Sunday, April 20, 2014

How NOT to get reviewed . . .

Dear Faithful Readers;

Here are some discreetly edited e-mails I’ve sent (or wanted to send) to some aspiring authors and publishers who had asked to have their books reviewed on Erotica For The Big Brain. I think you may find a clue or two about what not to do when writing erotica or attempting to solicit a review. Enjoy—or cringe as the case may be.



Dear Author,

After perusing your sample, I have to be frank; as fascinating as the broad outline of your story sounds, I don't think your book is ready for review just yet. The problem isn't one of bad writing per se, but mostly of organization. You begin with a long and rather dry digression about the history and politics of this matriarchal island state, going to great lengths to make it all seem plausible. But that’s not a very good way to engage readers, who will be far more interested in your characters and the conflicts that motivate them. You do a great deal of "telling," giving us lots and lots of detail in a series of baldly declarative sentences, but you don't show us your characters in action or get into their heads through intimately observed scenes and dialogue—at least not until well into your second chapter.    
I would highly recommend two books. First is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This volume is very helpful when it comes to understanding the whole "show don't tell" principal, and does a good job of covering aspects of organization and formatting. The chapter on dialogue mechanics is alone worth the price of the book.  Second, James N. Frey's How to Write a Damned Good Novel is a quick, easy primer on the creation of effective dramatic narrative.
Ultimately, I think you have the raw material for a pretty good series of books. You simply need to refine it in order to draw in and hold potential readers. When you've done that--and perhaps chosen a subtler, better formatted cover--I'll be happy to take a look, and very possibly write a review. Till then, good luck.
Dear Author,

I think you are a brilliant storyteller. It’s rare to find an erotic novel at once so engaging and original. You may well have the Next Big Thing on your hands, and go on to enjoy the kind of success and wealth most writers only know in their dreams.

This being said, the problem—and it is, in my opinion, a serious one—is the editing, or, to be more specific, the total lack of editing. It appears that you relied on AutoCorrect and never bothered to get a pair of trained human eyes on the text. There are far too many sloppy instances of tense-disagreement, and other confused usages; words that aren’t quite right. At one point—in fact, the point where I stopped reading—the narrator talks about “volcano larvae”. Are you serious? Would it have been so difficult to go through the story a few times, find and fix these errors? Proper attention to small detail can often make the difference between a memorable, great book and a mediocre, forgettable one.

I also have to say that you throw in an awful lot of specific product and brand names. I understand the motivation behind this, endeavoring to give the text a feel of contemporary realism and “now-ness”, but after a while, this constant name-dropping gives the book less the feel of an edgy erotic adventure than the copy in some old Sharper Image catalog. In the end, this surfeit of unnecessary detail will not tell the story for you,

Get this book to a good professional editor as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.



Dear Author,

It is unfortunate that you severed communications with me before I could give my reasoning for passing on your work. It had been a long day and I was tired when I wrote that I could not give your novel a positive review, but I fully intended to come back and provide you with a summary of my observations, which might well have proven helpful to you.  That you would be so childish as to “take your ball and go home” does not bode well either for your book’s chances or your own future as an author.

I think you should fire your copyeditor—the one you so lavishly praise in your acknowledgements—he has not done well by you. Among other things, he ought to know that one can write “till” or “until”, but there is no such word as “‘til”.  While I think most readers would never notice such a tiny detail, you called special attention to the fact that the novel had been “thoroughly and professionally edited”, thus issuing an irresistible challenge to whole squadrons of eagle-eyed pedants.

Would that the editing was the most serious issue with the book; there are problems that go much deeper. In a novel purporting to be a work of erotica, you go into greater detail about technical aspects of IT, and express more passion about the meals your characters share than the sex they have together. People interviewing for jobs in the IT sector, going into torturous detail that will only put non-tech-savvy readers to sleep may be a way of padding the word-count, but is ultimately beside the point. And then there’s the food! Every meal, from the most elaborate haut cuisine found in fancy restaurants to the simplest take-out is described in such thorough and graphic terms there were times I thought I was reading an article in a culinary magazine. Granted, your writing about food is often quite beautiful, and that’s good; but in an erotic narrative such passages, lovely as they may be, are little more than extended digressions, cluttering up the scenery and clouding the point. In fact, I think you may have missed your calling. You are clearly more turned on by food than sex, so, perhaps, that’s where you should focus your energies as a writer.  

On the other hand, your writing about sex is downright disturbing. Your story is of a middle-aged woman in a passionless marriage who meets an aggressive male co-worker while on a business trip. The man insinuates himself into the woman’s life and, at least in their first encounter, rapes her. You treat this act as an erotic episode, but it is blatantly, painfully un-erotic. (This notion that rape or sexual violence somehow unlocks a woman’s repressed sensuality has been an all-too common trope in French cinema over the decades. It is also utter and complete merde.) Your descriptions of the woman’s physical response (“she felt like she had to shit”) and, later, her passive acceptance of the co-worker’s continued attentions, are, at best depressing, and, though I seldom judge writing about sex in conventionally moral terms, disgusting. I come away from your writing with the idea that you hate sex almost as much as you love food.

Please, consider another line of work.


Dear Author

This writing lacks subtlety. You seem intent on pouring as much backstory into the first few paragraphs as possible. I would suggest reworking this, allowing the narrative to "breathe". In other words, spread the details and descriptions evenly through the text. As it is, your front-loaded exposition is graceless and clunky. Hard to tell whether you're writing a police report with full-metric descriptions of every physical characteristic (the young man is 6:4, 220 pounds with blue eyes yada yada yada) or a Dick and Jane primer for an adult literacy class. ("Hello," she said "I am Jane." "Hello," he replied, "I am Dick. That is short for Dickhead. Want to come over to my place and see Spot run?”) 

Your first sentence is adequate if unextraordinary, but you need something that will draw readers into the story immediately. Make something happen, or, at the very least, show us what the heroine is thinking about before you give us her whole life story. Drop us into the middle of a conversation or situation already in progress. Give the reader some mystery to latch on to, and let them use their own imaginations here and there.

It takes a lot of practice to develop a fluent, subtle narrative style, so my advice to you is keep working at it, honing your skills and stretching your imagination. Write constantly, and, when you're not actually writing, read everything you can get your hands on (not only erotica, but everything). When you're not physically reading or writing, be thinking about writing. "To write" is the only solution for all the difficulties a writer knows. To write is the only answer. 

Good luck


Dear Author

I have read two of your “disabled erotica” short stories. I don't like them. It's not simply that your writing is clunky and simplistic; your portrayal of blind people is inauthentic, ignorantly stereotypical, and  hopelessly shallow. Do you actually know any blind people? Have you ever dated a visually impaired person? Your approach to eroticism in the context of "disability" is childish, lacking any insight, subtlety or sophistication. Rather than engaging my interest and turning me on, your work elicited anger--which, I am sure, is not the response you were hoping for.  

I was hoping for imaginative descriptions of beautiful foreplay, sensuous rituals of discovery, followed by feverish couplings. Instead, you made your characters simple-minded porno-brained idiots, desperate to get it on right away, because, of course, blind people have to move fast before their dates silently run away in disgust. Your text was rife with bullshit pronouncements such as "Being blind, I was afraid to ride in a taxi," or "Being blind, I liked my ham shaved extra thin" or "Being blind, I had extra-acute hearing." Perhaps you should have gone all the way and piled on clichés like "Being blind, I was an exceptionally talented musician" or "Being blind, I was a natural for the food-service industry". You seem to have gotten your ideas about "being blind" from comedian Mark Blankenfield. Then again, your statement that “well, if dinosaur porn can sell, why not handicapped erotica?” tells me almost everything I need to know about the level of thought that went into these stories.

I feel it is only fair to offer you an "out" at this point. I can either write an insightful, probing, thoughtful and scathingly dismissive review of your work, or refrain from posting any review at all. The choice is yours, though a scathing two-star-equivalent notice from me might do more for your sales than any number of gushy, semi-literate five-star write-ups from your friends and family.   

In the end, I urge you to focus your energies elsewhere, preferably writing about something you know.



Dear Publisher:

I took a long weekend to catch up on some of my reading, and was able to get through the novel you sent for my consideration. I regret to have to tell you that I cannot give this book a positive review.

The writing is competent, if dismally predictable. The story is derivative and overly formulaic; it put me in mind of those gawdawful Danielle Steel novels I used to read on tape for my ex-mother in law with its contrived coincidences and clichéd portrayals of "exotic" locales. The book is not populated with believable people, but with cartoonish caricatures of one-percenters; the kind of shallow cardboard cutout pawns one sees portrayed on any average run-of-the-mill network-TV drama series. (Fitzgerald was right; the rich aren't like you and me; but I doubt they're anything like the addle-brained morons on Revenge or Desperate Housewives either.)  Frankly, I don't find the rich and powerful all that compelling as fictional characters--this is a complaint I've had about many writers from Anne Rice to Dan Brown--they can buy their way out of any situation, and who gives a damn about a shallow, spoiled trust-fund baby who can have whatever the hell she wants and never changes for the better? What real obstacles are there to be overcome?

I have no difficulty with the underage sex storyline, though I think this could have been more skillfully mined for its potential of moral complexity. Many readers are reflexively turned off by this sort of scenario; still, if we went around burning books that treat of any such relationship, we'd have to toss "Lolita" on the pyre along with half of Balzac, Zola and a goodly percentage of 20th-century French erotic literature as well.

In general, what I like least is the cloying cynicism of the characters. I suppose one might find the so-called heroine's bi-polar cynicism/naiveté rather original, but as I said, somehow, I've read this book before.

A novel-length erotic narrative must have VARIETY to retain interest. Also, in any successful novel, regardless of genre, the characters must undergo a process of change, either for better or worse. In this story there's an overabundance of sameness in the sex scenes, and the characters do not experience anything that changes them in any sort of profound or interesting ways. I was not dazzled; merely annoyed, and, ultimately, bored.

It is a pity that the only notice this title has received on Amazon is the clueless, semi-literate ramblings of a certain so-called “Top Reviewer” (a well-known professional dimwit in my opinion); all the more damning because she gives it four stars along with her pant-load of nonsense. I wish I could, in conscience, give the book the thoughtful, honest, well-crafted, scathing 2-star write-up it deserves, but doing so would represent a conflict of interest, since I can't post negative reviews of books in the genre I publish in, at least not on Amazon.

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful


Dear Author:

Thank you for your kind words--feedback is always welcome, and affirmation doubly so. I should tell you that I don't participate in "review exchanges", as tempting as they may be on occasion. In this way I am able to maintain independence without constraint on my frank opinions. I know that it can be difficult to get honest, intelligent reviews, especially of erotica, and the urge to "take shortcuts" can, at times, be overwhelming. Of my fourteen published titles, all available for more than two years, only one has ever received a review, and that was a terse, three-sentence affair on the Amazon UK site—subsequently removed. At least I got three stars, and the reader didn't seem to hate it, which, under the circumstances, seemed quite the glowing recommendation. A good, literate three-star notice will always trump a clueless, poorly written five-star one as far as I'm concerned.

I would like to take a look at your book. However, in perusing your sample, it seems there are a number of serious problems with formatting, including inconsistent paragraph indents, and poor spacing. It would be a much more pleasant task to read something with the look of professional polish, suggesting that whoever produced the book actually cared about what they were doing.  Clean up the formatting, upload your revision and I will consider it. 



Dear Author,

Having perused your sample, I'm going to have to take a pass on this book.
The story may well be a good one, and worth the telling, but I found
the writing clunky, often carelessly repetitious, and overburdened
with gratuitous modifiers. You effectively lost me in the first

This is not so much a rejection, as a challenge to do better. When
writing fiction, always strive for an economy of expression, and work
to achieve an effortless flow of language. In short, say more with
fewer words. The constant use of adverbs to provide dubious
information is awkward, and gives the writing a herky-jerky feel.

You need to have this book thoroughly edited with an eye towards
eliminating instances of apposition, that is, repetition of similar words in close proximity, and getting rid of unnecessary modifiers, paying special attention to adverbs.
Also, it's not necessary to give your readers a running commentary on
every ordinary action your characters' take. For example, at one point
you have your narrator say something like: "I walked to the file
cabinet and found the L document under L. . ."  Do you see how this
might be a problem?

I do hope you will keep working to improve your craft. Read some good
books on writing, and, of course, read great fiction by accomplished
masters, always learning from the best examples

NOTE: rights and permissions to all images secured.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review of "House of Sable Locks" and "Tales from the Arena: Opening Gambit" by Elizabeth Schechter

Writers must read. This is a truism, already deeply internalized by all but the greenest of beginners. Reading is the fuel of the imagination. We hear it echoed everywhere from classrooms to on-line discussion boards. Our jaded eyes sweep across a sidebar passing it off as unique wisdom in yet another of those “how-to-be-a-fabulously-successful-writer” pulp-fodder manifestos from authors and agents we’ve never heard of. We crane our necks to hear it mumbled in listless c-list panel discussions at every over-priced seminar with a cash bar and third-rate swag. Serious writers are serious readers. Yet how often do we recognize the virtue of simply reading for pleasure?

In my own regular constitutional routine, carefully developed to optimize physical and mental health, I’ve learned to set aside the last half hour of each day to indulge myself with books that I want to read, after getting through the latest chapters in the ones I have to read. Lately I’ve been leisurely working my way through the first five books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones); dipping into Junot Diaz’ short story collection This Is How You Lose Her, and laughing and nodding at linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word among other things. There is something to be said for the restorative and quickening power of reading for fun. These last couple weeks have been especially enlivening, as the two books I “had” to read for review here also happened to be the kind of delightful, magnetically engaging page-turners I’d choose if I was looking for pure down-time enjoyment; things to take with me to the beach if I ever got to go on vacation, or peruse by the fire if I actually had a fireplace.

Elizabeth Schechter fuses diverse genres with such artful subtlety that we barely notice the genius at work before our eyes. Steampunk, erotica, fairytale romance, horror, sci-fi; Schechter does it all so deftly, blends it all so seamlessly, we are left wondering by what weird and wonderful magic such stories are created. Her latest novel House of Sable Locks is based on The Succubus, one of the most hauntingly memorable short stories in the D.L. King-edited Carnal Machines, an anthology of steampunk erotica which was included on my Best of 2013 list here on EFTBB.
The original short story, related entirely from the melancholy perspective of a dominatrix-automaton in an exclusive London brothel, becomes the first chapter of the novel, virtually without alteration. But now, Schechter has expanded her somewhat narrowly defined steampunk/BDSM story-verse as well as her narrative point-of-view into the realms of alternate world history, gothic horror, mystery and romance. We learn The Succubus’ fascinating and disturbing backstory along with that of William, the young man she comes to love and long for as no other. An artificer or mechanical scientist, William just on the cusp of majority, is a virtual prisoner in his own home, under the sway of his grasping uncle, his life, present and past, not wholly his own.

The brothel itself, a sort of Victorian BDSM Disneyland, complete with automated pirates in one of its many sexy theme rooms, becomes a virtual character in the story; the too-long neglected machinery in its dusty attics and crawl spaces akin to a beating heart, keeping everything in operation, yet vulnerable and, at times, dangerous. William is drawn to the house as much by his scientific curiosity as by his need for physical release and psychological clarity. The very-human soul of The Succubus longs to help the young man overcome the demons of his past:

“Read it aloud,” Rupesh commanded, an odd note in his voice. William hesitated, surprised by Rupesh’s sudden intensity. Rupesh scowled and snapped, “read it!”

Obediently, William went back to the book and slowly started to translate. “There are two kinds of people of . . . of the third nature: those that are disguised as males and those that are disguised as females . . . Rupesh, what’s the third nature?”

“The third nature . . . that is what we call men who love men, women who love women,” Rupesh said, his voice deep and gravelly.

“Men . . . with men?” William asked, stunned. The very idea was both shocking and thrilling at the same time. Men loving men . . . so he wasn’t strange for desiring Rupesh?

Schechter is not only an engaging storyteller, but a perceptive and intelligent observer of the human condition. (Can we say icing on an already tasty cake?) Among other things, I was refreshed and delighted by the author’s sensitive, beautifully naturalistic treatment of William’s bisexuality; the luminous descriptions of the polyamorous m/f/m relationship he enjoys as a student in Paris, and the romantic white-knight chivalry in his endeavors to rescue The Succubus and be united with his love. Amazing! Fantastic! Glorious! All this and more. I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter as each day drew to a close, and I suspect that readers with more unregimented time on their hands may gobble it up in a single sitting.  Enthusiastically recommended!


Quite different, though in its own way no less diverting, is Schechter’s futuristic Sci-fi-adventure/BDSM-romance mash-up, Tales from the Arena: Opening Gambit.  In order to keep their animal side in check, a group of genetically enhanced soldiers, The Swords, are allowed to enjoy a recreational facility known as The Arena, where trained submissives (The Collared) make themselves available for high-tech bondage as well as older-fashioned forms of play. Beautiful Iras is the mother-figure, heart and soul of the Arena, and most accomplished of The Collared. Gavir is one of the toughest and most highly respected Sword commanders. Romance may well be inevitable, but, of course, dark secrets from each other’s past and the politics of rigid caste-society are there to complicate things in the most entertaining way possible.

“I . . .” Iras stopped, her hands in Gavir’s shaking. “It was when you brought me the books.”

“What was?”

“When I fell in love with you.” Her voice was quiet, trembling almost as much as her hands.

Gavir squeezed her fingers tightly then gave in to his own need and pulled her across the space between them, pulled her into his arms. She molded herself to him, kissing him hungrily, her fingers working at the catches on his coat. He leaned forward, letting go only long enough to help her push the heavy coat off of his shoulders and down his arms, tossing it into the back-seat before pulling her back into a tight embrace.

Mistake. Her hands trailed down his chest to his abdomen and found the heavy compression bandages that his singlet did nothing to hide. She pulled back and looked down at him. “What . . . you’re hurt?”

“You knew I was hurt, Iras.”

“But that was weeks ago. You were in regen up north—” she stopped, a puzzled look on her face

It’s probably not possible to reveal any more without dropping a spoiler. Suffice to say, the mysteries here are well worth the delving. As the title suggests, this is the first in what may well become a classic series of short novels. I, for one, can hardly wait for more, and wholeheartedly commend Tales from the Arena and House of Sable Locks, to all readers, but especially to all readers-for-pleasure.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review of "Like a Trip Through the Mirror: Lesbian Love in Alternate Realities" ed. Kathleen Tudor

The five stories in this intriguingly focused collection of f/f erotic romance, draw inspiration from a wide range of fantasy and speculative fiction, everything from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to The Butterfly Effect, True Blood, Quantum Leap, and the famous Mirror Mirror episode of the original Star Trek series. While authors seldom like to be reminded of their influences—“Gosh! You write just like [insert name here] . . .”—it is the true artist who knows how to take good preexisting story-stuff and rearrange its atoms into something dazzlingly novel. The great Twentieth century composer Igor Stravinsky once remarked, “a good composer does not borrow, he steals.” What Stravinsky didn’t mention—no doubt being too infatuated with his own drollery—is that a great artist coopts the older material in such a way as to make it wholly his or her own. (Then too, Fantasia notwithstanding, Stravinsky didn’t have a legion of Disney Corp. lawyers bound and determined to plug every loophole in the copyright statutes.)

Alternate realities, whether glimpsed fleetingly in a fitting room mirror (as in R. Anne Sawyer’s So Quite New a Thing) or experienced to their sensual full (Reflections by Kate Dominic) offer a fascinating and diverse range of ideas for fiction. Quantum possibility (new parallel realities theoretically created by each choice we make) and alternate personal history are explored with poignant and powerful effect in Annabeth Leong’s  The Universe Where Katie Lived, in which orgasm itself brings new dimensions into existence—an experience to which many lovers can well relate. In Kathlene Tudor’s Into Tipera—perhaps the most heavily traditional-sci-fi influenced story of the lot—a scientist defies authority and risks her life to prove her theories concerning the possibility of travel between alternate space/time dimensions. Vivian Jackson’s Game Fae is a delightful contemporary fantasy tale wherein an overworked video game designer finds herself drawn into a world more fascinating and sexy than the most extravagantly imagined cyber environment. 

Her whole body was electrified, ablaze, and needing. In this place she wasn’t alone, the only girl, the only gay girl, the only anything. She was part of the greater whole. Part of the faerie queen. A tiny fae tugged at her earlobe, shishing into her ear, tweaking a sweet spot of sensation just below, next to her head. Another found the pulse point in her neck and rubbed against it. Felt like the rough tongue of a cat, but warm and slick. God, to feel something like that on her clit. Laughter trilled in her mind. “Now you’re getting it. We aren’t bad faeries, we just like fucking. Open your eyes.”

Just one of many delights to be found in this marvelous collection. Enthusiastically recommended.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review of "Of White Snakes and Misshaped Owls" by Debra Hyde

Here’s something fun. Award-winning author Debra Hyde cleverly appropriates the Victorian detective thriller, making it very much her own in the process. A briskly-paced literary divertissement with a sly tip of the hat to Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional creation, Of White Snakes and Misshaped Owls will appeal to mystery fans as well as discerning readers of well-drawn f/f erotic romance.

Hyde sets her story in New York City during the early 1880s. Chester A, Arthur is president following the assassination of James Garfield, and the infamous Boss Tweed is rotting in prison, convicted on more than two hundred counts of corruption, though Tammany Hall and the old political patronage system are still in full operation, with the tentacles of influence reaching deep into the poorer quarters of Manhattan, the fast-rising tenements of new immigrant communities and nativist conclaves alike. The phonograph, the telephone, and the electric light bulb are all in their curious infancies. A fascinating and colorful era to be sure, witnessing the birth of much that the world would come to know as “modern”. Yet there are some things even this most self-congratulatory “forward-looking” of times was hardly ready to acknowledge, let alone accept. Portraying detective Charlotte Olmes and her assistant/companion Joanna Wilson as a lesbian couple in the deeply closeted culture of the Gilded Age lends an element of dramatic tension and transgressive intrigue to the story, the threat of humiliation, blackmail and “ruin” lurking behind every dark corner. (I hope Hyde will explore these issues in greater depth in subsequent stories, especially as she so skillfully avoids mawkishness, or cheap titillation in her realistic and likeable portrayal of this relationship.)

And I do like these characters, not simply because it’s fun to recognize their roots in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Hyde’s quirky, brilliant, moody Charlotte Olmes could well hold her own against Doyle’s eccentric genius. She is an example of a type that still fascinates to this day—a tradition stretching from Hypatia of Alexandria to George Sand, Calamity Jane and Gertrude Stein—the strong, independent, freethinking woman, unafraid to break the rules, which are, after all, made by and for men. Particularly in the Victorian period, such women were looked upon with suspicion and outright condescension—perhaps masking a deep-seeded dread—their accomplishments all-too-often redacted from “official” record. It’s then something akin to a stroke of genius for Hyde to make Olmes’ partner, Joanna, the top in the bedchamber.  

A few small quibbles. One involves narrative point-of-view. The book opens with a portrayal of a crime, related in third person. With no clearly delineated section breaks, readers are then immediately immersed in Joanna’s Dr.-Watson-like first-person account. Again, without clear breaks or new chapter headings, we are tossed from time to time back into third person, following the criminal as he moves towards his inevitable capture and downfall—a portrayal which seems neither necessary or particularly effective.  This sort of shifting would be acceptable, but without some typographical device to offer fair warning it tends to induce vertigo. There are some basic (face-palm inducting) copyediting oversights and examples of poor formatting here and there, which, readers may hope, will be corrected for the subsequent print and further electronic editions. (And how difficult is it, after all, to revise an e-book?)  

Granted, I do tend to pick up on small details, which faster, more casual readers might simply never notice.  Most who read for pleasure are quite willing to forgive the occasional typographic faux pas if there’s a good story to be enjoyed.

But all bad-tempered-inner-copyeditor complaints aside, there is most assuredly a good story here. And if my prognosticative skills are anywhere up to snuff, I foresee Debra Hyde’s Charlotte Olmes series becoming a very popular and successful franchise, the new de regaire for vacation and beach-reading, or just the thing to curl up with by a warm fire on a bleak winter’s night; the perfect literary snack, light, refreshing, digestible and delicious.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review of "Domme Chronicles: Erotic Tales of Love, Passion and Domination" by Sharyn Ferns

There’s some genuinely beautiful prose in this copious collection of D/s flash fiction from Australian author Sharyn Ferns, and the overall quality of the writing is pleasingly consistent throughout. More a gathering of vignettes than formally-structured stories, these pieces have the cursory feel of journal entries or diaristic meditations, a few epigrammatic strokes elucidating the author’s most acute observations of small, seemingly mundane details, and the luminous after-images of fleeting emotions.  

I like having you smell me also, and I know you bring the scent to your nose when you want to feel close and I feel you breathe in deeply, sucking me into your lungs to bring and keep me there, touching every cell, unwilling to let the air back out, trying to taste the scent on your tongue and all the way to the back of your throat and inside you.

I wonder if you can smell me in your sleep and in your wakeful moments and when you aren’t paying attention and when you are and when you see something that makes you think of me and when you see nothing and are thinking of me.

Have I marked you with my scent enough so that you just smell me, anyway and always?

So far, so good. Yet, while downright delightful when imbibed in moderation, collectively there is a creeping quality of sameness from one section to the next. The reader may experience a cloying sense of déjà vu when encountering quite literally hundreds of “I do this; you do that” constructions. Yes, for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction, but some of these pieces begin to read like a checklist for an oil change, or a clinician’s lab notes. The novelty of second person point-of-view wears off very quickly, and should be employed sparingly, if at all. An author who doesn’t understand this runs the risk of boring her readers or pissing them off. After I-don’t-know-how-many “I do this; you do that”s I found myself saying “no, the fuck I don’t!” which, I’m sure, is not the reaction the author intended to elicit, though, I suppose, anything is better than indifference.

In a more charitable mood, I would ponder this question; how does an author—any author—create variety in an erotic narrative? How does one develop the essential literary element of conflict in portraying a stable power-exchange relationship in which every action and reaction is, in effect, predetermined?  I hope next time out Sharyn Ferns will address these issues in a wider-arc form, a slightly longer, more traditionally structured short story or even a novel—preferably in first or third person. She certainly has the talent and the potential to bring it off beautifully.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review of "Jacked In: Transhumanist Erotica" ed. Gabrielle Harbowy

Erotica at its best invites readers to open their minds, to explore the rich quantum multi-verse of the human condition, correlating our most basic instincts with our most complex emotions, finding the wormhole-like connections between the subtlest physical stimuli and the deepest wellsprings of thought. Science fiction, too, at its finest, tells a richly human story from a uniquely informed point of view. Whether we call it sf, sci-fi, futurism, or speculative fiction, the genre is ultimately “about” illuminating uniquely human truths, exploring the limits of human potential, ethics, and the nature of imagination itself. 

The science in sci-fi must be good science—the sounder the better—though it does not necessarily have to be “hard science”; the fictional dimension allows for speculation and even visionary flights of fancy. If we can imagine it, it’s ultimately possible after all. Yet no amount of fancy “tech” can ever substitute for the story itself, the narrative, the plot, though it be old as legend itself, wrapped in whatever dazzling new guise the author may choose, must always, in the end, illuminate, enrich and enliven our present human condition. (At a certain point  in my young adulthood, I came to see Star Trek less as an idealized vision of the future, than as a kind of sanitized cautionary tale about the dark side of technology. The show (especially from The Next Generation onward) seemed to offer weekly visions of humans frustrated and victimized by the very technologies designed to serve them. Especially in the case of Star Trek and its various spinoffs, contemporary futurism tells us more about the time in which it was envisioned than it ever does about the unfolding of the future. Sci-fi is more often than not a metaphor for the present, an elaborate projection of its creator’s most immediate fears and prejudices. In retrospect, we think more about the sexist Mad Men-era attitudes of Captain Kirk than about the quaint retro portrayals of Twenty-third century computers and communicators, all outstripped and rendered obsolete by reality within a few short decades.)

There’s nothing new about sci-fi-inflected erotica or the exploration of erotic themes in mainstream sf. One need only reach for a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love or, his glorious valedictory novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset to discover an engaging, literary speculative fiction that positively teems with sex. What is particularly refreshing about Heinlein is his unapologetically sex-positive attitude, though sometimes it seems, his portrayals of communal free-love, open marriage, polyamorie, pan-sexuality, and guiltless incest were included more for their shock value at the time than for their contribution to serious intellectual discourse or the expansion of human consciousness, a good sharp poke at the reactionary fringe, rather than a “how-to” manual for the hippie generation. That these books did help expand the consciousness of an age, provide inspiration and impetus for broader visions of love and community, was certainly all to the good, though undoubtedly not the author’s primary objective.

The seven stories in this stimulating, sometimes disquieting collection of erotic speculative fiction portray diverse futures for humanity, some Bladerunner-ishly bleak and gritty, others stark and sterile as the gleaming civilization portrayed in Huxley’s Brave New World, though all of them conceive realms in which technology has either enhanced or fundamentally altered the physical and psychological boundaries of the sexual experience. Transhumanism, as editor Gabrielle Harbowy explains in her introduction, is the “belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. . .

Our minds and bodies are machines, and like machines they wear down. Things break and need replacing. Or new innovations can inspire upgrades that significantly enhance capacity or potential. But what good is living longer, stronger and harder if we’re not playing longer, stronger and harder, too? . . . (these stories) explore what we might become when the ability to augment our bodies is equally a means to augment our pleasure-seeking experience.

In each story, the reader is invited to imagine and explore the fascinating erotic potential of these technological enhancements. Telepathy and shared sensations become a simple matter of neural interface, as in J. Pape’s Sweet Memories, and A Trap Self-Sprung by Nalu Kalani, offering a macabre twist on the conventional D/s narrative, with a bit of tentacle titillation thrown in for good measure. Sex and virtual reality (and yet more tentacles!) drive Nobilis Reed’s Cheese, though the writing is a bit too tech-heavy to sustain erotic interest. Sasha Payne’s pulsing, punkish A Sweeter Science is reminiscent of some of the great post-apocalyptic epics like Bladerunner and Akira—especially the former in its portrayal of forbidden human-robot love. Docking Maneuvers by Cynthia Hamilton may be the most purely entertaining story of the bunch, relating a steamy f/f encounter with some extremely imaginative writing about sex toys of the future.

Peter Tupper’s Upgrade is a beautiful, melancholy, elegiac but ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s final memories of physical sensation before transitioning to a new form, leaving behind and transcending the body in order to become a being of pure intellect. But not abandoning human curiosity.  “When there is no possibility of loss,” Tupper tells us, “action becomes trivial. Even if we can’t die, We can feel fear, and feel even more ashamed because of that fear. We need to try new things. We need to find something that scares Us.”

Here, readers are at last invited to ponder some of the ethical dilemmas posed by Transhumanist (H+) philosophy. What does it mean to sense, but not to feel? Has rapid technological advance ultimately doomed humanity in outpacing the natural course of our evolution? Can even the most sophisticated enhancements ever truly displace the sublime, simple pleasure of human touch?

“Yes.” She reached across the table and laid her hand across mine. I inhaled and willed my hand not to jerk away. Her fingers curled around the back of my hand. “That will be lost when we’re giant interstellar squid Buddha demigods or whatever. I don’t know if I want to say goodbye to that.”

That has cost her, I realized. Being so forward was a huge effort for her, just as it would have been for me. Apparently neither of us were early adapters. Never really comfortable with our current job, relationship, family. Endlessly thinking about alternatives, but rarely if ever acting on them.

Harbowy has perhaps saved the best for last with Peggy Barnett’s marvelous, lyrical, horrifying Teneo, Tenere, Tenue. Pygmalion meets grunge in this vision of a world in which have-nots are forced to scrounge and scavenge while the privileged classes cast off their corpses, preserving their heads to await a brighter, even more heavily enhanced future. Here, a young, lonely artist forages medical-waste dumps, seeking body parts for a new, daringly macabre sculpture, the face like the image of the Madonna in an ancient icon, the body that of a many-armed goddess with the discarded hands of dead women.

Hands are the most human part of us, the part that reaches and gives and takes. They are the parts that made us what we are, homo sapiens, the dominant species: the opposable thumb, the ability to hold a paintbrush and make marks on the side of a cave, to strike flint, to lay fire, to gather wheat and pound flower, to sew warmer clothing and lash together thresh roofs, to build spears and point out wounded animals, to skin and flay them. Hands built tools which built brain capacity which built speech, which built communication, which built laws, which built civilizations, which created kings and emperors, the poor and the rich, which created the disenfranchised, the discontent, the disagreeable, which created revolution and war, and weapons to tear down walls, and regimes, and lives. Hands strike strings, drums; hands craft horns and flutes; hands notch pans and dance along keys. Hands can wrap a bristle, grind ink, plane a handle, smooth out paper, cut a nib, write a poem. Hands can weave and cut and sew. Hands create and creation becomes culture, becomes meaning, becomes mutual understanding and compassion. Hands have made us. And in the end, hands unmake us.   

Science writer Ronald Bailey has called H+ “the movement that epitomizes the most daring, creative, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.” He might well have been describing the stories in Jacked In as well. Recommended.