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The Dry Salvages Redux

Sonya and I are reading through The Dry Salvages (Subterranean Press, 2004). It's the last real hurdle in finishing up editing Two Worlds and In Between.

There's a lot of ancient history here.

The Dry Salvages (for those who do not know) is a very short sf novel about the ill-fated exploration of an extrasolar moon — Piros, which orbits a planet named Cecrops. It's dystopian, dark, tense, a bit Lovecraftian, heavily influenced by the cyberpunks and New Wave writers, with a big Stanislaw Lem influence, and pretty much devoid of optimism. I did an enormous amount of work on it, and went to great lengths to get all the science as right as I could get it. The physics, paleontology, robotics, astronomy, geology, biology, engineering, mathematics...everything. I enlisted the aid of people knowledgeable in areas where my own expertise was lacking.

The book meant a lot to me. I was weary of writing dark fantasy and wanted to make a switch to sf. So, I had a lot riding on critical and reader reaction to the book. I likely had somewhat unrealistic expectations. Subterranean Press did wonderful things to promote the novel. It got a grand cover from Ryan Oberymeyer:

The Dry Salvages, Copyright © 2004 by Ryan Obermeyer

The review that meant the most to me, the one I awaited with bated breath, was the Locus review. It finally arrived. And it wasn't exactly glowing. Moreover, it had been written by a reviewer for whom I had (and still have) a good deal of respect. Whether or not I should have been, I was...I still don't know the right word for the way I felt. Confused, mostly. I'd never gotten a bad Locus review. Even The Five of Cups had received a good review. But Locus is, first and foremost, a magazine devoted to sf, and this was sf, and now I was playing in the Big Leagues. And I think the way I felt was that I'd been told to stay in my place. Indeed, the review included a line which I shall paraphrase, as I don't have the actual text on hand (those files are in storage): "This is what happens when horror writers try to write science fiction." I'm sure that's not an exact quote, but I think it's the exact sentiment. To be fair, the reviewer did not think the book was entirely without merit, just not up to the standards of contemporary literary sf.

Though I am absolutely certain it was not the reviewer's intent, the review had an immediate and chilling effect on me. I believed he knew what he was talking about, and so obviously I'd blown it. I resolved to stick to dark fantasy (my agent hadn't wanted me writing sf, anyway, but that's another story).

The Dry Salvages sold well, and there was even a weird bit of business with a Very Big Hollywood Production Company of which nothing ever came. I still wrote sf short stories, many of which appeared in my 2009 sf collection, A is for Alien (which I don't think Locus even reviewed). But I haven't tried to write another piece of sf even half as ambitious as The Dry Salvages. (And no, I do not believe that was the reviewer's desired effect; not at all.)

And now, more than six years after that review, I'm reading The Dry Salvages for the first time since I sent the final manuscript to subpress (I didn't read it after it appeared in print). And I'm reading it with fresh eyes, almost as if it were written by another author. We're halfway through, and I'm delighted with it. Anyone who knows me, or who's read this journal for a while, knows I'm one of my own harshest critics, and that I usually grow unhappy with a story or novel after only a few years. But...I'm enjoying The Dry Salvages.

And this is the perfectly fucking obvious thing that I am concluding: Reviewers whom you respect, whom you very often — but not always — agree with, can be very wrongheaded. For years I believed what that review said about this book, but reading it now, I see that I was mistaken, as was the reviewer. Is it "hard" sf? Well, sort of, but not exactly. It's not space opera, but there's far more emphasis on wonder and awe and the perils of space travel to the human mind than there is on tech. It's also not the recently fashionable "mundane" sf, which eschewed space travel and alien contact. But the science is good, and the writing's some of my best from that period.

And the review was wrongheaded. This doesn't mean the reviewer doesn't often offer valuable insight about books. It just means that, in this instance, a book failed to measure up in their eyes (and, in part, I think that's because there was a strong and mistaken preconception that I was a "horror writer"). But, the only real fault here was my reaction. No review should ever make you waver the way I did in the wake of that review.

And now, reading The Dry Salvages again after all these years, I'm reclaiming it. I did a good job. And maybe someday I'll write another sf story like it, of that length and scope.

Regardless, very soon the story will be in print again, and as I read it tonight, I'm glad of that.

No hard feelings.

P.S.: With all due respect, I AM NOT A HORROR WRITER!


( 22 comments — Have your say! )
Mar. 16th, 2011 03:37 am (UTC)
I know, I know. And I agree, you are not a horror writer, and I'm OK with that. There are lots of those around, but only one you. Be you. Keep on being you. And if you want to try something new, go for it. I won't hold it against you. Thanks for sharing this lesson regarding reviews.
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:19 am (UTC)
Pointless but fun story: I have a website wherein I discuss really odd, bizarre or just unpleasant books (and none of your books have been discussed there because my definition of odd/strange is arbitrary). I have a reader in Romania, a delightfully lunatic man called Ted. Last week he visited my Amazon Wishlist and out of the almost 1200 books I have listed there, he decided to send me a copy of The Dry Salvages. It hasn't arrived but I am checking the mailbox compulsively.

Gift books are awesome, gift books you wrote are more awesome, and gift books randomly selected and sent by a warped Romanian are the best of all.
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
Send me a warped Romanian fan who gifts me books. Sounds wonderful.
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:45 am (UTC)
A good reviewer is one who can offer opinions glibly and still manage to tell you if what they're reviewing is your kind of thing. Ebert is quite good at this.

Mar. 16th, 2011 05:00 am (UTC)
"It's not space opera, but there's far more emphasis on wonder and awe and the perils of space travel to the human mind than there is on tech."

That sentence brought to mind an author who I absolutely love who wrote a novel called "Blindsight". It was an SF novel that was heavily imbued with psychological elements. Heavily.

Mar. 16th, 2011 05:18 am (UTC)
Well, I loved it.

Is it "hard" sf? Well, sort of, but not exactly. It's not space opera, but there's far more emphasis on wonder and awe and the perils of space travel to the human mind than there is on tech.

And this makes me want to go read it back to back with watching Sunshine again. Similar leanings and resonance.
Mar. 16th, 2011 05:26 am (UTC)
According to the Locus website A is for Alien was not reviewed. Odd, as I was sure I'd read a Locus review of it. Ah well, the mind tumbles about and is easily confused.

I'm very glad you are reclaiming The Dry Salvages, it is truly a fine book.
Mar. 16th, 2011 07:31 am (UTC)
Here's a nifty true tale about a copy of The Dry Salvages.

The library I work in is pretty darn big, so we discard hundreds of books on a weekly basis to make way for the new. When I saw The Dry Salvages on the discard cart, I waited till the staff room had been vacated, then grabbed the book, carved out both the alarm tags, cut it out of its plastic encasing, and snuck it out of the building.

This is the only time I've ever saved a library book from the abyss of the discard carts. Long story short; The Dry Salvages is loved.
Mar. 16th, 2011 11:49 am (UTC)
Not that there's anything you need to say in reply to this, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post. It's so honest and fair (on all 'sides' of what happened), and all it does is make me respect you more.

I haven't read The Dry Salvages, and I'm very much looking forward to doing so.

(I had another whole part to this comment which I just deleted. I want to say something else; something about this frustrating "horror writer" thing, perhaps in comparison to my friend Tricia Sullivan as a "science fiction writer" - so many stories to tell there, not all of them good! - but I'm not sure what I want to say. Maybe I'll get my thoughts together another time.)
Mar. 16th, 2011 12:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the honesty. FWIW, 'the Dry Salvages' is a story that I enjoyed thoroughly. I always hoped for more SF from you (I also enjoyed 'Riding the White Bull' and 'Bradbury Weather,' albeit neither as much as 'Salvages'). Fascinating to get some insight as to how a review played a role in shaping your decisions as to the sort of stories that you would create. Thanks for sharing your great stories with us!
Mar. 16th, 2011 12:27 pm (UTC)
The Dry Salvages, along with "The Road of Pins", is one of my favourite works with your name attached. It makes me happy, nervous and jealous.;)
Mar. 16th, 2011 01:11 pm (UTC)
The Dry Salvages was a book I read in a difficult time in my life, so that may color my opinions of it. I really did like it. I didn't love it, but I liked it a lot. When I reread it later, I found that it was a better book than I'd remembered. And great books are like that-you'll find that it's as good as or better than you remember.

As for reviews, I stopped reading them years ago. I'll wait for someone whose opinion I trust reads it first, or listen to an interview of the author on NPR or the local public radio station. If they can make it sound interesting enough, I'll give it a try.

I do buy a lot of books based on my previous opinion of a writer's work. I'm more predisposed to purchase your books because I know I like your work. Playing it safe? Perhaps, but when money is tight I chose sticking what I know . . .
Mar. 16th, 2011 01:32 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you've discovered that your piece is indeed valid. Not having read it myself, I can offer no more than that I stand by any writer who refuses to be pigeonholed. I think that whole ugly practice of confining a writer's whole career to one genre is so demeaning, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth just thinking of it. So good for you.
Mar. 16th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
The Dry Salvages is easily one of your most disturbing works psychologically-for the very reasons you outline in this post (e.g., It's not space opera, but there's far more emphasis on wonder and awe and the perils of space travel to the human mind than there is on tech). It works so well in fact that it makes most other supposed cutting edge sf read like Flash Gordon fan-fiction. You're a paragon, just don't forget it!
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
This is such a great post. Good advice for all writers to follow, if only we can remember.
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
ugh, why does everyone have to fit in ONE box?
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
How did I miss this one on my CRK collection? Must remedy soon.
Mar. 16th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
FWIW, "The Dry Salvages" is my second-favorite of your works, after "The Red Tree". So far, of course :)
Mar. 16th, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
As a fan of your incursions into sf, I am heartened you are at peace with the work, which I particularly enjoy. But no matter the genre, the fact of you - your talent and abilities, your imagination - creating a narrative is enough for me to read and enjoy it. I trust that you will always do your best by us.
Mar. 16th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
I cannot wait to read The Dry Salvages again! I've got to dust the bits off of the music aRvin and I wrote for it and put it up on Soundcloud or BandCamp for free so everyone can get at it, too.
Mar. 17th, 2011 01:10 am (UTC)
This book is my favorite thing you've written so far.
Mar. 19th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC)
I read this book 3 times over the weekend when I first obtained my copy.
It remains my very favourite book of yours.

I appreciate your post, but that sounds lame.

I truly appreciate this journal for the look inside of yourself you share that is not one of your books.
( 22 comments — Have your say! )