Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Contest time

Want to score a copy of Never Knew Another before anybody?

I got a bunch of them to spare. I'm giving away two right now.

Just tell me what you'd like written in your personalized copy, and the two I deem most fun to write score a free book, months before the release date.

Ready... Set... Go!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Exciting Weekend...

I'm not traumatized or upset or anything. Really I'm not. I'm going to keep telling myself this...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


One cannot curb the corporations' right to free speech; ergo, one cannot curb their right to bear arms.

How long until corporations have mightier armies than the governments that hold them -- loosely, gently, not-so-convincingly -- in check?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stop Dreaming

There isn't enough time to pursue dreams. Even pondering them is a waste of time. Buddha teaches us to live our real life. Accept what is and what cannot be changed. Your word has bound you to industry, and family, and responsibility. What use are dreams when they do not answer your responsibility to the people of your life, whom you owe so much. And with the time we have on earth, there are starving children and unclean waters and the myth of omnipotent corporations.

I was thinking about this, how there is no point dreaming in the age of advertising while money and research are poured into making us want so much, so loud. Our dreams are polluted. We want but we do not know how our wants are crafted. Stop dreaming, then, and just work, meditate, and live your real life.

The dreams you have will only add to the smog that destroys the world for our grandchildren: tour buses burning oil, paper mills spewing pulp into rivers, and another company with another product to beat into our minds.

Instead of dreaming, garden. Fill your home and yard with local plants that can pull the toxins from the sky.

That is our real life, not art and not glory and never peace against and among the corporations that have become the shadows in our minds.

And, whatever you do, don't write another book!

Monday, December 13, 2010


Keytar. I want one.

Friday, December 10, 2010

not world war iii?

Ever notice people keep talking about some mythical global warfare where nations clash against nations and billions die?

I was thinking about this while I was out for my morning walk, and it would seem like we have been quietly living in world war iii for some time, but no one realizes it.

The Haves (us) have been destroying the environment, raking whole impoverished nations for precious minerals, oils, and metals to the detriment of their nations, fueling the warlords that destroy the people of the world. Druglords and organized crime proliferate as the corrupted world feeds us, the Haves, with all the shiny plastic geegaws we desire. The environmental disasters that follow in that wake might as well be nuclear bombs, for the sudden deaths, and lingering pollution.

Don't tell me this isn't world war iii. Afghanistani Muslims hates us because they are in poverty, and we are "free". Iranians face sanctions of aspirin and medicine, but we sleep at night because none of our sons have died. China's bankers play tricks, and their party leaders sweep the internet, for any advantage of currency they can muster in the world economy, to the detriment of the people in the Rust Belt who don't even realize they're just casualties of a global war, far more dangerous than anything carrying a gun.

Bloodshed and conquest are done quickly in colonial wars of the past. 3 years, 4 or 5. This war, without bullets, extends for decades.

Blood for oil. Oil for blood.

Lone gunman, lone bombers, running through the dark, wanting for the open warfare that could resolve this slow, lumbering, ponderous combat in a lifetime, instead of century after century of economies acting selfishly instead of selflessly, taking when they ought to give, and relying on the backs of distant lands for the bread on the table, the table, and the bricks that build the house, the wealth that bought the house.

We are in a long, slow war. It is an economic one. We are Adam Smith's Invisible Army, raping and pillaging by proxy, through corporations and ambassadors, while few, if any, of our sons and daughters touch the guns.

And, there's very little I can do about it. I'm conscripted into it, for better or worse, with my family and everyone I know. Being aware of it only makes it harder to buy shoes, and stop at a restaurant for take-out after a long day's work. It only makes me angry, but I am impotent. One man can do nothing. There's nothing to do.

Except Vote.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

MAZE will be very pretty.

Freelance Artist Angela Giles passed these on to me, because they're going to be some of the interior art in MAZE, coming in April from Apex Publications.

I post them here because they are pretty, and because I think she's got a real gift for this stuff, and probably others haven't heard of her before.

Her Website

MAZE will be a beautiful book!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I remember reading this mid-grade/YA book back in my youth, though the title and author escape my memory. What I remember about it was that two young friends, both boys, die. One dies first by accident, then the other dies either by accident or suicide (can't remember). This happens right away. They talk before they die about a magical land everyone goes in death, where everything's cooler and better.

They end up there. The first one who died paves the way for the second. Once dead, they have magical adventures as young noble heroes or somesuch against demonic forces in the magical land. Then, when they've had their high adventure, and reach the end chapters, they talk about what happens when you die in this magical land. Apparently everyone knows you go on to some other magical land for another High Adventure.

So, they jump out a window together.

Ring any bells? Anyone remember this book?

It's been 20 years, thereabouts, since I read it, but I would like to find it again.

Also, I'm deathly curious if such a trope is acceptable at all in this day and age. Once, youth suicide was so unthinkable. Now, it is unthinkable to write about it as if it were a happy, joyful adventure into magical lands...

Morality changes fast in art, doesn't it? 20 years is a blink of a minnow in a rushing stream.

Monday, December 6, 2010

care package arrived from my Mom

Mom's home made cranberry sauces, and some Texas jellies (to tide me over whilst here in Georgia where the Mexican Food tastes nothing like Mexican food).

Cooking is quite an art form, when you think about it. Compared to painting, or writing, or music, most of the greatest artists are total unknowns: mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, who cook for an audience they know well. Even "mass" artists of the culinary form only serve a couple hundred people at most a night. Maybe a cookbook author is a greater artist, as they guide other cooks. 

Writing guidebook authors are not treated with the same gravitas as cookbook authors.

I don't have any deep thoughts about that right now except to point to the difference. I'm a little too stuffed on Chipotle-Cranberry Sauce to think straight. 

Thanks, Mom! (The chipotle-cranberry is the best!)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Addendum about yesterday's post...

The aliens that live in the bellies of whales will definitely be either arsenophiles or meth-heads. Meth-head is the official scientific term for someone who subsists their sustenance and DNA structure from methane. They also do lots of methamphetamines from inside their whaley kingdom.

We shall call their species the Jonahnians

If a sufficiently advanced alien species had made planetfall, they wouldn't be in the sky. They'd be in the ground. Too many people looking at the sky. Too many people looking in the water. Unless this sufficiently advanced species could hide themselves from our technologies. I imagine, then, the water is the place to be. There are depths we could not peer upon casually. 

Also, it would not be difficult to hide inside large whales. They are protected from extinction, and contain vast quantities of space inside their fat bellies. Hollow out a whale and or two and maintain the illusion of movement. If the alien is small enough, they could fit a pretty excellent colony inside the whale. Small enough, and it will be a whole world. Imagine the conical space ships that spin to produce gravity. Wouldn't a small one of these fit handily inside the belly of a blue whale? 

I think if I were a small alien, that's the place I'd hide to study the people of the world. I'd colonize the planet by colonizing the whales. The water, after all, is a lively place, full of beautiful wonders that are probably more familiar to aliens than our hills and mountains and forests above the ground. 

That's where we should be looking for aliens: in the bellies of whales. SETI should be turning their antennae to the whales.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

a link to the past

I was thinking about December, and got to thinking about one of the first things I did that generated actual feedback from readers who were not people I know.

Don't know why I was thinking about it. Decaying cities, or vampire-overload, or perhaps a sense that the weather here resembles a little what is described in the piece.

Anyway, it's from 2007, which is practically a lifetime in our new internet era. It's like a relic from some dark tunnel.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rich/Poor Gap and the Unemployment Benefits Are Cancelled

Back in my dark past, when I was a starving artist, I was a temp through a staffing agency. I got a long-term position with a company in Dallas, doing data entry, light administrative stuff, reading contracts, and all that mind-numbing business. There's a moral to the story, and it's relevant to the politics of the moment.

I used to park my car at the far edge of the parking lot, so I could get just a little more walking in my day. The local head of the office, a vice-president in something-or-other, had a reserved parking spot right up as close to the door as one could get. Her spot was better than the handicapped parking. I walked past her very fancy Jaguar every day and wondered why anyone would pay so much money for such a silly thing as a car.

I still drive the same car. 2002 Hyundai Accent, my dad bought for me new in 2002 for about twelve grand (thanks, dad! It's been running like a champ!). I went in to be a long-term temporary employee. I was taunted with the specter of permanent employment, but this was all a tease. For whatever reason, the months ground on, and I was locked in a permanent temporary position.

I remember the day there was a fire in the office. A very small electrical fire, immediately caught by the fire alarm system and easily doused by the fire department once they arrived, caused all of us in the office to herd out of our little offices, into the street. Once there, we waited, cheerfully, for the fire department to arrive and put out the tiny fire long before it grew in size and danger into something real.

During the few minutes between the moment we fled the burning building and  the fire department arrived, this same vice president of something-or-other said, and I quote, "What if the building explodes?" Her car is right there, where the shattered glass and mangled iron beams and reinforced concrete from the tiny electrical fire, might brace for impact.

Thus, while we were all standing there in the parking lot, about thirty of us in this small, one-story office, she got in her car, and pulled out of her special spot in her fancy car. She drove to the exact other side of the parking lot, and pulled in behind my car. My little car was all by itself, in an open space in the parking lot, where I could walk a little before my sedentary day. She thought it was appropriate to use my car as a blast shield in case the building exploded. Right in front of everyone.

I watched her do it, and thought about how I had been a perma-temp in limbo between employment and unemployment, with no benefits, moving paper from one side of the desk to the other, for months and months.

In a completely related note, she often called me "Jeff", if she spoke to me at all. This is not my name.

Needless to say, I am not employed there anymore.

There's a moral in there for the Rich/Poor Gap and the cancellation of Unemployment Benefits during this time of crisis. See if you can find it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Farmville is the end of the world.

Farmville is not a fun game. But, I can't stop playing it, if you could call it playing. In my mind I use the autumnal landscape because I am a lone survivor of a nuclear war. I am growing my irradiated vegetables to feed them to a food processed that will rip out all the toxins, leaving me with a nebulous golden pellet of foodstuff that I can either eat, or fashion into noxious kitsch to keep me company in the absence of life on earth. I grow radioactive rainbow apples, more bioengineering than biology, and harvest my mutant chickens that need to have the edible tumors cut from their bodies every few days.

Oh, the kitsch! Imagine the stylized vault dweller of Fallout fame placed upon a farm and there is no mental dissonance between the big-headed, cheerful farmer and the post-apocalyptic icon in a blue jump suit. Farmville is like one's own Garden of Eden Creation Kit Interface, as if I am learning all the secrets and possibilities of the astonishing technology that will make life popular after the bombs have fallen.

That is my farm. I struggle on, isolated and alone in a vast field of decay, urging my kitschy, radioactive plant matter out of the stark earth. With what is left of the power grids if the world, and the pipes, I push goo through the pipes to distant survivors, with no other means of contact but the pasted pulp matter we harvest for our survival against the fading light if humanity.

To me, Farmville is a symptom of the end times.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Between the loud football game, and the sounds of Warcraft, and Bejeweled and all the conversation, I am holed up in a noisy, noisy place. I thought I'd be able to do homework. Right. I can't even think of anything to blog about.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you are all happy, healthy, and enjoying your holidays!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

soft sexism

I was thinking about ants today, and bees, and the movies made about them. You know, Jerry Seinfeld voiced a bee in "Bee Movie" (which I admit I did not witness for myself...), and Woody Allen played an ant once. The Bug's Life, as well, was about ants. All of these movies, naturally, feign innocence for the sake of the children. They have no interest in being deep or thoughtful, only in entertaining the children and their parents with simple morality tales. 

But they're all sexist. Ants are all female. All of them. (Except drones.) Workers and warriors are all female. Bees, as well, are all female. We subjugated this life form and personified it, but altered the genders into what we perceive as "correct". The hero's journey plot requires a boy to take the journey, apparently. Somehow the story would be lessened if it was a group of women ants struggling together to thrive against a harsh world. The female empowerment message implied by the true gender of all the fictionalized insects is less important than imposing our own genders upon the bugs, for the sake of appeasing a cultural zeitgeist that requires a male lead to be the center of the story. 

This is what sexism really looks like. It isn't an overt thing, and it even feels innocuous. Probably wouldn't even notice it if someone didn't point it out to you. It isn't as bad as what used to be, but it's still not fantastic.

So, when you're writing your own world of insects, I encourage you to think about what is true to the culture you're creating, instead of the one you are imposing upon them. Maybe try to find a happier medium?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


"Never Knew Another is a weird but perfectly-formed koan of identity, memory, loss and loneliness. Dark, moving and unique."-Felix Gilman (author of the ridiculously awesome books THUNDERER, GEARS OF THE CITY, and THE HALF-MADE WORLD, and if you're here, I know you at least want to read one of his books, if you aren't also a big fan!)

I expect the back to change as more people read the book. They will say things like "J M McDermott is awesome. He paid me to write this. I was promised beer!"

I may not have a large shelf o' glory, but much of what I publish in short stories is in on-line markets, where the readers and money are at, and I'm only 30. I turn 31 in December. I think, perhaps, I've got a lot more books to write. For instance, the two sequels that are contractually obligated (and in progress--no worries, party people! I will meet my deadlines!)  will must be added.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Scene from an autobiography

Timmy left the intruder's left glove hanging in his front yard as a both a warning, and a lure.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

unripened persimmons

last night, discovered the strange tannic properties of an unripened persimmon. it forms a strange, dry-mouth-inducing paste in your mouth and throat, and down into your stomach. a particular tannin forms this strange paste. it tastes like a desert when it hits the mouth. It's dangerous, too. It could clump up in the stomach, form a bezoar that must be cut away.

It was like biting into a sweet, delicious membrane of honey-infused apples, and then tasting the poison on the back when you swallow. It is like a bad story, the sweet, rich beauty in the unfamiliar fruit, the initial burst of sweet and tart like pleasure. Then, the tannic paste, clinging against the mouth and tongue in the unformed, unenticing bitter and dry waste of fruitflesh.

Even now, the next day, I can feel it in my throat, that strange paste, unappetizing and unappealing.

Do not eat Persimmons before they are ripe. They are dangerous.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Untitled from Strandbeest on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's a contest running on Twitter right now, for the inexpensive eBook of LAST DRAGON. Do you have two dollars and a Kindle?

If the Amazon sales rank of LAST DRAGON goes up above 1000 (last I checked it was 3,166) Apex books will give away a free eBook to lucky people. (I assume not of LAST DRAGON!)

Thanks to Ann VanderMeer who sent me this...

This is exactly what I wanted. 

( if you can't see the picture)


Monday, November 15, 2010

You know what would scare me more than Zombies? Zombie Baboons!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

So, the next step...

Is to put together some kind of handy list of mosaics and near-mosaics.

So, everyone please chime in. I'll start a list here as things turn up.

In the mean time, here's a full list of links to the different parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Works Cited

I'm working on a list of mosaics, and I'll certainly be doing a lot of reading of them once I finish up with the whole grad school thing. I like mosaics. I might as well become an advanced student of them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mosaic Novel Paper, Part 4

Part 1 Here
Part 2 Here
Part 3 Here

VII: Something is Missing

While pondering mosaic novels, I could not help but wonder why realistic and general fictions do not have a dearth of these titles compared to the plentiful examples in speculative fiction. I have mentioned a couple texts, already, but even these are not necessarily called “Mosaic Novels” within the genre of general fiction. Many texts in a realistic or general tradition experiment with form in a manner consistent with the mosaic tradition, without acquiring the label. My first reaction was to think about how realistic novels are generally not presenting unknown or unknowable characters and landscapes. Multiple narratives about a single setting might be dramatically less-engaging when that setting is wholly quotidian. Despite the fact that I just expressed that thought, I don’t believe it for three seconds. My readings of the realistic literatures indicated to me that often what a speculative fictionist would call a “fix up” or a “mosaic novel” are referred to as mere “integrated short story collections” or a “novel with a rich tapestry” inside the realistic tradition.
Examples of what I would consider to be mosaic novels are plentiful. Alejandro Carpentier’s meditation on post-slavery Haiti, THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD, for instance, had three major narrative sections, each with distinctively different characters and plots connected by setting and narrator alone, with no fictional plot elements to merge between the parts. DROWN by Junot Diaz, nominally a short story collection, includes stories, almost universally with the same unnamed main character, spiraling back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey to reveal the full spectrum of the immigrant experience, fragmented into shattered pieces of lives much the same way the immigrant experience fractured the lives and minds of the characters in the stories. Though DROWN lacked a clear sense of destination, that is only one interpretation of the text and it could be argued that the cultural drift of the characters makes a destination impossible; ergo, the lack of destination is itself the destination and the text becomes a mosaic.
The most recent novel by Booker Prize Winner Michael Ondaatje, DIVISADERO, wove three different characters in three completely different moments in place and time, connecting them loosely through the shared theme of sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming violence that fragments characters away from each other into a tapestry of other characters who fragment farther towards others and beyond. MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize, and contained within a loose narrative frame of a family history, lies a genetic mutation – instead of the planet Mars – traveling forward through a series of fictions involving three generations of the same family that each experience their own plots and settings. These narratives, among plentiful others, fit the definition of what I consider inside the parameters of what is loosely defined as a “Mosaic Novel”, despite the narrator as a framing device.
In considering generational or tapestry novels in the realistic tradition, I can locate only two potential differences. The first is the appearance of one clearly-defined and overwhelmingly obvious climax that happens long before the "season finale" at the end of the book. For instance, in Jeffrey Eugenides’, MIDDLESEX, the moment the narrator that was being raised as a girl denounces his former gender and embraces his maleness, the various and diverse threads of narrative merge together into one unifying moment of dramatic change. In contrast to this, DIVISADERO, often referred to as a tapestry novel, does not have one, clear climax or "season finale" even unto the end of the book. Each of the characters’ narratives has one moment of extreme violence that could be considered the climax of their narrative thread in the tapestry, but the division that happens denies the possibility of a singular climactic conclusion.
In ACCELERANDO, the closest thing to a defining unification of the themes and characters occurs when the elevated Lobsters return to save mankind from the Wunch-like activities of the rogue incorporated AIs of human creation that want to preserve as much organic matter in the cosmos for the total conversion to a Matrioshka-style computer built of planetary matter. This moment is not as obvious and powerful as Eugenides’ transgender shift in consideration of all the short stories that came before, with all of their fictional climaxes including such major events as first contact with an alien species’ AIs. In contrast, VENISS UNDERGROUND does contain a singular climax where the Orpheus/Eurydice myth reaches the climax near the middle of the third section: the hero drags his beloved’s body out of a pile of gruesome discarded limbs, to bring her back to life. In other words, this potential delineation between tapestries and mosaics does not really exist in a meaningful fashion. I was wrong to think it even for a moment, and writers would be wrong to assume so in their own work.
The second potential distinction of a mosaic and a tapestry lies in the “weaving” of fictions in and out of each other. For example, in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, the individual fictions are not, themselves divided up and layered in and out of other sections. The fictions, in Bradbury’s classic, are complete unto themselves. Each section stands alone. In something like DIVISADERO, characters’ lives weave in and out of other arcs. Exploring this idea, however, I suggest an alternative: In this manner, weaving fictional elements in and out of each other, the mosaic is turned into a “mosaic of mosaics” where the themes of individual sections are more readily juxtaposed against each other. Ergo, a tapestry, with various fictions weaving in and out of each other, is a form of a mosaic novel with an eye towards the edges of the form. In my second attempt at delineating between the two, I found no distinction, again. Much like the labels "traditional novel", the tapestry and the mosaic have no clear, meaningful boundary. Works can fall in multiple categories, and should be allowed to do so. Labels do not transcend the fiction present on the page.
Perhaps the only distinction is the urban legend that critics deride mosaic novels as an inferior form. I say myth because such an assumption is impossible to prove, and lacks clear evidence. The fact that mosaic texts are capable of being critical darlings and classics, like CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN and MARTIAN CHRONICLES respectively, undermines the notion of a critical bias against mosaics. Here’s where this myth originates: Labeling a text is often used as an easy way of dismissing a text. The same critic who would call something a failure because it is a mosaic will turn around and praise a work for its success as a novel. Michael Levy, of Strange Horizons, praises Gregory Frost's SHADOWBRIDGE and LORD TOPHET (as well as my own deeply fragmented first novel, LAST DRAGON) without saying anything negative about the narrative breeches that make such texts like mosaics. If he then uses the label to put down a text, it is because the label is a convenient method of dismissing a book. In much the same way, literary and general fiction reviewers always seem to describe something in terms of genre as a method of placing the text lower or higher in relation to “low” things, labeled as such. This is not because of a critical bias, per se, but due instead to the poor writing of the critic who relies on labels to make a point about a text. The important thing is not to put too much stock in a label, even if it is one embraced as inspiration for the creative act.
Work can be defined as more than one thing. I have made little distinction between frame tales and mosaics in my work here, because there is little difference. A mosaic with a frame narrator is not functionally so different from a mosaic without one, in the act of creation. Using a label, even a broad one, diminishes texts more than it uplifts them. For instance, even the broadest of terms, "fiction", when applied to an autobiographical fiction, diminishes those elements of the text that are factual and true as something unreal. In this manner, also, memoirists who take liberties with the truth for the sake of story are sneered at for their sins. The text exists independent of the labels placed upon it, conveying what truth it conveys through the paper mask of the world created in the mind of readers by the words, undiminished and often undefinable.
In this manner, it is important not to allow the percpetion of critical bias to dissuade any creative act that is true to the creator, nor to trust any critical writing that would use a label to dismiss a work instead of allowing the work to exist independent of the label.
What use, then, a label? For the creator, a form creates a target that can be studied, aimed at, and toyed with. Having them is useful for discussion, as long as that label is not used as a tool to diminish the definition of the text, instead of a method to place the text in the context of larger fictional discussions.
With that in mind, the creation of any label, even one as unreliable as the one I am proposing here, requires some boundaries and definitions. They will be fuzzy boundaries and unreliable definitions, but they will be a place to start to think about such things, and a place to begin discussion with other forms and other texts.

VIII: Rules

     First, Mosaics allow an author to approach subjects too large for a single fictional narrative: ACCELERANDO’s depth of future history; CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN’s depth of city history; VENISS UNDERGROUND’s divergent narrative perspectives upon a shared plot; DIVISADERO’s theme of extreme, breaking violence across cultures and settings; and etc.
     Secondly, mosaics are created by fracturing either one or a number of the elements of fictional narrative – character, setting, plot, and theme – but never all.
     Thirdly, maintaining a consistent method of breaching the fictional elements is recommended to maintain the feel of a consistent whole. Any breech in this rule is recommended to be carefully set-up in the text, and minimal to maintain consistency to the reader experience.
     Fourth, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual pieces of greatness are no cure for individual pieces of mediocrity. Make sure to adjust individual elements to serve the whole, and “fix up” anything that doesn’t work to serve the whole. There is a destination point somewhere in the various texts that all fractured narratives flow towards, even if they flow madly in multiple streams and away from each other.
     Fifth, creating talisman’s (like the squid of Ambergris) and thematic ciphers (Like Aineko in ACCELERANDO) across the different pieces is recommended to give the sense of a whole rising out of the divergent pieces, and to keep the reader anchored in the place and time of narrative. In this manner, coloring each fictional piece carefully with shared narrative elements, keeps the various tiles connected in the mind of the reader.
     Sixth, the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.

V: Don’t Forget to Break the Rules

     Consider this work of fiction: a series of flash fictions, compelling scenes, and dialogues between characters blended into a single narrative arc inside a single chapter. These “chapters”, themselves, each an individual example of a mosaic of smaller pieces, are merged together into a mosaic of fictional elements that form a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In this, I am describing my own first novel, LAST DRAGON. Though the description of the form I just provided probably sounds obtuse and clunky--I admit my description is not really a perfect one--my novel was #6 on’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, and shortlisted for an IAFA Crawford Award among numerous accolades. One of the questions to ask of any narrative form, as an author, is this: what will come next for that narrative form, so that I, as a creator, will be on the cutting edge of the form. I took a concept to an extreme edge, making mosaics within mosaics, and tapestries within tapestries, cutting up all the fictions and pasting only what told the truth of the story.
     I have mentioned, briefly, some writers and projects who have found an edge to exploit inside the form, like John Barth, Michael Ondaatje, and Jeff VanderMeer. These writers, authors, and visionaries, already mentioned – along with myself - are not the only authors to aim for this edge of narrative form. Catherynne Valente crafted a layered series of broken fairy tales, each a small story that serves a much larger whole, in her Orphan’s Tales duology. Inside each of Valente’s Orphan’s stories, a character will begin to tell a story, which breaks away immediately into that characters embedded story, wherein another character will begin to tell a story that leads immediately to a new embedded fiction. In this case, the plentiful fairy tales and fables and fictional elements individually are very strong, but placed into an elegant mosaic of fictions, all fragmented apart with characters that spiral in and out of the different sections, a completely different narrative effect results for the readers, as all these embedded tales resolve together in the life of the tale-teller.
     SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, by Edgar Lee Masters, is not only a wildly influential set of poetry, but – I believe – qualifies as a mosaic novel. It bears all the hallmarks of one. Individual chunks of narrative presented as poetic monologues form a whole far greater than the sum of individual parts as the mosaic unfolds from the cemetery, and the great tragedies and triumphs of the small town ravel and unravel. Vikram Seth wrote a novel in sonnets, inspired by Edgar Lee Masters, in THE GOLDEN GATE. Were Edgar Lee Masters alive today, I wonder if his classic collection would be considered an experimental novel in poems, like Vikram Seth's, or a poetry collection.
     Here is a new rule about rules: the future is a big, wide, expanse of ideas. Experimenting with the form is the rule, not the exception. The most-important command given to the artist is to be interesting. Stylistic experimentation opens up new narrative effects that could not otherwise be found.
CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, despite being written over ten years ago, is still on the bleeding edge of mosaics for a very simple reason: the fiction is unified with graphical forms. Jeff VanderMeer, himself, a reviewer of both graphic novels and novels for the well-respected Omnivoracious blog, run by, saw his own work as the future of mosaics because of the inclusion of graphical elements. When asked about the future of mosaics, he thought hard for a moment, then said, “Mosaic novels where a plan is in there, [with] confluences of graphic novels and fiction more than before, mosaic novels that are part image, mixed media. City of Saints and Madmen is still on the cutting edge in that regard, with the inclusion of imagery.” (VanderMeer, Phone-call, August 2010)
Jeff said “mixed media”. Imagine a novel as a gallery show, with graphics and promotional materials, and descriptive passages on the walls, and live actors walking among the patrons, speaking monologues of story. This would be a mosaic novel.
Phil Athans believes video games are the future of the mosaic and the shared world, because not only can one see a single thread of plot, but one can go back to the beginning and make different decisions along the quests of the game, to experience a different narrative complete with a different ending. (Athans, e-mail August 2010) With major video games come tie-in novels, promotional videos, websites, and art books, and all sorts of related media that together merge into a single narrative focus built up around the central core of the game.  
Multi-genre work, and experimental fiction in general, are on the cutting edge of mosaics, as well. HOUSE OF LEAVES, by Mark Z. Danielewski, took the multi-genre approach beginning with a critical text about an imagined horror film/documentary, with copious intrusive footnotes from a man unrelated to the main narrative thread that found the original manuscript in the original author’s apartment when the author died under mysterious circumstances. Included inside this shifting, experimental text, are numerous examples of other forms and other narratives intruding upon the central setting of the house that is larger on the inside than on the outside.
Knowing the rules is the beginning of transcending the rules. From one author to another, I have to ask you this: “What’s next after what is already next for mosaics?”


So, there you go, party people. The next step, I think, is creating a collation of "True Mosaic Texts", and "Arguable Mosaic Texts" for scholarly study.
With that in mind, if you know of anything you think qualifies as a mosaic text, mind posting it in the comments? I want to make a resource for people who want to learn how such things happen, and that means making a nice, long bibliographic list of books.
Feel free to discuss anything at all, as well. One of the reasons I post this up to the interwebs is to encourage discussion! (Even if that discussion is a vehement proof of how wrong I am!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mosaic Novel Paper Part 3

Read Part 1 Here
Read Part 2 Here
Works Cited Here

IV: Over the Edge

     In my study of mosaic novels and fix-ups, I mentioned briefly that the elements of fiction are disjointed in some fashion, whether character, plot, setting, or theme. I only encountered one work of fiction that chose to fragment different elements in different pieces. This work, Jon Barth’s LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, was an experimental piece, and remains on the cutting edge of mosaic works today. The first section is a coming of age story, about a young artist named Ambrose. Halfway through the book, Ambrose is trapped inside a mirror maze and the work fragments into the many diverse short stories he tells himself before he fades away from life, while trapped surrounded by his own reflections. In this case, the form of the mosaic relies on a post-modern twist uniting the doomed narrator’s life to the stories he creates of metamorphoses, love, and longing. Another cutting edge mosaicists, the oft-mentioned Jeff VanderMeer, retains his place on the cutting edge because he includes fiction, meta-fiction, and graphic fiction in his mosaics. He merged more than just genres, but merged narrative forms together. In the hypertext future, where embedded movies and songs and images and links that lead down rabbit-holes of other links, the cutting edge of mosaics will likely move to the web. Already, authors team up to write hypertext fictions that share elements of mosaic novels, including “The Shadow Unit” (Various) and Neal Stephenson’s “The Mongoliad” (Anders, May 21,2010). Riding the creative edge of mosaics, into technology and beyond, means embracing new forms of story, and uniting those splintering elements together inside the concrete of a fiction element. Mosaics will outlast the binding of physical books, and have the potential to changing needs of an audience deeply immersed in multimedia forms as the world of the internet extends the blur of forms inside the waves of mixed media from websites.

    Along these lines, writers of mosaics are encouraged to blur forms, blend forms, and experiment. There is no boundary where artistry cannot take the story. Whether it is incorporating multi-media elements, or cementing together two different mosaic novels entirely – like LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, uniting the mosaic of the teller with the mosaic of the tale – there is no outer limit to the definition once the basic craft idea is embraced.

V: The Bottles From Which We Get the Shattered Glass From Which We Get the Beautiful Colors

To retain consistency with what elements are fragmented between the different narrative pieces, often the recurrence of characters or situations or locations will occur across the whole spectrum of fictions. In HYPERION, for instance, the Shrike appeared in person, more than once, across the different framed narratives. In SANDMAN, characters almost always struggled with the larger themes of self-creation and change from the would-be criminal masterminds to the serial killers and the transvestites and divorced or otherwise single women. Uniting thematic elements across the mosaic is generally a very good idea that contributes to the sense of reading an entire, connected and interconnected work.

In VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, repeated themes, characters, and locations became talismans of timeline, revealing when we are in the narrative, and talismans of theme, revealing what the focus of the fictional part will be. Even when characters, like Martin Lake or the Torture Squid, appear in sections as minor players, they do so because they are landmarks in themes, not main characters. Martin Lake is a famous painter, and is used as a talisman of artistic integrity in other sections. The Torture Squid are a popular series of comic books in the world itself, making them a talisman of low entertainment elsewhere in the book. Squid often appear as signals of madness and inhuman intelligence. Greycaps are the eternal Other, menacing in that they seem to be everywhere, but also seem displaced by violence and colonialism. In this, the individual tiles create a narrative shorthand that speaks for itself.

LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, by John Barth, is a post-modern exception to this whole concept of connections that plays with the implied rule that consistency is desired in what elements are fractured. The two narrative focuses – one about the burgeoning artist Ambrose, and the other about all of his creative reimaginings of Greek mythology – do not connect across the different pieces. Some common themes appear over and over, of course, wherein the self is negated by the vast scope of creation. However, on the whole, this work does not neatly fit together from the first half to the second. In this case, the breech upon which these two divergent narrative lines hang only happens in one instance: the mythological short stories are framed inside the narrator’s place in the funhouse. The radical breech that feels radical is explained inside the fictions, and only happens one time. It isn’t a large number of breeches. This experimental form, on the edge of the mosaic, only breaks one rule, one time, and keeps that breech consistent. This is strongly advised to any burgeoning seeker of edges: break the rules, but don’t break them all over the place. One broken rule in Barth’s work, well-explained inside the fictions, is revolutionary and powerful. Had he done it twice, it would have alienated the reader, and diminished the work as a whole.

VI: Consistency is Constantly Constant
At every stage in a generational text, like ACCELERANDO, we know where we are in time and space, and the stories do not randomly step backwards in time. The same is true of MARTIAN CHRONICLES. In a frame tale-like mosaic-like text that has not been mentioned yet, THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman, the different voyages and returns of the soldiering main character happen in order, with a single point of view character. The breaks in the fictional dream remain constant, such that they do not throw the reader out of the rules of time established in the fictions.

Fragmented time, like in Jeff VanderMeer’s piece, dances around the story of the city from past to present to future as presented in the meta-narrative. Though the pieces feel scattered, they still retain the focus. Never does the unified setting change. Rarely do the pieces stray far from the unified themes of creativity, madness, and exposure to the unknown world of the secret fungal masters of the Post-Colonial city. The aforementioned Talismans remain constant, immutable even as the fictions explore mutable themes of madness and decay. There is, across the different fictions, a sense of the “present” wherein technology has reached a certain level, and the historians look backwards from a certain place in history, and the pieces from history are clearly set up there through the placement of the talismanic objects. Inside that narrative “present” what breeches occur do not occur randomly. When a historical element arrives, like the founder of a popular and omnipresent corporation creating his first shop, the reader already has a preconceived notion of the man as a successful businessman. Watching him struggle to make ends meet with his blind wife peels back a layer in the history of the city in a manner that fuels the sense of narrative “present”. In other words, having a sense of the moment does not go away when constructing mosaics that play with the timeline of events in the different fictions. The “moment” of the narrative, and the destination point, in Vandermeer’s book is about knowledge, not events. The reader scours historical documents, flyers, psychological reports, and footnotes like a scholar of the history, becoming a historian through the act of reading the book.

     Barth’s single exception to the rule of constancy where Ambrose’s portrait of an artist as a young man intersects with mythology, in LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, uses a fracture as an element of artistry to upend the expectations of the reader. Ambrose, our would-be main character, is trapped in a funhouse, spinning stories of myth and majesty approximately halfway through the mosaic, as a way of framing the mythical meditations also present in the book in a realistic setting, as part of his story. The reader is the woman listening on the other side of the mirror as Ambrose unravels behind the glass. As such, it breaks the rule of consistent mosaic fragmenting by first knowing such a rule exists, and only does it one time, in an explicable fashion. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mosaic Novel Paper 2

Read Part 1 Here
Works Cited Here
Discussion is Encouraged in the comments! 

II: Rigid Definitions Are Not Useful in Fiction

     The word "mosaic" novel presumes that there exists some entity called the "traditional" novel. Does such a form as a traditional novel even exist? I consider the form to be what is presented in writing handbooks: a clear beginning, middle, and end; a unified plot around a single narrative arc; subtext, and etc. Definitions of the form “Novel” lead me to select a classic text as an example, if only because with such a hazy definition as “Traditional” novel, something concrete focuses discussion. Thus, consider "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce. Though there are breeches in time during the classic coming-of-age tale, all these breeches occur to focus in on the interesting parts of a character's life as he grows up. It isn't so much that there is a fracture in the timeline as there is an editorial decision to gloss over the boring, irrelevant parts. If the narrative flow were a river, it would flow down one canyon and never branch. Call this the traditional narrative, if something must be defined as one. If there is such a thing as a traditional novel, which there probably isn't, allow that it might be like the Nile, flowing straight from the mountains out to sea. The narrative arc flows one way, and never wanders much from the singular flow.

    Consider a “Mosaic”, then, a branching river, like an Amazon, with so many divergent flows along so many forking rivers that the webbing is more defining than the flow. In a mosaic, like in a television series, there is time and space to wander away from the main branch of the river to cover more narrative "ground". In ACCELERANDO that means wandering around different characters, who are all living in different places and moments in time. In CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, it means exploring the timeline of a city through dozens of different characters and situations. Put simply, traditional novels, if there is such a thing, follow a single narrative arc, and mosaics are unlimited in the number of arcs, as long as all water pours out to the same sea. In between these two definitions, works can be either one, or the other, or both. If this definition is unsatisfactory, that is to its benefit. Literary forms should not be considered binaries, and should not be considered rigid or closely-defined.

     Approaching mosaics with a simple, loose definition, wherein some elements of the fiction – setting, plot, character, or theme – is disjointed and some elements are connected, allows the inclusion of forms on the edge of the definition, like tapestry pieces, frame tales, and experimental work. Thus, a book does not have to be either a mosaic or not a mosaic. Something can have elements of a mosaic, and still be considered one in the right light, or not one at all in a different light. Works can be more than one kind of work, in the same way that a “Science Fiction Novel” can easily be shelved in multiple sections of a bookstore depending on factors like whether or not the work is a classic of literature, embraces ethnic or GLBTQ characters and themes, contains erotic elements, or is written as if an epic poem. No fictional category is exclusive. Approaching outliers of the form of mosaic fiction with the same ideas in mind, as if those forms are also mosaics, will only aid in the act of creating fiction. In this case, a “frame” tale is only mildly an outlier of the form, and could easily be argued into the definition of a classic “fix-up” in that individual stories inside the frame stand alone while the author “fixes” the frame around the stories. I included Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN graphic novels already, which are a frame narrative, and I would like to consider the frame narrative, and other divergent forms, in more detail, as mosaic pieces.

In HYPERION by Dan Simmons, multiple characters each experience a point of crisis in their lives that moves them onto a dangerous pilgrimage towards a deadly alien god, the Shrike. Different characters within this frame tell the story to each other, and by proxy the reader, of how they came to be on this journey. These stories range from military science fiction to detective noir to a surrealist piece about a young woman who ages backwards in time. In this book, the frame is like the concrete beneath the tiles, holding all the disparate fictions together. The narrative elements of the fictions, from character, setting, and theme, all diverge in ways both subtle and large. The only real common element of the framed fictions is the point of crisis, wrapped around the ominous presence of the Shrike among the Time Tombs. With this in mind, using a narrative frame provides the author with an accessible tool to unite the themes of the story together, where various characters from different backgrounds each want to betray their own culture. In the case of a frame tale, the narrative glue is often one major theme that connects over all the stories, like Morpheus’ grappling with self-creation and change. The themes belong together in HYPERION, and pulling the different stories into one frame allows the author not to write the arrival at the Shrike’s home in the Time Tombs from so many different perspectives. By placing all the characters, who will experience an arrival at the Shrike to complete their story, into the same group of pilgrims, the arrival at the Shrike builds up in the reader’s mind as a dangerous unknown. That anticipation felt by the reader propels them forward as they wish to discover the mystery of what will happen when the pilgrims reach the Shrike. Though Dan Simmons probably considers this a different form, more akin to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the fact that the form allows for different chunks of genre fictions to be placed in juxtaposition to each other, revealing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Though the work may not be explicitly called a "Mosaic", there is no need to be rigid with definitions of form.

Not every mosaic tapestry can be divided like Simmons' frame tale, around a single moment in time. Gaiman built his frame around one character arc. Simmons built his frame around one shared destination – a setting of Hyperion and the Shrike lurking in the time tombs. One can also deal with theme as a frame, but, we’ll talk about that soon, in the advanced section. First, we should talk about organization and shared worlds and television shows.

III: Lessons Learned from Spider Queens

Phil Athans, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, was an author and editor involved in many mosaic projects as part of “shared worlds”, wherein multiple authors operate in the same setting, and often use the same characters. In Athans’ case, it was part of the campaign settings to multiple popular RPGs. I have spoken at length about the importance of change in the mosaic concrete, and offered two examples of the tapestry side of mosaic fictions, and the two different approaches those authors took with their frames. Phil Athans lived through epic changes that impacted dozens of writers working on the shared world. About the mosaic process, he offered this advice: “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Some sophisticated readers may get to the end of a book and say ‘Those few moments of brilliance made up for the book’s overall poor quality,’ but more likely: ‘Those few moments of brilliance didn’t make up for the books overall poor quality.’” (Athans E-Mail, August 2010)

In other words, shaping the mosaics into a form requires standardizing the quality across the different pieces. Ideally, everything will be brilliant, but sometimes if elements don’t work well together, they must be adjusted or “fixed-up” to make them so -- in some cases, edited out of the work entirely. This same idea means, firstly, authors of potential mosaics need to make sure each section isn’t there just for the sake of being there. In my brief interview with Jeff VanderMeer, he also discussed how he often felt like the novella “Dradin in Love” felt out of place as part of the whole. In fact, he published that novella independently of the mosaic novel, and won the World Fantasy Award for it. He did not bring Dradin back into the mosaic until he found a way to, as he said, “recontextualize” it: “Dradin didn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the stories, and Dradin was recontextualized as the biographer of X, and made it an artifact of the city.” (VanderMeer Phone-call, August 2010))

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The true genius of Phil Athans’ Forgotten Realms is not one individual author or one individual narrative, but – rather – the consistent strength of the fictions maintaining quality and an audience over the course of dozens of authors and narrative lines. Even one brilliant piece of fiction, like the award-winning “Dradin in Love”, does not belong in the fiction unless it serves the greater whole. Athans has often turned down brilliant writers from working inside the Realms when those authors’ styles and voices do not serve the consistent tone and voice of the Forgotten Realms novels.

Another common shared world, the television season, must take these lessons to life: weak individual episodes diminish the whole while the season rises up to a season finale even as individual episodes explore other themes. DOCTOR WHO, a silly science fantasy series from the BBC, places clues and coincidences across the episodes of a season. Then, these clues increase in importance until they become the major themes of the season finale. "Bad Wolf" is scattered across time and space, to follow characters everywhere they go until the season finale reveals that the breadcrumb trail led directly to a single moment in time. New technology that is talked about in a positive light on cars and cellphones suddenly reveal their deadly side as the coincidences become too great to ignore. ACCELERANDO embraced this. The coincidences of Aineko rise out of the small details of each story until the "season finale" reveals quite how far the artificial intelligence developed, and how fast. In much the same way, Ambergris' difficult relationship with Greycaps and history repeat over and over through various stories in different ways. There is no clean sense of a "finale" in Ambergris, but there doesn't have to be. The knowledge that the Greycaps will rise is enough, along with the powerful image of the city swallowed up by the ocean water. A season finale is not as important as the sense that all divergent threads rise up and converge.

Other television shows have different methods. I refrain from the "long mini-series" wherein the season is a single, unbroken narrative line in works like "Breaking Bad" or "The Wire". These are serial films broken into chapters, not mosaics.

What is of interest to the mosaicist are the shows that wander away from ideas, explore other themes, but then return to the main narrative line. Again, DOCTOR WHO is an excellent example. Individual episodes scatter across time and space but return always to the larger themes of the season, and the show's long history, with the constant reinvention of the Doctor as a lifeforce parallel to the constant reinvention of the will to life present in the show.

ACCELERANDO and DOCTOR WHO have much in common, narratively, if not scientifically. The individual "episodes" of the "show" by Charles Stross wander around the idea of the will to post-humanity with the constant self-reinvention of the characters as they explore divergent themes and episodes with that same post-human thrust. In the end, small moments that seemed to be just recurring motifs for narrative flavor in throwaways from earlier episodes--lobsters as an uplifted species, and Aineko's cat-like decisions--appear suddenly in the final moments to lead humanity away from the crisis of the transformation of life in the solar system from Organic and Biological to AI corporations. The lobsters swoop in to carry away the survivors. The AI cat reveals itself as a powerful, self-interested, and self-motivated force working behind the scenes of the narrative, toying with the lives of the characters in the story. In this, like a good television show, the individual stories stand alone as episodes--proven by the fact that they were sold individually to various magazine editors as stand-alone pieces--but, when placed together, they form a whole "season" that's greater than the sum of the parts. There are elegant and inelegant ways to handle this sort of structure.

A long mini-series, as mentioned above, is only useful when viewed as a novel divided into chapters. A sitcom revolves around a singular situation, struggling to move characters even an inch away from their starting point. THE SIMPSONS, for instance, has kept Bart and Lisa in the same grade at school for nearly ten years, while Homer flees and returns to the same employer and Marge remains in the kitchen, cheerfully cleaning up after her family, no matter how many plots involve her mental breakdowns and success at various careers. In this, a mosaicist may find inspiration, but no sense of true destination. Merging a sitcom-like structure may lead to the sort of "integrated collection" that one can find in works like DROWN, by Junot Diaz, where an immigrant kid struggles to find a place in a foreign nation, never integrating even as he matures into adulthood, stuck in that same difficult in-between place. However, it will likely not lead to a sense of a "novel" with the destination hovering out at the end sections where Vandermeer’s Greycaps will rise up to wipe away histories or Stross’ AI corporations form a Matrioshka-like solar powered computer to house their growing consciousness, devouring all the planets and people in their way. Where is the season finale? What is the end goal of all these integrated stories? Answer this and the mosaic novel will not be far behind. The whole must converge into more than the sum of the parts.

Until the heroes of the Forgotten Realms face the final showdown with the Spider Queen, the whole mosaic is incomplete. The author of mosaic works must do more than just place stories with related elements – setting, theme, characters, plot - in one book. An extra step of shaping must take place to make sure the pieces actually work in relation to each other, and rise to a conclusion.

Much like in short story collections, placement is key to achieve this sense of destination inside the mosaic pieces present. Generational texts have an advantage in this element, as they have a clear timeline to mirror. More fractured works, like Jeff VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, have to – instead - trace a theme or idea forward in time. What Vandermeer seemed to do, in his city, was focus on the narrative arc of the relationship between the dissonant worlds of the novel, from the intelligent squid to the greycaps underground to the native peoples and immigrants, as all these elements weave in and out of the history of the city. For this reason, “Dradin in Love” was relatively out of place. Dradin’s obsession with a mannequin in the window and interactions with a friendly, menacing greycap have little to do with the recurring themes of the rest of the pieces without extra work to show how Dradin’s obsessions led to his larger acceptance into the fold of the city of mad creators. Even the appearance of a greycap was not enough to connect Dradin to the mosaic without further cementing him into the themes of the larger book. He had to become a historian, after readers witnessed him at his most intimate and obsessive. This colors the history presented, and integrates Dradin into the larger story of Ambergris. Just being a character in a setting isn’t enough. The character and setting must be driving the narrative towards the destination point, even if only a little.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Craft of Mosaics, Part 1

So, in their third semester, every student of the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine gets to do some sort of "project". I chose to do a craft paper on mosaic novels, under the gentle tutelage of James Patrick Kelly. It's about 49 pages, total, and I'll be divvying it up over the next couple days. Footnotes are here:


     When I was working on my second published novel, MAZE, I had to grapple with a structure that was uncommon in the craft books: the mosaic novel. Craft books do not embrace unconventional or experimental narrative structures, dedicated as they are to early-stage writers. ELEMENTS OF FICTION - BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS by Nancy Kress does not devote a single paragraph to the concept of a mosaic novel, despite the author of the book having written a gorgeous example of the form: NOTHING HUMAN. STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING, by Robert McKee, classifies experimental structures with non-linear plots as outliers in the form of narratives, for instance Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, where disjointed scenes together form something wholly strange and unconventional. Stephen King’s seminal text ON WRITING does not mention interconnected stories, nor does the author really write them. The Gotham City Writer’s Workshop speaks more to the short form of fiction than the act of interconnecting the short fictions into larger work. In short, an absence in craft books exists in methods of dealing with Mosaic Novels.

My only true guidebooks on the form were the examples I could glean from the published mosaic novels I found. This includes some of the seminal texts of recent literary history like THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury, THE ORPHAN’S TALES: IN THE CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE by Catherynne M. Valente, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder, ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross, and CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN by Jeff VanderMeer. Reaching outward in the published fictions, numerous texts that merit the definition of “Mosaic Novel” exist, with little written about the Craft of such creations. With this paper, I will attempt to create a series of methods that can be implemented by writers interested in constructing their own Mosaic Novels, or near-mosaics.


For an artist to work with a defined form, the label of the form must first have meaning. Thus, before a discussion of the craft of mosaic novels, a clear set of definitions is necessary. The word “mosaic” implies what happens with the form. A mosaic piece of visual art will be a series of broken tiles or glass pieces cemented together in such a way that a shape emerges from the tiny individual, colored pieces.

Before the form of novel was called “Mosaic”, it was called a “fix-up”. (Bowes). This name implies exactly what happened during the creative process, and comes from A.E. Van Vogt. Various short stories with similar theme, setting, plot, or characters were “fixed” by the writer or editor to transform the short pieces into one, complete, novel-length work. Take, for example, the previously mentioned THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, by Ray Bradbury. Each of the stories was independently published in a magazine, and then “fixed up” to make a complete story about a setting after an editor suggested this to Bradbury over dinner. (Donaldson-Evans) At the time, this was a common way for speculative fiction authors to create published novels out of their short stories.

This method was not the case in Jeff VanderMeer’s modern classic VENISS UNDERGROUND. “Veniss was always going to be in three pieces, and was originally all in first person, but the second section felt too distant. Writing the second person was the part that worked. A first person section, a second person section. The third person section was very dramatic, and in first [person] would be melodramatic.” (VanderMeer, Phone-call) This element that firmly plants the piece in the mosaic tradition, by fragmenting the character of the narrator into multiple divergent and dissonant point-of-views, each with different narrative plots, was a discovery during the writing process, not an intentional act. A hallmark of the “fix-up” tradition was publishing individual pieces independent of the whole in magazines. In the case of VENISS UNDERGROUND, only the first section was sold individually, to Interzone. (“Quin’s Shanghai Circus", Interzone #124)

Between the two extreme examples of MARTIAN CHRONICLES and VENISS UNDERGROUND - the first composed and published as a series of unrelated short stories before becoming a novel and the second being composed initially and intentionally as a full-length novel with short story publication as an afterthought - countless other examples of books intentionally or unintentionally fragmented into mosaics exist. The definition can be imposed externally after publication by critics, or imposed early by the author. Authors can stumble into them accidentally, or know their work as a mosaic even if others do not agree. Literary criticism is always a discussion, and there is always room for interpretation. The fragmented nature of the stories, wherein one or some element of fictional storytelling – character, plot, setting, or theme – is broken between the different sections of the narrative, is the definition, not the original intent of the creator or the method at which the book came into print. With that basic continuum of a definition in mind, it is important to note that there are likely as many ways of writing a mosaic novel as there are authors writing them. Any attempt to codify techniques of the form will be incomplete as long as new mosaics are being created. However, some simple examples of elements that became the firmament upon which the mosaic fictions were planted would be useful.

Generational texts often rely on members of the same family for their mosaic qualities. NOTHING HUMAN by Nancy Kress, for example, follows four generations of the same family during the course of an alien encounter. First an uncle raises a niece that has been genetically modified by aliens. The niece takes over as point of view character inside the alien ship that eventually abducts her. Then, a friend who stayed behind picks up the story as she steps into the role of adoptive mother of the niece upon her return home. The niece takes over again as an adult dealing with the return of the aliens in the breakdown of human society on earth. In the last section, one of her own genetically modified human children narrates their survival beyond events that would destroy natural humans. In this mosaic piece, the author is given a first-person perspective upon narrative events that extend beyond one lifetime. Many mosaic novels approach the work from this perspective in science fiction, as magnificent changing forces operate upon human society over a long period of time. Keeping the different sections connected matters in the creation of a unified novel. In the case of NOTHING HUMAN, the characters often appeared in sections they did not narrate. The events of the world were consistent across the different narratives. And, the aliens appeared on more than one occasion, operating in the same callous, immature, and supremely powerful manner in the end as they did from the very beginning. Writers of mosaics are wise to rely, like a good television show, on recurring characters, and the sort of build-up to a “season finale” climax, when the global catastrophe feared in the beginning finally, eventually occurs. Despite the fracture of the characters into a mosaic, other fictive elements remain the same, acting as the cement that holds the mosaic together.

ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross, another generational text, follows a family forward in time through a Vinge-ian Singularity, and beyond. Beginning with Manfred Macx, and ending with Sirhan Macx, the connected short stories follow the expansion of humankind from life quite nearly as we know it, with only a minor thrust forward in communications technologies and human interfacing, and continue to follow this family over the course of three generations of the family spinning off into the stars. Family members appear and disappear as the stories tumble forward, as well as consistent problems involving all the different iterations of Incorporated AIs, both human and inhuman. In Stross’ case, the robotic cat, Aineko, is the constant, and a moving force in the various stories. In fact, the cat parallels the projection forward of human technologies into a transcendent state, literally embodying major themes of the many short stories. In the beginning, the cat is barely cognizant of its own existence. In the end, the cat is revealed to be the hidden moving force of the text, driving nearly all the events of the story either overtly or subversively. Reviewers and interviewers compared Aineko to C3PO from Star Wars, created in Episode 1, who then appears in all six of the Star Wars films as a participating observer. (Anders, 2004) By adding an heirloom handed down between the generations that mirrors the theme of the stories, the sense of a novel rises out of the individual stories in the thematic cipher’s rises. The farther along one reads, the more one feels like one is reading a novel instead of a short story collection. Aineko along with the theme of independent, incorporated AIs are the thematic glue that hold the stories together, beginning as innocuous tools for brilliant minds and rising in power and influence until the independent AIs convert our entire solar system into a giant computer. As writers of fiction, embodying the “Cement” of the mosaic with a narrative element, like Aineko embodying the theme of ACCELERANDO, is highly recommended to create the sense of a novel out of the various fictive tiles. In television programs characters are often used this way, as well, as recurring characters become talismans of themes, like the mysterious smoking man in the X-Files, always in the shadows, occasionally stepping onto the stage to move the plot toward the ultimate destination.

A related method, and a classic one – perhaps the easiest - involves a shared setting as the unifying force of a mosaic piece. Looking for the glue that holds the disjointed pieces of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, for instance, leads one directly to the way humans interact with Mars. That’s the theme of the book, it would seem, and it is directly related to the force of the setting. Mosaics settled upon a single location - CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, for instance – ease their themes across by relying on place, and whatever symbols and landmarks that mark the space. In these cases, the change that occurs over the course of the fiction is rooted in landmarks with a physical location in space, and elements of setting that place the stories inside a know-able timeline. For VanderMeer, the Borges Bookstore, the Living Saints upon street corners, and the ominous mushrooms extending down and down into the vast underground below the city, among many other landmarks and setting elements – the university, the opera hall, the corporations that war on the streets – root the reader firmly into a specific location, and aid the reader in locating their relationship between the fictional moment and the historical setting. The various concatenations and representations of forms, broken and whole, in VanderMeer’s modern classic, ranging from graphic novel to scientific article to the footnotes of a journal article, all wrap around certain realities of the city: the food economy has a strong presence of freshwater squid, including an annual festival; there is an omnipresent fungal presence rising up from the underground; there is a collective guilt about the greycaps; the fungal cloud of the city seems to give everyone an edge of madness that touches everything the city does. The consistent setting unites all the madness and strangeness in all the pieces of story that extend over a long period of time in the history of the city, telling the tale of the city from birth to death. Much like THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury, though the setting is consistent, it is not static. This is the important element, as writers, to take away from the concept of a setting as the narrative cement: the setting is not static. The city of Ambergris is on a trajectory beginning with the ominous silence and pressing forward over the course of insurrections, wars, assassinations, riots, corporate espionage, peaceful times, dangerous times, and everything in between, until it will finally flood and die. VanderMeer’s Ambergris, like Bradbury’s Mars, feels alive because despite the familiar landmarks and names, the city is never the same from one story to another. Each piece of fiction or meta-fiction or graphic fiction tells the story of what the city was like at one particular moment in time. The reader walks away with a strong sense of what the city will become, when the floods rise with the greycaps and there is no Ambergris anymore, and no one to tell stories of Ambergris.

When character is the consistent element, not setting and not theme, a good example to keep in mind can be found in the Sandman graphic novels of Neil Gaiman and the various artists he worked with over the course of his graphic novel masterpiece. Neil Gaiman often spoke of creating Sandman as a way of merging all sorts of dissonant styles, characters and forms into a post-modern grab-bag of narrative (Boucher, December 2008). By doing so, he created a mosaic novel, whether he meant to or not. Morpheus tumbles in and out of the stories, occasionally a main character and occasionally a shadow waiting to swoop in from the eaves when he is finally summoned. Like most good characters in a novel, he changes from the beginning when he is a force for cruel vengeance to the end when he is merciful. In the early stories, he abandons a former lover in hell as a petty act. In a later encounter with her, after experiencing more of the mosaically-connected stories that operate in his life and his periphery, Morpheus releases her soul to be reborn, and falls in love with her again. He acts mercifully towards his own son, halfway through the stories, continually becoming less-vindictive and less-severe as the stories progress, and the people whom he encounters touch his life in meaningful ways, until he accepts his own death to create a new Morpheus more-capable of serving the needs of the world, white and not black, light and not dark. Showing the themes of change and self-creation across all the different characters leads up to a final act of accepting that theme: Morpheus’ death and rebirth from black to white, world-weary and tired to young and new. As writers, the thing to learn here is how to approach a mosaic when the glue that holds it all together is a character. Morpheus, like Aineko, embodies a theme that plays out in all the stories of the mosaic. Morpheus also experiences a character arc across all the events that touch him. Death, his sister, remains unchanged, immutable to her nature, and a character like Aineko, representative of a major theme of the book. It is not her mosaic. It is his, because he is the force that experiences growth and change. Despite the notion that mosaic cement is a hard, rigid, binding element, extrapolated from the fact that such novels are named after mosaic works of visual art, in terms of fiction, writers are well-advised to ensure that their narrative concrete embodies an arc of change, whether that element is a theme, a setting, or a character. (I exclude plots from that short list with the understanding that a plot, by its nature, requires an element of progression and change.)