Thursday, January 22, 2015

reading Russ: "Nor Custom Stale" (1959)

reading Russ table of contents
     It was the night after Harry's retirement party that something first went wrong. They had all been talking about something scientific that Freda did not understand, with Wilberforce from Harry's job insisting that life meant risk and Harry insisting no, and then Harry saying that the life-lengthening properties of Houses were due to the fact that they never changed.
     "Why," he was saying, "change a person's life and right away they have to change. They have to make decisions. They have to age. Thing to do is not change, not a particle, not a molecule." And Wilberforce (whom Freda had always thought far too rugged) had gotten angry and shouted that Monotony is Death and Harry had shouted Monotony is Life, so the end of it was they got very angry and Wilberforce said he hoped Harry would have a real dose of Monotony soon to make him see how fast he'd age. The guests had been getting into their cars at the extra Car Port in the basement, when Freda noticed what was wrong and came over to her husband, down the basement stairs.
     "Harold," she said, "there's something wrong with the House." But Harold was busy telling Wilberforce that Change was Death and the highest human wisdom was to find the perfect moment and live it over and over.
Faced with a passage such as this one, which comes early on in Russ's first "professional" science fiction story (Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1959), most readers, trying quickly to assimilate the story to what they know about writing, would probably reach either for the category "satire" or for the category "metaphor," or for both. Certainly most science fiction critics would. The story, they'd tell themselves (and then they'd tell us), satirizes, and/or is a metaphor for, midcentury middle-cass suburban life, with its middlebrow intellectualism, its monotony (or Monotony), its trivialization and imprisonment of women. The metaphorical reading can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the story, like most sf of its era (and that of any era up until the past decade or two), simply is not metaphorical; it presents us not with a metaphor for suburban life but with suburban life itself, albeit displaced quite a large number of centuries. All right, then, satire. This would seem to be a safer bet; after all, much of the story is clearly humorous, and clearly targeted at something its writer had A Problem with. Having categorized the story, we can finish reading it, laughing and nodding if and when we agree that Russ's targets deserve targeting and that she has aimed well, shaking our heads and muttering if and when we disagree, and move on. That's taken care of.

Except I don't think so. Kingsley Amis's drivel notwithstanding, I think satire, much like metaphor, is seldom a fruitful way to read sf, and that sf is often poor sf to the extent that it can be reduced to mere satire (or, again, mere metaphor). Which is not to say that sf never satirizes; clearly the story at hand does. But isn't there anything more that can be said about it? Is the experience that is "Nor Custom Stale" dispatched so easily?

In The American Shore, Delany asserts — repeatedly — that science fiction "can only give us apotheosis, not history." Let me say right off that I'm not entirely sure I understand what he means. Delany is steeped in modes of thought (critical theory, structuralism and everything that has come in its wake, etc) that I'm simply not well versed in (and am often somewhat suspicious of); in any formal sense I'm a theory nincompoop. There are probably shades of meaning behind his use of "apotheosis" and "history" (and, hell, all of his other words, as well) that go zooming right over my head. Even beyond that, Delany's criticism always fills me with a multitude of conflicting feelings; at times I'll find it revelatory, at times gratifying confirmation of what I'd suspected, at times incomprehensible, at times nonsense, at times desperately wrong. The American Shore is his most complex, sustained work of criticism. I've only read it once. I don't even begin to know how to feel about it, let alone what it "means."

But to whatever extent I could be said to understand what Delany means, I find the assertion suggestive, and I wonder if it might be a better lens through which to look at "Nor Custom Stale," indeed at much of sf. Rather than metaphorically "standing for," rather than (or in addition to) satirizing the banal monotony of suburban life, Russ, it might be possible to say, is presenting us with its apotheosis. Now a lot of the elements of the story that had to be ignored in order to sustain a satirical reading can come back into play. The "immortality for Houses," which strikes me as at best irrelevant to satire (and which another common model for reading sf, that of extrapolation or prediction, would force one to dismiss as "inaccurate" — failing as it does to foresee planned obsolescence), now makes much more sense. More specifically, a satirical reading of "Nor Custom Stale" would have to work very hard not to notice that, in the passage I quoted above, Wilberforce is in fact wrong, Harry in fact right — and indeed this same reading would not, could not realize that the millions of years that Freda and Harry live their monotonous, repetitive, day-in-day-out lives, are literal millions of years.

Most importantly, the story's awe-inspiring ending, with its startling motion that I can only begin to describe by calling it the inverse of bathos (though this is terribly incomplete, because even this anti-bathos contains its own...batheticization?...within itself), is revealed in its full science-fictionality, in its necessity. Without an understanding of science fiction in its specificity — this mode of writing that is so tied to the literal, to the prosaic (more on that link and how I'm willfully misusing it hopefully to come, soonish) while simultaneously reaching for the mystical and the transcendent — one might misread this ending as merely ironic, a sort of reductio of the motionlessness of suburbia into the heat death.*

*In this case not quite literally.

It is this. But it is more: because at the same time as the reductio is reducing, the apotheosis is...apotheosizing. To read the ending of this story as science fiction — sf that is commentary, to be sure — rather than as commentary that "uses" the "tropes" of science fiction is to feel what sf readers and critics once felt less embarrassed referring to as "the sense of wonder," a feeling that has come in for a great deal of (at times justified) criticism in recent decades — it is juvenile, it is simplistic, it is irresponsible — but which I think is widely misunderstood (including by many of its proponents) and long overdue for a re-evaluation. In the sense of wonder as I understand it, one is in a state of profound awareness of conflict, of the irreconcilable and the irreducible: the universality of transcendence and the specificity of that which is — of life and the body — try, and fail, to coexist.

Russ, here, is not merely satirizing a mode of life. She is exploring it as a mode of life: criticizing it, yes, of course, and urgently so (Russ was always a propagandist, always a skilled one, almost always using her skills for The Forces Of Good), but criticizing it not as if it were an object that simply exists, a thing you can pick up and look at from all sides and then put down again, but as life, as part of the world, part of the universe. Suburban life, and everything that goes with it and everything else Russ so ably targets, is banal, does reduce those who live through it to triviality, but it is also a part of something larger, simply because everything is. On the page I quoted him from before, Delany continues: "The reason," he says, that sf gives us apotheosis in place of history, "is that apotheosis is, indeed, the case. What science fiction can do, however, is analyze the workings of that case with an extreme precision." To a large extent I don't understand what he's talking about. But to the extent that I do, this is what Russ has done. And as she does so, her story — like all good science fiction stories — invents science fiction anew.

     The window cleared. Freda began to tremble.
     She found herself looking at a wall of snow. Perpendicular, straight as steel, it towered above the house and way above it, way past the very top of the window, were stars in a nighttime sky. The sky was so very black and the stars so very bright that they lanced through Freda's eyes and made her lower her gaze to the wall of snow again.
     Even without the light from the House she could have seen the snow, for the light of the stars seemed as intense as moonlight, and it spilled down the sides of the wall of snow. The wall was some twenty feet from the side of the House; it stood impenetrable, terrifyingly solid, but there at the edge of the wall where the heat from the House had cleared a space around it, a very strange thing was happening. The snow melted but it did not melt; it exhaled, it breathed white vapor, it boiled, it whirled and writhed upward in a hundred fantastic shapes, hurrying swiftly into the black night sky above. On the top of the wall (barely seen from the House) were shining, sparkling pools of liquid, pools that moved sluggishly this way and that.
     Behind Freda the House spread its usual rosy warmth, noon in the kitchen, afternoon in the living room, twilight in the dining room, but here spring, summer, fall and even winter had died. For this immortal cold was a sun away from winter. ...
     Harry came out of the bedroom, yawning as he always did at the time he always came out every morning, and as he looked and saw, Freda turned. The Panel near the window glowed with its five ruby eyes. Five? No, six. Twelve. Twenty. Then more and more until the whole panel glowed red as a cluster of cherries. In case of failure of Air, she thought, throw open the door and admit Natural Air into the House. "Oh Harry, what shall we do?" she said, but there was no particular need to answer; the cherries dimmed, darkened, and then became green, green as beech leaves, green as the young green on hedges.
     Freda had time only to say, "Oh, Harry!" and he, "Freda, what—" when the house gave a little tentative shake and then another and then shivered into a hundred — no a million — no many, many more atoms, atoms that threw the airy snow up in a great billowing rise. ... But not into the air, rather into the space above the air, and then it settled down on the frozen air, on to the sluggishly living pools of liquid hydrogen, bounced a little, billowed a little, and finally lay quietly, invisibly, over a radius of some hundred miles.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Books read 2014

Welcome to the second annual silly round-up post of all the books I've read in the past year. First the list; afterwards, some statistics and comments.

Links are to posts where I wrote about or after, or posted an excerpt from, the book or writer in question.

1. Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (re-read)
2. Denise Levertov, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (re-read)
3. Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina (trans. Philip Boehm)
4. Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible
5. Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary (eds. Justin Landon and Jared Shurin)
6. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa)
7. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
8. Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (re-read)
9. Arnold Schoenberg, Letters (ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)
10. H.P. Lovecraft, To Quebec and the Stars (ed. L. Sprague de Camp)
11. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story
12. Dorothy M. Richardson, The Trap (Pilgrimage 8)
13. The Cascadia Subduction Zone vol. 3 no. 4 (October 2013)
14. Clifford D. Simak, Strangers in the Universe
15. Vandana Singh, Distances
16. Stanisław Lem, The Chain of Chance (trans. Louis Iribarne)
17. Doris Piserchia, Star Rider
18. Asimov's Science Fiction (February 2014)
19. Clifford D. Simak, Worlds Without End
20. Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
21. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet issue 29
22. Lackington's Magazine issue 1 (Winter 2014)
23. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center
24. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
25. Asimov's Science Fiction (March 2014)
26. Dorothy M. Richardson, Oberland (Pilgrimage 9)
27. Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration
28. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision
29. Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction
30. Dorothy M. Richardson, Dawn's Left Hand (Pilgrimage 10)
31. Peter Handke, Across (trans. Ralph Manheim) (re-read)
32. Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen
33. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask (trans. Meredith Weatherby)
34. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Poems (selected & trans. Norman MacAfee with Luciano Martinengo)
35. The Black Woman: An Anthology (ed. Toni Cade Bambara)
36. Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire (re-read)
37. Dory Previn, Bog-Trotter: An Autobiography with Lyrics
38. Dorothy M. Richardson, Clear Horizon (Pilgrimage 11)
39. A.E. van Vogt, The Book of van Vogt
40. Asimov's Science Fiction (April/May 2014)
41. Denise Levertov, The Jacob's Ladder
42. The Cascadia Subduction Zone vol. 4 no. 1 (January 2014)
43. A.E. van Vogt, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (re-read)
44. Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection
45. Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World
46. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 1, 1939 (eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg)
47. Agota Kristof, The Notebook (trans. Alan Sheridan)
48. Asimov's Science Fiction (June 2014)
49. Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
50. Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem
51. Lackington's Magazine issue 2 (Spring 2014)
52. Sarah Tolmie, The Stone Boatmen
53. Gabriel Josipovici, Hotel Andromeda
54. Asimov's Science Fiction (July 2014)
55. Rachel Pollack, Alqua Dreams
56. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era
57. Fantasy & Science Fiction (July/August 2014)
58. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (trans. Ann Smock)
59. Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom (trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver)
60. Agota Kristof, The Proof (trans. David Watson)
61. James Tiptree, Jr., Warm Worlds and Otherwise
62. John Hawkes, The Lime Twig
63. Asimov's Science Fiction (August 2014)
64. Thomas Ligotti, My Work Is Not Yet Finished
65. Angela Davis, An Autobiography
66. Samuel R. Delany, Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (re-read)
67. The Cascadia Subduction Zone vol. 4 no. 2 (April 2014)
68. Women of Wonder (ed. Pamela Sargent)
69. June Jordan, Civil Wars
70. Joanna Russ, The Two of Them
71. Jeff VanderMeer, Authority
72. Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein's Nephew (trans. David McLintock)
73. Nina Allan, The Race
74. Asimov's Science Fiction (September 2014)
75. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America
76. Kathy Acker, Kathy Goes to Haiti
77. Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
78. Vonda N. McIntyre, Superluminal
79. Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water (trans. Itäranta)
80. Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God
81. Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country
82. Gabriel Josipovici, The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (re-read)
83. The Cascadia Subduction Zone vol. 4 no. 3 (July 2014)
84. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
85. Asimov's Science Fiction (October/November 2014)
86. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
87. L. Timmel Duchamp, The Grand Conversation: Essays (re-read)
88. Vandana Singh, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories
89. Agota Kristof, The Third Lie (trans. Marc Romano)
90. Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance
91. Marcel Proust, The Captive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
92. Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire (re-read)
93. Samuel R. Delany, Nova
94. Asimov's Science Fiction (December 2014)
95. Sarah Tolmie, NoFood
96. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet issue 30
97. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
98. Dorothy M. Richardson, Dimple Hill (Pilgrimage 12)
99. Asimov's Science Fiction (January 2015)
100. Virginia Woolf, The Moment and Other Essays
101. Samuel R. Delany, The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—"Angouleme"
102. Amazing Science Fiction Anthology: The Wild Years 1946-1955, ed. Martin H. Greenberg
103. Bessie Head, A Question of Power
104. Pier Paolo Pasolini, St Paul: A Screenplay (trans. Elizabeth A. Castelli)
105. Dorothy M. Richardson, March Moonlight (Pilgrimage 13)
106. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
107. Samuel R. Delany, Driftglass

General statistics

Number of different writers represented: 59
Most represented writer: Dorothy M. Richardson (6 books)
Most represented writers all of whose books I read were not part of the same long multi-volume novel: Samuel R. Delany (5 books)
Number of books written by men: 41
Number of books written by women: 44
Number of books written by (people known to me to be) (people who in the U.S. would be considered) people of color: 22
Number of books written by people not from the U.S. (with some tendentiously subjective decisions as to who "counts"): 41
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 27
Number of books in translation: 16
Number of "books" that are actually magazines: 19
Number of re-reads (not including books I both read for the first time and re-read in 2014): 10


Number of books I consider fiction: 72 (including 15 magazines and 3 anthologies not counted in some authorship statistics)
Number of writers represented: 37
Most represented writer: Dorothy M. Richardson (6 books)
Most represented writer all of whose books I read were not part of the same long multi-volume novel: Samuel R. Delany (3 books) along with trilogies by Agota Kristof and Jeff VanderMeer
Number of books by women: 29 (including one all-female anthology)
Number of women writers: 18
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 9
Number of writers of color: 6
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. (with same disclaimer as before): 29
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 19
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 16
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 9
Number of books in translation: 13 (including Itäranta)
Number of writers of books in translation: 10
Number of foreign languages represented: 6 (Finnish, French, German, Italian, Polish, Japanese)
Most represented foreign language: French (3 writers, 6 books)
Number of re-reads: 5

Science Fiction

Number of books that seem like they could conceivably be called science fiction by any stretch of the imagination whether I would call them that or not: 53
Number of books I think it makes sense to consider science fiction: 48 (removing Bacharach, Brontë, Carter, Head, and Pasolini)
Number of books that seem uncontroversially science fiction: 42 (removing further Fowler, Islam, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Pollack's Unquenchable Fire, and Tolmie's The Stone Boatmen)
(From here on figures are based on the 48 books I consider sf, minus the 15 mixed-gender magazines — 33 books total.)
Number of writers represented: 21 (not counting contributors to the 3 anthologies)
Number of books by women: 15
Number of women writers: 11 (not counting contributors to Women of Wonder)
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 7
Number of writers of color: 4
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 8
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 6
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 6
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 4
Number of books in translation: 2
Number of writers of books in translation: 2
Number of foreign languages represented: 2 (Finnish, Polish)
Most represented foreign language: Finnish and Polish (1 book each)
Most represented writer: Samuel R. Delany and Jeff VanderMeer (3 books each)
Number of re-reads: 5


Number of books I consider non-fiction: 30
Number of writers represented: 21
Most represented writer: Samuel R. Delany and Gabriel Josipovici (2 books each)
Number of books by women: 11
Number of women writers: 9
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 12
Number of writers of color: 11
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 7
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 6
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 5
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 4
Number of books in translation: 2
Number of writers of books in translation: 2
Number of foreign languages represented: 2 (French and German)
Most represented foreign language: French and German (1 book each)
Number of re-reads: 4
Number of books of or about literary criticism*: 16
Number of books about science fiction*: 9
Number of books of or about philosophy*: 6
Number of books about science*: 2
Number of books about music*: 3
Number of books about film*: 3
Number of books of or about history*: 11
Number of books of or about feminism*: 10
Number of books about racism and/or POC experience*: 12
Number of books about sexual minorities*: 6
Number of books of or about specifically leftist theory*: 10
Number of books of or about theology and/or religion*: 3
Number of biographies*: 2
Number of memoirs, autobiographies, etc.*: 9

*broadly speaking, making snap judgments, and with a lot of overlap


Number of books I consider poetry: 5
Number of writers represented: 4
Number of books by women: 4
Number of women writers: 3
Number of books by people of color: 1
Number of writers of color: 1
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 3
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 2
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of books in translation: 1
Number of writers of books in translation: 1
Number of foreign languages represented: 1 (Italian)
Most represented foreign language: Italian (1)
Most represented writer: Denise Levertov (2 books)
Number of re-reads: 1

Inadequate yet overly detailed comments

I read neither as much nor as well in 2014 as I did the year before, though not dramatically so in either case. My ever-present problem of reading just to get through, to get to the next book — rather than reading simply to read, simply to exist with the work at hand — was I think stronger than it had been, which led to a frustration with the knowledge that I was reading slower, which led to a stronger urge to get through, which...a feedback loop. I don't wish to overstate this — it wasn't as dramatic as all that — but it is a problem, one I wish I could overcome.

Another thing I was uncomfortable with in my reading is that it seemed to me very scattershot — seldom did the books I was reading seem to speak fruitfully to one another. In part this is just chance, that the books I came to through all the myriad processes that select this rather than that as "the next book" didn't happen to produce as much dialogue as I'd like, but in part it seems like both poor planning and poor brain function. But because of this, where last year I was able to usefully talk about things in more general terms, here it's hard to think in anything other than specifics — hence the overabundance of detail.

In 2013 I began making a conscious effort to make sure I was reading at least as many women as men, to counter misogynist society's (and my unconsciously internalized) bias; as I said at the end of that year this quickly becomes much easier and by the time 2014 had started it was neither an effort nor conscious, requiring no list-making, quotas, etc. My reading remains skewed male in some fields, but overall there is approximate parity. 2014's quote-unquote "social justice" reading goal was to read more works by people of color, particularly black people, particularly black women; this was only moderately successful. I need to make a more concerted effort, especially considering that reading such amazing writers as June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Angela Y. Davis, Bessie Head, and so on and so on, is, of course, its own reward, as is overcoming at least some part of the immense stupidity that has been programmed into me as a white person.

The biggest "event" in my fiction reading was no doubt my finishing — just this past week as I write — Dorothy M. Richardson's massive thirteen-volume novel Pilgrimage. As yet I'm left mostly speechless in the face of this remarkable work — which perhaps is appropriate, considering Richardson's frequent questioning of the value of responding to the world with writing. And yet she also wrote, a great deal; and I hope to be able to muster something soon. Another major event was Agota Kristof's great trilogy (for all my complaining about science fiction series, funny that two of the most important non-sf works I read were multi-volume), which, though I have written about it, filled me with a sense I find it difficult to describe; I keep being tempted to say that they made me feel like I was in the presence of something greater than I would ever be capable of knowing or being, but that accuses the books of seeking a grandeur, superiority, and self-satisfaction that they categorically refuse to have anything to do with.

Other general fiction that deserves singling out: Gabriel Josipovici's latest, Hotel Andromeda, about a woman trying to figure out how to write about the artist Joseph Cornell and why she feels a need to (especially in the face of the horrors of the world, why such art and writing on it should matter at all), may be my favorite of the handful of his novels I've yet read (though I think I think that every time I read one). Nothing, perhaps, can be said about Sade, but The 120 Days of Sodom was...peculiarly important to me. Bessie Head's A Question of Power blew me away, though I doubt I "understood" it in any sense of the word. A peculiar, unexpected thing: I read it immediately after reading Blanchot's essay on Sade (in Lautréamont and Sade, whose other essay I plan to read soon), and periodically I found myself forgetting what I was reading, thinking I was still reading Blanchot! Which maybe should not have been surprising, given how interested both works are in the nature of power, and how very deep both of their explorations go.

Three writers I had expected to read more of were Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Bernhard. I really thought I was going to have finished À la recherche (or at least finished a first approach to it) by year's end, but an accidental break of nine months between Sodom and Gomorrah and The Captive put the kibosh on that plan. Both volumes fascinated; The Captive in particular was interesting to me in the ways it was manifestly "unfinished"; in a work so much about the process of coming to be able to create the work, it is almost appropriate that some of it should remain unfinished, so that we can catch a glimpse of what the process of its coming-to-be might have been like. I read no fiction by Woolf (though at least one of the "essays" in The Moment, "Sterne's Ghost", is at least as much a story), spending most of the year reading an essay collection, one piece every few weeks, some of them fantastic, many largely unnecessary at this point. And for Bernhard, I read only one, the wonderful Wittgenstein's Nephew, surprisingly less bitter and more directly "autobiographical" than my previous two, Old Masters and The Loser, had led me to expect. I will surely continue to read these writers, with any luck more so, in the coming year.

As for science fiction — which I read more of than I felt like I was doing — it was the usual mixed bag. I subscribed to two magazines: Asimov's, which with its average of maybe one or two good-to-excellent stories each month is the best contemporary sf magazine I've yet read, online or off; and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, which I find frankly abysmal, bordering on unethical in its overwhelming focus on anything-goes, foundationless (and yet peculiarly homogeneous) "fabulism" — though the bizarrely hilarious and clearly self-questioning poems of A.B. Robinson in issue 30 were an exception. Other contemporary sf included Lackington's, whose first two issues I read entire and thereafter sampled — I appreciate its mission (and it has published some excellent work), though I have reservations about some aspects of its approach and find its success so far mixed (as is probably to be expected); I also read intermittently in the other online magazines, out of which Margaret Ronald's brilliant, bottomless "The Innocence of a Place" in Strange Horizons was by far the best (and I don't just say that because SH has recently, unaccountably, decided to start periodically publishing my silly words). I continue to object to most of what is published in short sf these days.

Five new-in-2014 sf works enthralled me. One was Nina Allan's The Race: I have reservations about its language, and about some of what seem to be its philosophical underpinnings, but its willingness to occupy exciting territory that essentially no current (and little past) sf is willing to occupy (and those aspects of its language and philosophy about which I have no reservations) more than outweigh those concerns. I hope to re-read it soon(ish), and with any luck I will be able to write about what I mean then. Another was Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, first volume of his Southern Reach trilogy; I liked the trilogy overall but found on balance that the second and third volumes worked primarily to contain what was so elusive and powerful about the first. Read on its own, or even to a lesser degree under the restraining influence of the trilogy as a whole, though, the power of Annihilation is undeniable. A third (less unarguably "science fiction") was Ghalib Islam's Fire in the Unnameable Country, which I read for the Strange Horizons book club and so have already talked about way too much.

And then there was Sarah Tolmie. Sarah Tolmie! The fact that, apart from my (long but oh so inadequately partial) review of The Stone Boatmen, Maureen Kincaid Speller's in Strange Horizons, another by Thomas Foster in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and some brief talk on twitter (much of it laboriously spurred on by me), I've seen very little of the sheer excitement her two sf books should have generated is, frankly, an indictment of the field as it stands. The Stone Boatmen alone, as far as I'm concerned, should have made the science fiction field come to a screeching halt in its need to respond, and that's without even mentioning NoFood, so different, so similar, just as thrilling. The original animating impulse behind this blog — indeed behind essentially all of my writing — is the notion that sf, particularly the tradition growing out of the American sf magazines, has been uniquely able to respond to the conditions of modernity (in the longue durée sense), in a particular (not necessarily superior, but particular) way that is not available to any other art form. When I returned to contemporary sf after over a decade mostly away from it, I was astonished to find how completely disinterested in this the field had become, in its paradoxical but simultaneous attempts to repeat the so-called "tropes" of the past and to be ignorant of that past in its rush to become indistinguishable from corporate genre LitFic. Tolmie takes the concern with modernity that had once been implicit in all science fiction — that had in my opinion become increasingly and frighteningly mystified (or I should say mystified in a newly dangerous way; or I should stop disclaiming and just remind the reader that this is a drastically shortened and simplified version of what I mean) beginning in the 1980s, then totally abandoned by the turn of the millennium — and brings it, consciously, undeniably, to the fore. This is what science fiction should be doing. (Now, if she'd just write a book about space, I could die happy.)

Other contemporary-but-not-as-brand-new sf: Karen Joy Fowler's latest, which I could not be nearly as enthusiastic about as many; Vandana Singh, who I love deeply, though I sometimes fear she's too much under the sway of the assumptions of "literature" for all her talk of revolt from it; and Thomas Ligotti, who for me oscillates crazily between "I wish I had written this" and "this is just stupid" (part of this may be due to my reservations about "horror" and "the" so-called "weird").

Then pre-millennial sf, which in general tends to be a safer bet for me. Of greatest importance: some short fiction of Clifford D. Simak, possibly my single favorite sf writer; Doris Piserchia, whose Star Rider is both exactly what you want when you want "some sf paperback" and so much more (as, to be fair, so many of them are); Thomas M. Disch, whose Camp Concentration lived up to the Disch-hype, which for me 334 had not; A.E. van Vogt, my hero, about whom I'm increasingly certain I'll one day write a novel; Samuel R. Delany, whose fiction I continue to explore roughly chronologically (The Einstein Intersection and even more so Nova are a superb culmination of his early explosion of increasingly strange novels; the short fiction collected in Driftglass is mostly meh); Rachel Pollack, another "my hero", whose writing is so miraculous that every time I'm away from it for any period of time I begin to doubt it, only to be joyously reconverted every time I return; and Vonda N. McIntyre, whose Superluminal is one of the greatest of all sf novels, a slap in the face to anyone who doubts the liveliness of the field in the 70s.

As for non-fiction, I have to say immediately that June Jordan's essay collection Civil Wars should be required reading for at least all Americans. Every word is of the utmost importance. Of equal importance is W.E.B. DuBois's behemoth Black Reconstruction in America, which is foundational to any meaningful understanding of American history, and indeed the USA's present, including its dominating presence in the world. Maybe even better combined with Immanuel Wallerstein's very convincing introduction to world-systems analysis. Over the past year I've become convinced that an understanding of the role of American slavery, and its afterlife continuing until today, with a focus on both the particular and the world-spanning (which is precisely what Jordan and DuBois, along with Davis, and others, are so good at in their different ways; for a related mirror-image perspective, Ngũgĩ is also key) is absolutely vital for anyone who wants to try to understand...well, how the world works, and why.

For more "close-range" writing, Gertrude Stein's Wars I Have Seen and Dory Previn's Bog-Trotter are both the kind of book I wish I could convince everyone to read. Both are funny and terrifying as they live in the process of falling apart. Stein probably has her audience, but with Previn I wish even those who had no interest in (or awareness of) her music would read her; hers is one of the great lost minds of the 20th century. What might seem to be just another memoir of nervous breakdown, or just another book of celebrity gossip from someone who lived adjacent to some of the big names of 1950s and 60s Hollywood, becomes a fascinating exploration of philosophy, mysticism, and politics from no already-familiar, already-staked-out standpoint (and with no rigid separations), and all the more provocative for it.

Speaking of great minds of the 20th century, in 2014 I "discovered" Pier Paolo Pasolini — another of the major events of my literary year. Though he seems to be having a sort of low-level renaissance in the culture right now, for me it happened essentially by accident — I went quite literally at random to one of the DVD racks at the library, happened upon his Decameron, and remembered that his was a name I'd been meaning to investigate (I did see Salò years ago, but to the extent that one can ever be ready for it, I was not ready for it then — in the sense that I was then quick to paper over any discomfort with jokey dismissal). Things spiraled outward from there, mostly in terms of his film (though its availability in the U.S. is appallingly uneven), but I did read what was until a month ago the most comprehensive selection of his wonderful poetry available in English (the McAfee and Martinengo translation), and the newly-published translation of his bizarre unrealized screenplay for a movie about St Paul. I will soon be reading more (an essay collection and the new poetry collection are on their way to me as we speak), and I've been laboriously reacquainting myself with the Italian I learned in high school and continuing my education in the language in the hopes of being able someday to read what is not available in English (his English language bibliography is if anything in even a sorrier state than his filmography). I don't know how to speak to what he means to me, but much of it has to do with his dual inward and outward movement, his commitments to both literature and radical politics without succumbing to the poisonous "literature is journalism" syndrome. A large part, too, of my obsessive dive into Pasolini came in the form of Barth David Schwartz's massive biography, Pasolini Requiem, which I cannot recommend too highly. For obvious and typically unavoidable reasons it is rare for a biography of a brilliant artist and thinker to live up to its subject, but this is an exception: not just in its mustering of mere fact (a remarkable achievement in itself considering the enormous range of the material, from Pasolini's life and from Italian and European literary, philosophical, and political history, among other things) but in every aspect of its language and structure it is the biography Pasolini deserves. (Pasolini also directed some of my other reading, most notably with Sade.)

In a similar world is Maurice Blanchot's The Space of Literature, which continues to work its changes on my mind five months after I put it down; beyond what I've already said in other posts I'm not sure I want to say anything more now. And always there is Josipovici's criticism.

As for sf criticism, my re-read of L. Timmel Duchamp's The Grand Conversation was useful insofar as it reacquainted me with her arguments, but did not do much to deepen my understanding of them (this is on me, not on the book). The Cascadia Subduction Zone has more of a focus on should-you-buy-it-or-not style reviewing than I am interested in, which is not to say I'm not glad it exists, because I am. Speculative Fiction 2012 was largely trivial, to be honest. And I'm not remotely ready to formulate a response to Delany's American Shore, which, as with most of his criticism, I find alternately brilliant and troubling (in the sense that I find many of its premises misguided), in ways that are very difficult to articulate; then too with this book in particular there is just so much to respond to. Even a single short essay by Delany can send my mind reeling in directions that would require dozens of essays of my own (seldom if ever actually written, of course) to explore; and this book is to a short essay as quantum physics is to an inclined plane.

I read very little poetry this year. Apart from Pasolini, there were two books of Denise Levertov, who I still admire but with whom I think I am less enraptured than I originally was, Shange's famous "choreo-poem", which is marvelous but which I suspect has a greater impact seen performed than when read; and Anne Carson, who I continue to enjoy so unreservedly that I almost begin to have reservations. There was also poetry in every issue of LCRW (which apart from the Robinson I had the same objections to as I do to the magazine in general), Asimov's (which is without exception aggressively trivial), and The Cascadia Subduction Zone (which is not particularly my kind of thing).

For next year? There are a few specific directions I'd like to take my reading. I want to read a lot of the "western canon" type books that I have not yet read (anything from Plato to Dante to Cervantes to Kierkegaard, and on). I want to read too non-western canonical works, though for obvious (and stupid) reasons I have less of an idea where to begin on that vague task (though the Ramayana comes to mind, and I'd be interested to explore Arabic-language philosophers, not that I know any). I'd like to begin seriously reading the Bible. Modern and contemporary poetry. Afrofuturism and other black science fiction. More work, sf and not, in translation. And science writing — for someone who writes science fiction and sf criticism, I don't much keep up with science itself.

And I want to return more emphatically to the writing that, ultimately, keeps me going, makes me want to do this (what is this? — writing criticism, writing fiction? living?) in the first place: the tradition of 20th century science fiction that centered on, and grew out of, the American sf magazines of, especially, the 1930s-70s. For all I've written on this blog, all the busy-ness, I haven't touched on even a fraction of what the best of this writing means to me.