Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 Off Vesta

To repeat the speech from last year: it feels weird to me to do a big self-linking post like this, but I've found it very helpful when others have done it (and people seemed to appreciate it when I did it last year), so here it goes. Not so much a "best of" as a summary and index of what I see as my more "important" (or whatever) writing here over the past year.

Simak's "Answers"
In praise of possibly my single favorite science fiction writer, reveling in the ways one of his stories lives in the conflict between certainty and uncertainty, in melancholy beauty and in the concreteness peculiar to sf.

On Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
On what I see as conflicting and irreconcilable impulses in Fowler's work. This should maybe be read alongside this excellent post (not by me) about how the...socio-political? function of institutions like the Booker (for which Fowler's novel was nominated) guarantees their literary triviality; the world I feel Fowler wants to have it both ways about is the one described in that post.

My first draft woke up like this: a ramble and Too close, too much
A single pair of passages, one from Samuel R. Delany and one from Gabriel Josipovici, inspired both of these posts. The one with the nonsensical Beyoncé reference in the title is about the social and material conditions that might give rise to the very different self-descriptions of commercial sf writers and those I, following Josipovici, tend to call modernists. The other is also about a similarity-in-difference between sf and modernism: how sf's signature gesture of having "too much" going on to see all at once and modernism's of forcing us to come "too close" to see everything may have much in common despite their enormous fundamental differences; it's also the closest I've yet come to being able to write about the marvelous Doris Piserchia.

On transgressing genre boundaries and all that
In which I argue for, not the purity, but the difference of science fiction, against the supposedly radical effort to demolish that difference in the name of "artistic freedom." The pull quote: "From where I stand, blurred genre lines are nothing short of hegemonic." Totally unexpectedly this was my most popular post of the year, thanks in large part to a link in this vital post (which I urge you to read) by Nina Allan.

Finally, he lifted his ship and went away
I guess technically now I'm supposed to pretend this never happened, but it did and it was important to me, so: I had a remarkable experience of renewal while reading a Marion Zimmer Bradley story and I wrote about it, with help from Peter Handke.

Toward the eternity
A quick look at a sentence from my hero, A.E. van Vogt, that exists strangely both outside and inside of narrative. (Also check out the comments for links to two interviews with van Vogt that I've been obsessing over ever since.)

Lost time
Again Josipovici is the jump-off point. His discussion of the Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions through Proust's notion of voluntary and involuntary memory led me to think about how sf (here, works by Simak, Octavia E. Butler, Cordwainer Smith, and Gene Wolfe) often explores similar concepts, in its very different way. Flaws in the post — misses, incompletenesses, pointlessnesses — pop out at me now, but as a beginning I think it's worth holding on to.

Shuffling tropes
On Charlie Jane Anders' "Palm Strike's Last Case", in which I mutter about capitalist propaganda on the way to an exploration of the harm caused by thinking and writing in terms of "tropes."

Atavism, degeneration: one reason (among many) to read Lovecraft
A series of observations about Lovecraft's enterprise: the tendency of his stories to begin and end with uncertainty, horror, and dissolution, mirroring his notion of the universe; his equal abhorrence of the ancient and the modern, the past and the present/future; and how this is tied intimately to his racism; followed by a brief exploration of what this enterprise, in toto, might have to say to white people if we can stop falling all over ourselves to distance ourselves from his racism — one of many ways in which his fans domesticate his work.

The fictional writer, the fictional reader and an addendum
Two posts about how any work of science fiction, by its nature, regardless of how it is written or what it is about or whether it is any good, insists that its writer and its reader are fictional, and a plea for writers and critics to be mindful of what this might mean. (I later posted a passage from Delany talking about similar things; and all this is is probably related to my challenge to take sf as seriously as those who distrust it.)

Confusion and understanding: one post about The Stone Boatmen
Looking at this wonderful novel through Chaucer and Langland's experience of the shift to modernity (with a lot of help, as usual, from Josipovici) helps to reveal how such a shift is and is not what the book is up to, and to see what it has to say to us, in its non-propagandistic way, about truth. I hope to return to this novel, whose publication should be recognized as a major event in the field. This post hardly begins to scratch its surface.

The turtle could not become a starship
A quick post on how one "unassuming paragraph from early on in Vonda N. McIntyre's Superluminal comes very close, for me, to containing all of science fiction" (though wish I had not used the word "containing" — maybe more "opening up on"). One of my very favorite posts.

Agota Kristof and the Southern Reach
Another quick post, another personal favorite. Having read Agota Kristof's twin trilogy and Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy concurrently, I look (with help from Kierkegaard and Heidegger) at what happens when each trilogy departs the "notebook" format of its first volume.

And then I had three post-series. I haven't yet gotten far on my Joanna Russ or Adventures in Time and Space read-throughs, but I did manage (just barely) to write about all ten stories shortlisted for last year's Sturgeon Award.

With Joanna Russ I've so far dealt only with what she published (mostly in college journals) while a student at Cornell: the early poetry, a witty and surprising first science fiction story, and two less-interesting non-sf stories.

As for Adventures in Time and Space, the short introductory post explaining why I want to write about the stories in that for-better-or-worse classic anthology of "golden age" science fiction gives a nicely concise, if vague, statement of the importance I attach to that era (which, as I say there, has a uniqueness that "remains largely unappreciated by its detractors and partisans alike." So far I've written about Heinlein's "Requiem", which I took as an opportunity to to puzzle out why his work is so distasteful to me, and John W. Campbell's wonderful "Forgetfulness" (written as Don A. Stuart), which I looked at as a sort of contrapuntal structure of paradox and contradiction spiraling outward and inward until it tears itself apart and collapses into silence.

And finally, Sturgeonblogging was grueling and horrible but surprisingly rewarding; as I wrote in my wrap-up, the project "helped me to articulate much of what I needed to articulate" about the current state of the field, "or at least pointed in that direction." The stories covered:

  1. Gregory Norman Bossert's "Bloom": good, with reservations about its overly workshopped feel.
  2. Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise": revolting in its contemporary-white-liberal centered ventriloquism of quote-unquote "the other," along with other problems.
  3. Alaya Dawn Johnson's "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass": fascinating, though I had some doubts about its "lovely" language. The comments section, oddly, exploded with multiple conversations in different directions, at times cranky, usually interesting, seldom having much to do directly with the story itself.
  4. Will McIntosh's "Over There": a wretched piece of garbage.
  5. Alan DeNiro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica": which I wanted to like but did not, or maybe vice versa; I may need to reevaluate it, especially in light of L. Timmel Duchamp's interesting review of the collection it appears in.
  6. Val Nolan's "The Irish Astronaut": totally by-the-numbers, not science fiction in any sense, morally reprehensible.
  7. Sarah Pinsker's "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind": so deliberately and skillfully what I don't want sf to be that it threw me into despair.
  8. Robert Reed's "Mystic Falls": an intriguing misfire by an interesting writer.
  9. Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer": a marvelous piece using misdirection to explore the nature and ethics of representation.
  10. E. Lily Yu's "The Urashima Effect": a perfectly serviceable story I found I had so little to say about that I ended up using the post as a wrap-up as well.