Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Look Back at the Unmasked Ones, Part 1

It took me a while but I managed to finish reading the Fully-Booked contest's short-list. An interesting bunch of stories, to say the least.

Of the eight stories there, one was a horror story ("Stella for Star"), two were science-fiction ("The Great Philippine Space Mission" and "The Omega Project"), and two were written in the magical-realist style ("A Song for Vargas" and "A Strange Map of Time"). The rest were hard to categorize except that one was a horror-satire ("Monstrous Cycle"), another was an action-packed thriller dealing with math and religion, demons and angels ("The God Equation") and the last... I suppose the terms New Weird applies for its outright strangeness as some have deemed such an approach as the crux of speculative fiction ("Atha").

What's interesting to note that given such an eclectic bunch of stories, none of the above styles held supreme. On the other hand, it seemed like the weirder the story, the better as evidenced by the fact that the top two stories were hard to categorize. As such, the winning entries were:

1st place (tied) – “The God Equation” by Michael Co and “A Strange Map of Time by” Ian Casocot

2nd – “The Great Philippine Space Mission” by Philbert Dy
3rd - “Atha” by Michaela Atienza

So what does this mean?

I'm not going to review the individual stories but will refer you to three sites-- skinny, sean and dominique-- who did an excellent job of it, better than I'll ever do. However, I can give my two centavos on the matter. Of note is the backgrounds of the three reviewers as they came out with almost-differing assessments of the stories: which ones worked, which ones didn't and which one they considered the best.

(I may be wrong here but I found skinny's review coming from one with a background of the genre, dominique's with a more literary and mainstream pop culture approach, and sean's as dealing with the more technical aspects of the stories. But I digress.)

Personally, I thought that these stories were slipstream, given how all the writers tried to keep in touch with both genre and literary fiction even as they tried to transcend it. One could say there was a certain tension to the stories: the feeling I got was that the writers had struggled to stay true to the idea of a Filipino identity during the writing process. This was unlike Dean's first anthology of Philippine Speculative Fiction which ran the whole spectrum of genre to literary fiction. For example, compare Sean's story epic fantasy "Regiment" to Khavn's surrealist-social realist"The Family that Eats Soil." Nothing wrong with that, I know, but at least it gives me a clue to how the submissions were judged.

Likewise, I can also see the various influences that came on board as the stories were written. In skinny's interviews of the winners, Phil Dy cited SF satirist Douglas Adams while Mike Co pointed at spymaster Len Deighton and Michael Crichton of the techno-thriller fame (and yes, the excellent SF writer Alfred Bester too). Meanwhile, Mikey Atienza took a more literary approach as she enumerated Dave Eggers, Joseph Conrad and Toni Morrison, which was ironic considering how weird her story was. Funny enough, even Phil and Mike were outright fans of her story. (I thought she had the best turn of a phrase.)

I did see how some of the other stories were reminiscent or outrightly influenced. A lot of people were puzzled over the inclusion of "A Song of Vargas" (no author cited) in the short-list even as some have said it plagiarized from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Personally, I didn't pick up this vibe though I did find it sorely in need of a good editor. After all, if one were to try to weave a magical-realist tale of a ship captain and a talking skull, one had better control of their prose. In this kind of a story, prose is all.

I'll continue with my part-time review, part-time commentaries of the stories on the morrow. In the meantime, I need to sleep...


skinnyblackcladdink said...

the thing i was happiest about with Mikey Atienza's inclusion in the top three (aside from the fact that i really loved her story) was that it was unique in that it didn't really seem to try and do anything but tell a story. one that just happened to be a damn good one, told by a natural storyteller. it didn't even bother making direct references to Filipino culture, which some writers seemed to add just because they felt it would give their stories an edge. the story is set in an obscure far-futureish location that, for all the reader knows, may not even be earth.

as for Mikey citing Eggers and Conrad, you know, Atha actually has the same rhythms, cadences and flow as Joseph Conrad's writing. try the first few pages of Lord Jim like i did.

the more i pick apart Mikey's writing, the more amazed i am by the natural grace and beauty of it.

btw, Vargas' writer is John something Tacuan. he's the guy in the black T with a Cobra emblem you'll find in pics of the Unmasking.

banzai cat said...

Good point there. It seems like despite the exclusion of any direct Filipino references, good writing will out. But as I mentioned, it seems like the judges gave more points to the addition of a Filipino identity else why did Mikey's story rank only 3rd?

As for Conrad, that's nice to know. I'm always a sucker for good writing. (Mind, it's not the number of words used but the way it's used. See Hemingway, for example.)

Hmmm... your agents are everywhere, I see. How did you find out about the Vargas writer?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

i agree with your first paragraph, and that's why i'm so vehemently against trying to "set standards" and "tell people what to write about" and all that.

Mikey Atienza, ergo, is my hero of the Awards.

as for Mr Tacuan, first of all, you forget, i was there. second, two word-pairs: 1) small world, and 2) six degrees.

banzai cat said...

Hmmm... standards. So what do you think of the idea of setting standards to determine what's good and what's not in "locally-produced" SF (to avoid saying Philippine SF)?

As for your last comment, wow, that's one section that makes a lovely word-play of numbers. :-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

as a friend of mine published in his mag: "beauty is in the eye of the beerholder"

or, in this case, the reader. and anyway, i don't see a point in looking for standards, when the standards for "good writing" should apply to everybody, regardless of where you're from.

publishers have to maintain a "standard", but i think the local literati should have a broader mind for fiction.

Der Fuhrer said...

Michael Co pala yung writer ng God Equation hehe. Stupid me.

yeah, Atha is definitley a stand-out because the story didn't have references to Pinoy magic realism stuff like manananggals and the colonial era.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

something has come up that has made me question my whole value system in terms of "good writing standards" and SFF...

more on my blog soon, i hope. but must cogitate...

banzai cat said...

skinny: Ah but the thing is, I'm not talking about the geopolitical standards but rather, standards per se in writing. And I'm not exactly sure about totally relying on the readers for the said standards.

And like I said before, we're liable to end up the new literati.

fuhrer: Heh, don't worry, I made the same mistake.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

i wasn't talking about geopolitical borders either, but the perception of them.

the thing is, it doesn't simply seem to be a matter of style or ideas that make a member of our so called literati judge the excellence of a work: it's the perception of a local element (i.e., a geopolitically localized element) in the work.

that's what i'm arguing against, and what putting the "Philippine" in "Philippine SF" implies. i know both British SF and American SF don't require that kind of geopolitical (that is, perceived geopolitical) elements to be a part of those categories, but they are not Filipinos.

Filipinos are hung up on national identity and all that. and it shows in the way they these things come to be defined.

that's why i'm all against this being hung-up on finding the definition of "Philippine SF."

if there is a particular quality or value in local writing that will emerge, such as happened with British and American SF, let it simply come out naturally. as Phil said back at my blog, the "definition" will come in retrospect. don't keep insisting on trying to deny it now, because you're creating precedents that you don't want.

let's all just write, and in the end, time will tell...

skinnyblackcladdink said...

i just realized that i don't know which post i'm commenting to anymore, so this may not be the "Philippine SF definition" thread. if it isn't, i apologize for being irrelevant. and if it IS irrelevant, then when did i mention, in this thread, geopolitical boundaries?

as for "standards in writing per se..." this i'm still working out. see my post "retreat" on my blog, and the ensuing comments.

as i must have mentioned elsewhere, i'm starting to think they should be different for SF after all...

Der Fuhrer said...

please, no more politics, I'm getting sick of it and SF is just my last retreat.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

df: man, that's too bad. a lot of great SF deals with politics. hehe

banzai cat said...

skinny: Hehe don't worry you're not the only one confused now. Also, I was the one who mentioned "geopolitical boundaries." Mea culpa. But anyway, I figure this should be a debate held over coffee (or beer) and cigarettes. I'm starting to get a lot of train of thought derailments because of the comment format. Aggh.

However, the standards of writing discussion over your blog is getting interesting. ;-)

fuhrer: Hush! Don't listen to that bad skinny. It's not true. ;-)

Actually, Politics in SF is actually the best way to get your anger out of the system. No need for names, after all. :-D

skinnyblackcladdink said...

so i'm bad, am i? damn, i used to be downright evil...

banzai cat said...

Don't worry, now you're evil-lite. (A virtual cookie to anyone who gets the reference!)


Der Fuhrer said...


but anyway, I just think that theres too much stuff out there other than politics and frankly, I haven't even started on 1984 and I'm not planning to buy V for Vendetta, even if it is written by Alan Moore.

Although one of my favorite books, "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said" has some political elements on it. Haha. So I guess I don't abhor politics in lit after all but the thing is, I read that witought the crap our country is stuck in right now.

banzai cat said...

No blame to you, my friend. :-)

Well, you can always look at V for Vendetta as a creative rework of The Man in the Iron Mask. After all, it's primarily a revenge story. ;-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

ah, that bears discussion. i think that's a misreading of Alan Moore's intention for V.

it IS a political work rather than a revenge story. or were you just trying to get df to read it? was i bad again? (this is me trying to reclaim my throne of evil. insert evil laughter)

good movie, although i hated the uber-optimism of the ending. the Wachowski Bros missed Mr Moore's point entirely.

Der Fuhrer said...
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Der Fuhrer said...
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Der Fuhrer said...

A reworking of a Dumas novel? That's interesting. But still no. I haven't read a Dumas novel though. Last year, I considered reading The Count of Monte Cristo but books just kept piling up, I eventually pulled it off the list.

Have you seen a copy of Noli (the Penguin edition) in Fully Booked? I think I'm going to need it for my Phil Lit class. I'll use it as an alibi so I can go to Manila again and maybe track some Neal Stephenson and William Gibson books down.

I'll try to pimp PSF on my lit prof. Haha.

Der Fuhrer said...

I haven't seen V for Vendetta. I'm still waiting for it on orginal video. Haha.

That's why I have a deep revulsion for The Wachowski dudes.

banzai cat said...

skinny: Wauugh! You've ruined my plan! Grrr. ;-)

Still, that's one way of reading.

fuhrer: Heh, actually I've read Iron Mask once or did I watch it? I can't remember anymore. Unfortunately also, haven't watched V yet as have no time to even pop in a pirated copy in the player.

Is the Noli Penguin out already? Cool. Must look out for that.

Der Fuhrer said...

Skinny: He'll never be successful into making me read V. Anyway, it costs a bitch so I won't be able to buy it.

I almost had enough for The Watchmen but, still nah.

Banzai: I'll ask Tals Diaz if it's already available in FB.

banzai cat said...

Don't worry, I haven't read V either as between books and comic books, I have my priorities. ;-)

Btw, I don't know about FB but Powerbooks has the Noli already. I saw one at Greenbelt. Heh.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

bc: i have foiled your plans! (insert mad scientist laughter)

seriously though, if ever you guys do pick up "V", it seems a disservice to not take it from a political angle. trust me, it's no man in the iron mask. maybe you were thinking of The Count of Monte Cristo? closer to the mark, methinks. still, a major point of V is that the character transcends the "V for Vendetta" title. it's still a revenge thing, but much broader and more inclusive.

banzai cat said...

Heh oh yeah. I swear, my mind wasn't working this past week. I think I need to jumpstart my brain. *palm to forehead*

Seriously, I figure everything has its layers and for me, I'd still want to read V whether for the top most or for the political angle. (Of course I'm not much for the art but that's just me.)