Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Gregory Norman Bossert's "Bloom"

[Niall Harrison ordered me to write about the Sturgeon Award shortlist and so, faithful servant that I am, here we are. I have no idea how much I'll be able to stick to this, but my plan is to write about each of the ten stories on the shortlist, hopefully two a week (probably Monday and Thursday if I can keep it up), which would get us through the whole list, maybe even with time for a summation post if I feel both the need and the ambition, before the award is given in mid-June. Oh, and if it need be said: these posts will contain spoilers, so be warned, etc.]

The titular "Bloom" here, native to the plains of an exoplanet, is a ground-covering colony lifeform. Compared at times to an ant colony and to an algal bloom (it also calls to my mind a coral reef in its mix of different organisms), it is only roughly analogous to any of these. Blooms are slow-moving as a rule, but when one detects an organism in its midst it can dismantle and consume it in a matter of seconds. (Of a human victim, whose death happened to be filmed, one character says "He just . . . blew apart." Another corrects her, saying it was only his own blood pressure that made it look like he blew up, when really he was "stripped down," that the Bloom kills by "reduc[ing] the subject down as efficiently as possible without losing elements outside the colony.") Little is known about their sensory capabilities and limitations (or their sentience; they exhibit behavior, learning, perhaps even personality, though they are presumed not to be conscious), but we are told that movement, moisture, and salt, among other things, can "trigger" them to attack. As the tale begins three people, out at night on the surface of the planet, find themselves accidentally standing in a momentarily dormant Bloom; given the situation, they have little option (though they discuss many) other than to remain utterly still in the pitch-dark night and hope that someone at their base (which they have all, for different reasons, left without signing out) notices that they are gone and comes looking for them. As the tale ends, they have not been found, the rising sun threatens to rouse the Bloom, and in varying types of desperation all three leap, some toward the edge and some toward the center of the Bloom, not knowing what will happen to them.

Though it includes a great deal of tension (not to mention some very disquieting gore, reported secondhand), this is fundamentally a story of stasis, the kind I once wished Kim Stanley Robinson would let himself linger in more often. Here the stasis is quite literal; aside from an occasional shudder or eye rub, and some careful squatting very early on, the three human characters make no physical movements whatsoever until the last four sentences. They cannot move, they cannot see; all they can do is talk — and talk they do. In one strand of conversation we discover that two of the characters, Ben and Andrea, had gone outside for sex — though her primary interest was simply in going out, seeing the stars from the surface of an alien planet for the first time. In another, we learn that the third, our viewpoint character Ki, just over three and a half years ago was the survivor of a rare aborted Bloom attack, an attack that has left her with not only disfiguring scars but also "little pockets of alien DNA" scattered throughout her body, where the surgeons were unable to remove the pieces of Bloom that had embedded themselves in her body. Literally and figuratively alienated from human society — an alienation which, perhaps, began even before the attack — she spends most nights out on the surface, yelling at the Blooms to finish what they started.

All this talk, and Ki's thoughts prompted by the talk and the situation, take the writing through a number of different modes, many of them nakedly expository. My regular reader [sic] will know that to me this is one of the most important aspects of sf, and here, though at times there is a bit too much of the smoothing I have complained about before in other works, for the most part it is very strong. Perhaps best are the moments when a more standard "storytelling" mode gives way suddenly to the language of scientific discourse, forcing the reader to come to terms with the meanings generated by the juxtaposition. A bit before midway through, Ben is antagonizing Ki (in a way we are given to understand is common among the men of the base); Andrea tells him to shut up. A moment passes and then:

       "The hell with shutting up," Ben said, and shouted, "Hey! Help!"
       The sound ripped through Ki like a shockwave, tore her from herself; it was as if she was collapsing inward and reeling away at the same time. One part of her swirled down into a grinding, buzzing dimness threaded by low angry voices. The other part tried to fly in all directions at once and avoided falling only because it could not remember which way was down.
       Ki could not tell if either part was here and now or three years seven months four days ago.
So far this is, as I said before, fairly standard storytelling, on its own perhaps a bit too much "fine writing" for my liking, its metaphors ("collapsing inward and reeling away at the same time") perhaps a bit too on the nose considering the manner in which the Bloom kills. But immediately following:
       After a measureless moment, the shock rippled out through her fingers and toes. Epinephrine and norepinephrine, she thought — fight-or-flight and neither one is a damn option — and with that thought she was whole and here and now.
It's a small thing — and not an unusual gesture for sf — and very brief, but for me the collision of the "storytelling" and scientific discourses calls both into question; specifically, the scientistic reductionism Ki engages in here (and throughout such scientism is calming, centering for her) in this fraught context both insists upon its validity and performs its own critique of itself (both with "neither one is a damn option" and with "whole and here and now"). This doubleness is not only appropriate but necessary in a tale that, Lem-like, deals heavily in the failure of human understanding in the face of the alien, but finds within itself more optimism, or at least more respect for human striving, than Lem ever did. (In this what it perhaps puts me in mind of more than Lem is Genevieve Valentine's recent essay at Strange Horizons on cinematic representations of the dangers and wonders of space exploration.)

I said before that all the characters can do is talk. This is not strictly true; they can also not talk. Though so far I have discussed only what they talk about (and what Ki thinks about), there is one other major component to "Bloom": the silence into which they repeatedly lapse, these lapses being the primary structuring element here. The "story" occurs only in brief snippets of dialogue and narration placed between

just like that, the one word, uncapitalized, italicized, without punctuation, on a line by itself, surrounded by white space. There are thirty-one of these silences over the course of thirteen magazine pages, separated at the most by about one page, at the least by one six-word sentence.

I find myself torn between admiration that Bossert has explicitly included the silence in his tale and irritation that he includes it merely as a gesture. On the one hand, isolating these silences and letting them structure the telling of what happens in between makes them much more difficult to ignore or miss than they would be if he had used one of the typical dodges (e.g., a section break followed by "Fifteen minutes later...") that writers use to reassure themselves and us that there is no silence, no dark, no emptiness. But on the other, it is all too easy for the "solution" to become a mere tic, a stylistic extravagance purposelessly taking the place of a stylistic commonplace. The question, I suppose, is whether pointing at absence is more or less of a betrayal of absence than is trying to fill it. On balance, I think I see Bossert's silence as an invitation into the work of that which no work can ever contain, of all stories' ultimate failure, and that I truly admire.

I felt a similar ambivalence in the face of the unresolved ending, which at first I found frustrating — though not because I demand "resolution" from fiction; quite the contrary! But in this case, stopping things mid-leap, with neither the characters nor the reader knowing whether any of them survive, felt like the wrong kind of irresolution. Surely, I thought, everything depends upon whether these characters live or die, for everything we have read up until now is about what they do in the face of life and death, and not only the story but the fundamental reason for its being told depends on which they were facing. On reflection, though, I found myself thinking differently. For if they live, they simply live, and life goes on; but should they die it is no different — the event we have watched unfold remains unchanged. As Maurice Blanchot wrote,

One never dies now, one always dies later, in the future — in a future which is never an actuality, which cannot come except when everything will be over and done. And when everything is over, there will be no more present: the future will again be past. This leap by which the past catches up with the future, overstepping the present, is the sense of human death, death permeated with humanity.
And in this sense "Bloom" is not about death, at least not in the sense I was originally thinking; it is not about death as an event but rather as a presence in the mind, a presence in the body.* Which is to say that it is about life, living, and though it is full of drama the unfolding event that is "Bloom" is finally nothing more or less than that of three people living their lives one night.

*Since I've brought Blanchot into it, I might as well mention my amusement that Bossert finishes with a literal "leap", considering the way Blanchot (or Ann Smock, whose translation of The Space of Literature I am quoting) uses the word here and elsewhere to describe the movement of both death and the work of art. What is at stake in both leaps, Bossert's and Blanchot's, strikes me as surprisingly similar.

And yet because this is science fiction, this simple event is placed in a particular way that similar events are not in other kinds of fiction. Early on, in explaining the predicament they're in, Ki says:

"A Bloom event, well, if you consider the colony a single creature, it wakes up, eats, moves, and goes back to sleep. But for the individual organisms that make up the colony, it's an entire lifecycle; whole generations feed, reproduce, and die."
To have this colony be the threat in a story of humans living their lives one night while playing roles in humanity's ravenous expansion into space — well, it's suggestive, to say the least. And (another of sf's characteristic gestures) Bossert gives us enough similarity between the Bloom and humanity as a whole to suggest this parallel while elsewhere giving us so many differences as to destroy it. Identification falters in the face of its own violence. We see ourselves in the alien, but in so doing we deny the alien, fail to comprehend it; to the extent that we recognize this, we cease to see ourselves. (Bossert complicates this even further by suggesting a literal incorporation of the alien into the human, Ki, and vice versa — for the Bloom that attacked her, we are told, has been acting different ever since.)

All this being said, I find myself still with some strong reservations. I said before that the writing is too much concerned with being "fine," and this is true. A work dealing so heavily with the failure of the mind when facing things it cannot contain should not be so concerned with being told "masterfully," especially not with that particular sameness that marks so much of the "best-written" contemporary sf. But though it's bothersome, I can mostly overlook this. Far more troubling, though I suspect arising from the same place (as we shall see in a moment), are the story's frequent efforts to be just that — a story. By revolving around three people with different needs, different histories, different feelings, it strongly resists, becoming instead what I have described it as before, the unfolding of an event. But especially in Ki's internal monologue, her struggles with her past and her present nature, it threatens to become just another story of rising action leading to climax and epiphany, taking its form not from life as it is lived but from the many layers of obfuscation wrapped around life by the conditions of modernity and the forms of storytelling those conditions have encouraged — and by taking this form, it threatens in its turn to further that obfuscation. Everything I have written about up until now militates against this, and for this the story is to be praised — to read it is to experience something occurring, not simply to be granted a moment's cheap and false emotion — but here is a story that wants to be better than it is, without even seeming to realize that it does want this, that there is a problem with what it is.

In this regard, the blurb that introduces the story is telling — and strengthens my conviction that writing workshops are bad news. We are told that Bossert wrote the first draft at the Clarion Writers' Workshop, and that he "would like to gratefully acknowledge the help from his Clarion colleagues in finding the human story in a strange and alien landscape." What is easy to overlook in the thrill of workshopping, of "improving" a story based on "feedback" from the group, is that not every enterprise calls for the same things. I suspect that much of the fine writing I've complained about now three times comes from the workshop mentality, thinking that it is at the resolution of the sentence that greatness is to be found; and the presence at all of that wholly inappropriate thing, a "human story" in an "alien landscape," is most certainly a product of this mentality, whether or not Bossert would have sought to include one without specifically workshoppy feedback (I suspect he would have either way, more's the pity).

An event unfolds: the human reaction to the alien, culminating in an unfinished leap, beyond which is either death or, equally unknowable, life. This is human, yes, but it is not "a human story," not in the sense those words are commonly understood to have. "Bloom" deserves recognition precisely to the extent that it resists the human story that Bossert's workshop friends "helped" him find, and falters precisely to the extent that it is willing to be merely another story.


Niall said...

So this was a very thought-provoking read, for the ways in which it different from my own reading. I'm persuaded, certainly, that there is the tension you describe between "event" and "story", between "people" and "characters", and that the story would be better if it fully committed to the first parts of those pairs. I do think the ending is very effective, precisely because it's a moment forced by events as much as it is chosen by the characters. And I do like the strength of the overall structure.

Two stray observations:

(1) I wasn't sure about the "Improvised Evolutionary Device" nickname for the Bloom. It felt a little too contemporary, and it felt like it was making the story's inspiration a little too obvious. On the other hand it makes the point that while the story does fit into the Lem/inexplicable model of alien encounters, it also fits into the Giger/weapon model, which I hadn't thought about before that point; which arguably makes more of the colonialism subtext you identify.

(2) I'm not sure what ethnicity "Ki Ninurta" denotes (wikipedia suggests Ninurta is the Sumerian god of war), but it's not the same ethnicity as "Ben" and "Andrea"; so Ki is othered through that, through her invasion by the Bloom, and through the fact that she's from an off-Earth colony. She's very other, is my point, and gains markers of otherness throughout the story, despite the fact that she's the viewpoint character. I'm not sure how that interacts with the presentation of her as a traumatised character. Are those additional markers of alien-ness just to prepare us for the direction of her leap at the end? Do they to some extent validate Ben's prejudice (clearly the story doesn't *want* to validate Ben, but does it)?

Ethan Robinson said...


To your strays:

1) Agreed that the IED thing is an off note (also was grossed out by the "hur hur hur I hope the military dude beat you up good" bit that came with it), but it was in passing enough for me to mostly just write it off. Interesting observation there (with "Giger/weapon"), though, that hadn't explicitly occurred to me.

2) I wondered something similar about that name, and a much longer version of this post included more about Ki's alienation/otherness, but I wasn't able to really make it work in a way I was pleased with, and the whole thing was just too damn long even for me, haha, so I excised it.

I think I'd come down on the "no the story does not validate Ben" side. Ki is indeed extremely, multiply "othered": as a woman among men (an undesirable woman at that, both in her physical disfigurement and in her unwillingness to provide emotional support for men--"the woman job," as Joanna Russ called it--which is where much of the harassment she gets comes from), as a native of a very different planet, and as you point out probably of some different racial or ethnic category than the other characters we're given (we do have a Yu, off-stage, but Western European/American white people seem to dominate), all this before we even get into the literally alien elements in her body.

But in the context of the seemingly-still-capitalist seemingly-still-expanding-for-resources future Bossert gives us, having these aspects of her be significant in this way strikes me as more honest than just pretending that some mythological transcendent Progress will in the future somehow magick away the racism and misogyny that are the foundation of capitalism. (To be clear, I'm not saying this is your argument, rather that it's a commonplace of "color/genderblind sf".) This kind of thing is also suggested in the sexual economy of Ben and Andrea's relationship--and in the somewhat puzzled but committed empathy Andrea feels for Ki.

And in this way for me, the direction of Ki's leap at the end has an element of Thelma & Louise to it, but also brings to mind Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" and Fowler's "What I Didn't See"--so the question then becomes, is this defeatism, or is it something more expansive?