soft Viscosity" is absolutely necessary to the book. It's angry and brutal and you need something as blunt as this plot amongst the more conceptual entries. But it doesn't have much style at all, and there are bits which are so overwritten - for example, the circuitous ways in which cigarette smoking is described - that keep taking you out of the story altogether. And the kid's conversation about butterflies, and the possibility of change, is just horrible - the whole tale strains at this point just to introduce a metaphor so obvious it's almost funny. (There are just bits I wished could be cut, because they emphasise any subtext - the mistakes of the CIA, Gloria's contempt for Chay.) It's a simple story at its heart, and it needed to be written simply; instead the clumsiness makes it all feel a bit hysterical, and the twisty twisty plot utterly contrived. (Which is a pity, because I could well believe it had it been sold to us a bit more calmly - there's nothing wrong with the storyline as such.) It's not all bad - the sequences involving Alejandro and the torture are taut and controlled and make you care. I think it's trying to do too much, to be honest. Had it gone for something more claustrophobic, and focused upon Alejandro from the outset, I think this could have been very powerful.

"Apocalypse Rules, Ok?" Well, yes, okay. At a pinch. It's wittily written and has some clever ideas in it. Being a bit churlish, I can't but help think that some of those clever ideas might have seemed cleverer still in the context of an actual story. It's a funny thing, this; I quite like collections to have odd pieces which break up the rhythm of plotted prose, it gives the book a bit of freshness. But this single example, halfway through, looks a bit isolated. It made me smile, however, and I loved the speciesist joke, so I should just shut up.

Dirk's a good writer, obviously, and there's a really good idea in "The Last Word". I like his style very much - the opening restaurant sequence is great, full of confidence. Lewis is a really engaging character, all the more for being such an antihero, and where he stands in the story keeps you guessing to the end. But as a relationship piece - which it sort of is - I think it's compromised hugely by the blandness of Jane. For someone so brilliantly clever, she's a bit thick. Now this could have been deliberately ironic, it wouldn't have taken much to have turned this into the whole point of the story, even - the gulf between intellectual and emotional smarts. As it is, it's an entertaining read, and it tells a good yarn. But it ends up turning into a story about DNA alteration rather than being as personal or as emotional a story as I'd have preferred, and as the excellent opening and the story title suggest.

"Ghost Jail", though, is very good indeed. It's hard work to read, but it repays the effort. It's the first of two back to back stories which find within the technological gloom of the future the superstition of the past, and a tale of ghosts that put their hands into people's mouths - which is wonderfully horrible - bouncing off a tale of environmental anger, makes a lovely mix. And the ending is, frankly, sublime.

I think "I Love You Like Water" is even better, probably. It's a disquieting piece, this, isn't it? It sets its traps for the reader, and every couple of pages triggers a further shock. I love the idea of [cut for plot spoiler] (because I'm odd like that), but what makes the whole story sing is that it's contrasted with the idea of pacifying gods through human sacrifice. Either side of the fence, whether you get the water through future technology or past superstition, you're looking at ghoulish exploitation of innocents. And the way Angela Slatter balances the two voices of the story is, I think, pitch perfect. There's a nice black sense of humour running under the surface too - the dialogue is natural and easy, and there's even a good Waterworld joke.

"Skinsongs" is fun. It's just an idea, and once the idea's explained the story's over, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It's well written and fun to read, and is another development of the way that the human body can be exploited and objectified, which bounces well off the last story. For my money there's a 'twist' too far in it - there's such a rush of exposition about what these skinsongs are and why Agatha might want surgery, that to present an alternative explanation in the closing paragraph just feels too much in too short a space of time. I'd have preferred the simple poignancy that Martin Livings had already offered, of a woman forced to churn out scar music she hates just to keep herself in the charts.

I think I'm going to love Ben Peek's work. I'm glad I bought his book. He's quirky and weird and approaches things from left field. "David Bowie" may well be the best written piece in the book. But I'd bet my bottom dollar that this isn't Ben Peek writing at full throttle. It's clever, of course, but there's something a bit lazy about it, I think. I do like it a lot, and I appreciate effortless writing - but for all its cleverness it doesn't have as much thought behind it as other stories. I enjoyed it very much, though.

And I absolutely love Sean McMullen's "Oblivion". After the wide ranging and global concerns of the book, it's surprising (and lovely) that you [1] end on something as intimate as this. It's deceptively simple writing, and it's really sharp writing - and it manages to highlight so many themes of the collection, of people lying even to themselves as they betray the world and the planet, with such tenderness and compassion. It doesn't waste a word, either. And you get so caught in the emotional reality of a dying man letting go of a world in which his selfishness will no longer be tolerated, that the revelation is not only obvious, but inevitable, the way it should have been. It's a smashing story.

ETA: [1] I should note that Ben was the one to suggest ending with this story. He thought it would be nice to end with something hopeful. I don't really feel that this story *is* hopeful. Unlike Ben and Rob, I find this story incredibly sad and depressing. But I'm probably a lot less hopeful and optimistic than the two of them. And I guess I then take away a very different message from this book than they both did. I think that's a really cool thing about reader participation and interpretation. And as Ben said at the Last Short Story panel - ultimately, the reader has all the power.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)
What an amazingly comprehensive review! Even more, I can't wait to read this.

Which is also to say I'll be ordering my copy soon.

Mar. 30th, 2008 11:37 am (UTC)
Yes, he was very kind I think!
Mar. 30th, 2008 11:40 am (UTC)
Wow! What an amazing review. You must be so proud, and the authors should definitely be proud too.
Mar. 30th, 2008 11:51 am (UTC)
Its a really good review. I'm grateful for the detailed feedback.
Mar. 30th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)

Please thank Rob for me, too, for such a thoughtful and detailed review.

Very interesting to see which stories people single out. And lovely to hear that someone enjoyed it.
Mar. 31st, 2008 06:33 am (UTC)
I think it's only fun to watch different people single out different stories when they are raving over ones they like. Less fun, I'd imagine, if it were the opposite.
Mar. 31st, 2008 08:00 am (UTC)
Hmm. Yes. I would encourage that all discussion be glowing.
Mar. 30th, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC)
That's really interesting, that. And further to your point about Sean's 'Oblivion'...

I think you're right, I don't think the story is that optimistic on its own terms. But I think it gains a real sense of hope merely by its placing in the book. We've been through the mill a bit with these stories, and we've been served up some truly damning dystopias. And then, at the end, along comes a tale which brings it all down to a human scale at last. And at the centre of it there's a man seeking redemption. The redemption may not come in the way the reader - or the character! - may expect it, but the fact that something as small as a single dying man's salvation is offered as the last word in a book which is concerned more naturally with the death of the world is truly striking.

I think if the story were read on its own, singly, out of the context of 2012, it'd be hard to read it as something brimming over high in the hope department. But there at the end of the collection, as a little dying fall of emotion, it achieves I think an incredible sweetness.

And the point I'm making is that it's the *editors* who have given the story that sweet dignity, rather than the writer himself. It's the strength of a collection that the very order in which the stories have been compiled can give them different tastes and new ambiguities. And it's why I think it's such a skilful bit of editing from you and Ben. Too many anthologies just feel flung together, with no real thought given to how the stories should flow into each other and give the book its own individual colour. What's great about 2012 is that you have eleven stories with eleven different styles - and then you have a *twelfth* style altogether, and that's the style of 2012 itself. I think that's its crowning achievement.

I can't see the book ending on any other note than 'Oblivion' - and it says a lot that a story with such a depressing title and such a pessimistic stance can seem to me something compassionate and rewarding almost in spite of itself. (You could probably have done something of the same with 'Watertight Lies', and the struggle for survival within that, and the end which shows a character holding on for dear life, might also have struck a chord of optimism. But I don't think it'd have been as effective. Similarly, if you'd *opened* the book with 'Oblivion', I think it'd have been just as well-written, but fundamentally dark and depressing and far less memorable.

But I might be talking rubbish. I do that a lot.
Mar. 31st, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
hey, man, thanks for the nice words. appreciated--hope you dig the book.
Mar. 31st, 2008 11:40 am (UTC)
Not at all! I'm really looking forward to it!
Mar. 31st, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)
I think that's a really interesting point. And I think it feeds into what dmw was saying in the Last Short Story panel at Swancon. He was arguing that you can lose the point of an anthology by reading the way that we are for LSS and then, ironically, for 2012, he would be exactly right.

That's a bit annoying - that I would miss part of that experience had I been reading and not producing this work.
Mar. 31st, 2008 08:02 am (UTC)
Well I'm sure not all editors craft their table of contents as brilliantly as us ;-)

Mar. 31st, 2008 11:33 am (UTC)
But that's fair, because what you're doing with Last Short Story is so very different anyway. You're freeing the stories from individual collections - where, I'm guessing, some of them might be languishing about in obscurity simply because they're surrounded by indifferent stories, or have been at the hands of less sensitive editors than you and Ben. There you're deliberately taking the story out of the book, and looking at it in different terms. Of course the effect will be changed - but it doesn't mean that it's not just as valid, and that in some cases the story wouldn't benefit from it. As someone said on your panel, if you're going to plough through a collection all about mutant cats, the effect of a really good mutant cat story (perhaps Mutant Cat A-Go-Go would be a good title for one - I might try that) would be somewhat muted.

And on the other hand, I'm aware there are short stories I've written which only work within the context of the other stories around them. My publishers got very worried about a certain entry in my book, and told me they never thought it'd work if it were separately anthologised - readers wouldn't necessarily have bought into my sense of humour. I pointed out it was set near the end of the book, and by that point any reader who'd read my stuff in order would probably have a fair idea what themes I was trying to explore. And it was never a story that would *be* anthologised, because that was never its purpose. My editor went on to ask what would happen, then, if a reader deliberately read that one first anyway - and I said that you can't *control* what a reader does. I mean, obviously, I think everything I've written should be read with one hundred per cent concentration, with noise-limiting headphones on, some time before eating so that there's no risk of heavy food making the reader drowsy but some time *after* eating so the reader isn't distracted by hunger. But I've seen people read my work on *buses*. The gits.

The joy, as you say, is that we can't control in what way our stuff is read. And that everybody's responses will be different - and as likely to be formed by things that have happened to them personally that we'll never be privy to in the first place. I'm aware that I read half of 2012 slightly grumpy on a flight from Perth to Dubai, with a woman asleep next to me who kept resting her head on my shoulder. And I read the second half on a flight from Dubai to London, where I had a row entirely free to myself, where I could cross my legs and streeeeetch, and on which the food wasn't lamb korma with odd unidentifiable bits in.

All we can do, as writers and editors, is suggest the best way to read our work. And then stand back and watch as everyone does it their way anyway!
Mar. 31st, 2008 08:02 am (UTC)
I'm really glad Oblivion worked for you that way. That's how I thought of it too... kind of coming through the wringer and emerging to some small glimmer of light...
Mar. 31st, 2008 10:55 am (UTC)
But I think it gains a real sense of hope merely by its placing in the book. We've been through the mill a bit with these stories, and we've been served up some truly damning dystopias. And then, at the end, along comes a tale which brings it all down to a human scale at last.

I think for me it was the pairing of Ben Peek's "David Bowie" right before McMullen's "Oblivion" that really rounds out the anthology for me. They're both stories that draw the reader in to the personal human scale and they're both downbeat stories of human deaths, but the fact that "Oblivion"'s death is slightly softer and gentler than "David Bowie"'s last minute gut punch (which I totally wasn't expecting) is what makes it feel like the anthology ends on an optimistic note.
Mar. 31st, 2008 11:03 am (UTC)
(whereas I wanted to place them the other way around. I really am quite morbid!)

I guess it's really great that you guys are walking away optimistic about it all.
Mar. 31st, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)
I'm not quite sure optimistic is quite the right word actually. More... resigned? At peace? "Oblivion" felt like it cushioned the blow of "David Bowie" a little.
Mar. 31st, 2008 10:48 am (UTC)
But it ends up turning into a story about DNA alteration rather than being as personal or as emotional a story as I'd have preferred,

I am amused at Rob's take on this, because I was bumbling along with "The Last Word" thinking, yeah, okay, some interesting ideas in there but the whole relationship thing is kind of getting in the way, and then, bam, the story pulls out a classic science fiction high-concept ending. Excellent.
Mar. 31st, 2008 10:57 am (UTC)
Yeah it's so hard really I think to nail something to get everyone to appreciate what you edit. I too really liked the high concept ending of this story. And I think in a way, the ending was still mucking in with the whole relationship thing.

I think my response to Rob's comments on this story is ... I should keep picking stories that appeal to *me* knowing that that means I can't meet everyone else's needs every time.

I'm learning a lot from this feedback thing - thanks to everyone for sharing.
Apr. 1st, 2008 08:17 am (UTC)
Hurrah! I've never been called a 'smashing writer' before. I am well pleased.

Also I forgot to mention I need to buy a copy for my fam...
Apr. 1st, 2008 11:43 am (UTC)
Heh. I just love it when a real-world character you've snarfed for a story gets lambasted... "Jane" is a female version of a good friend of mine, an incredibly smart guy with a PhD in signal processing, a bunch of patents -- and basically little to no real-world smarts at all. Even to the fairer sex... he wound up getting married because a very close female friend of mine decided she wanted a piece of him, and so she and I colluded shamelessly to ensure she could get close to him. (I went out with his sister for several months. She was lovely, yes, but it did make getting her out of the house so my female friend could move in on her target much easier.) The things I had to advise her on... let's just say that after one particularly unsuccessful evening she told me about, I actually fell out of her car into the traffic because I was laughing so hard I leaned on the door handle.

Just goes to show: one should never, ever rely on the 'real world' to supply real live characters. They just don't measure up!
Apr. 2nd, 2008 07:41 am (UTC)
Yeah i'm pretty sure truth is stranger, and more believable, than fiction.
Apr. 17th, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
It's really great so far, Alisa, and looks great too, which is a definite plus. I've only read the first few stories and just finished "Soft Viscosity". I was so torn by this one that I actually went looking through your posts for reviews, to see what other people thought, and I must say I agree wholeheartedly with robshearman on this one. I'm very glad I persevered with the story, because it's very powerful and spot-on politically, but it desparately needed some major editing and pruning. The first few chapterlets really seemed like they were trying way too hard, to the extent that I was questioning whether Conyers was serious, or if he was just engaging in a kind of fictional third world tourism. As it progressed (and having read that he has some relevant experience as well), I became convinced that he meant it, but as Rob Shearman says, it's hammered home a little too bluntly.
It's a shame, because if it had been tightened up it could be really amazing, but even as it stands it made a big impression.

Anyway, congratulations, it's all fantastic stuff so far. Deborah B's story was a great opener, albeit unexpectedly disturbing! (But in a really well-judged way...)
Apr. 17th, 2008 02:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your feedback Peter!
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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