Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Beginnings of thoughts on Nina Allan's The Race

When after a couple of weeks of knowing her I asked her if she'd read through an essay I was writing on Matilda of England she said it was excellent and that I should get serious about my writing.
        "What do you mean, get serious?" I said.
        "I mean you should stop being afraid of getting stuff wrong and put your arse on the line. Say it how it is, how you see it. You have an unusual way of looking at things, Christy. Hasn't anyone ever told you that before?"
        I shook my head.
        "Well, you have." ...
        I wondered what Robyn would think of my Sapphire journals, if I were to let her see them, of the stories I told myself about an imaginary town. They were an unusual way of looking at things, definitely. I wondered if Robyn would think they qualified as telling it like it is.
One is reminded here, almost inevitably, of Samuel R. Delany's comments (where? I can't remember right now — but they're all over the place) to the effect that in his younger days, pre-Stonewall among other things, he had to write science fiction because what he calls "mundane fiction" offered him no way (not only no models for "content" but no structures) to describe the world he saw around him and the people in it. One is reminded, but things are different here: Allan is writing sf not so much to describe the world to us as to return it to us, or us to it.

A simplistic reading of The Race would assign the first and last of its four sections to the category "science fiction," while the middle two would be assigned to the "mundane." But in a counterintuitive (or counter-received-wisdom) way reminiscent of Delany's comments these middle two sections are not the least but the most fictional, the most interior — even physically, when you hold the paper book. It is in these sections that most commentators locate the novel's "metafiction," and it is true that they are "about" writing, possibly even about the writing of the novel at hand (though this is not nearly so straightforward as some would have you believe); but any suggestion that they somehow "pull the rug out from under the sf sections" (the first of which takes place in a town called Sapphire in a world that is not our own, the second of which takes place elsewhere in an extreme but recognizable distortion of the same world, featuring recognizable distortions of some of the same characters) is simply tone-deaf. The two interior sections do not provide the ground from which the sf sections launch their fancies: if anything it is the reverse: when objects and figures and events from Sapphire are reflected (in at least one case literally, in a mirror) in the "real world" they seem almost unbelievable translocations from the more...credible? sensible? places we've seen them already. The feeling on encountering moments such as these (and others) is not aha! this is why Christy wrote x y or z; rather it is something more like now here we are moving deeper into the heart of writing.

[And Christy did not write x y or z, and not only in the so-obvious-it-bears-repeating sense in which Nina Allan wrote it all and wrote Christy too (and though I know little of Allan's biography, even in the unlikely circumstance that it mirrors Christy's in every respect, Allan still is not Christy). Read attentively and any number of details — not to mention the overwhelming feel — will make this clear.]

Deeper into writing. Familiarity with Blanchot makes it tempting to compare the trajectory traced by The Race's four sections to Orpheus's journey into and return from the underworld, and though this may not be quite right (and may be a bit overwrought) I think it is crucial to understand that this trajectory is nonlinear and non-progressive. We are not given "the real world" (Christy's life, Christy's trauma, Christy's writing, Alex's trauma, the epiphanic resolution of both traumas in the intersection of their lives) followed by the "fictional world" it produces, nor are we given the "fiction" and then given an illusion-shattering "real." (Either of these would be, as they frequently are in other works, essentially a fraud.) Nor are we given a retreat from one to the other. If this novel is interested in the production of art, it is not in the vulgar biographical sense that believes in therefores ("Her brother is linked in her mind to a disappearance, therefore she writes about a brother and a disappearance"); if it is interested in epiphanies it does not mistake them for resolution; if it is interested in the shattering of illusions it does not simply replace them with another, the illusion that the illusion has ended (or, for that matter, the illusion that now we "know better").

In one of my many false starts in writing this, I wrote something to the effect that the nonlinear trajectory of the four sections, the sf sections at the beginning and the end, project us out of the novel and into the world. And I still think it is true that the motion of this novel occurs in at least two directions in time: that as we read we move toward its beginning just as much as we move toward its end, that as we finish the novel we leave on its first words just as much as on its last; I also think it is true that, if these kinds of distinctions can be made, the sf sections are closer to "the world" than the non-sf sections. But to suggest that as we follow these multi-temporal movements we move out of the novel and into the world of reality is I think incorrect, and a misunderstanding of what reading and writing are. Such a suggestion does not mesh with the feeling I get, for example, when turning the page and finding that I'm no longer in Sapphire with Jenna but now with Christy talking about inventing Sapphire: a feeling, again, not of having had the rug pulled out from under my feet, but rather of having moved closer to the mystery that is writing. It is not real, it is crucial that we remember it's not real; but a simplistic "gotcha" or "it's only a novel" would be — far from a bit of (respectively) cleverness or maturity — a panicked and embarrassed obfuscation of both the inadequacy and the genuine power of fiction.

At such moments — and at other less obvious ones, like Jenna's walk on the marshes at the end of her section, her world opening to us as it in some senses closes to her, or those occasions on which Maree's mind brushes against the truly alien (whether terrestrial or not, whether present or not) — The Race seems to recede into the infinite, the ungraspable distance, while simultaneously coming so close, opening itself so fully and revealing everything so freely: the same double movement carried out by all writing, though most writers (Allan, at times, included) and readers (myself, certainly, included) tend to be too alarmed by it to allow it to proceed honestly; the same double movement, indeed, by which the world presents and refuses itself to us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - March 2015 (with some I missed from January and February)

Part two! Mostly stories from March, but last time I wasn't aware of some interesting work that had appeared in January and February (most especially Jalada's massive Afrofuture(s) issue), so I've included that as well. The list of magazines I look at has expanded a bit from last time (and I looked at these new ones back through January), though I've also dropped two (Aphelion, for being uniformly unreadable and difficult to use anyway, and Omni Reboot, for the same reasons plus god what a terrible thing that thing is). As I did last time, I'll list all the magazines I consult — if you know of any I'm missing please let me know! (And thanks to Niall Harrison for pointing me in the direction of Jalada and Words Without Borders — which, as they and a few others on my list indicate, I'm interested in non-"genre" magazines that will sometimes publish sf as well as in-"genre" magazines.)

(With three exceptions all of the magazines on this list are free online. There are some pay magazines I'm aware of that I don't subscribe to — Arc, Bastion [if it ever returns], Fantasy & Science Fiction [now that C.C. Finlay is editor I plan to resubscribe but haven't been able to yet], Intergalactic Medicine Show, On Spec, Stupefying Stories, a few others; as finances allow I'd like to at least sample them, and if there are others I should know about let me know that, too.)

[Click here to skip the boring lists and go straight to the recommendations]

So, the magazines I now look at regularly: Abyss & Apex, Acidic Fiction, AE, Apex, Asimov's (pay), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Betwixt, The Book Smugglers, Buzzy Mag, Clarkesworld, Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Daily SF, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Scroll, Fiction Vortex, The Future Fire, Galaxy's Edge, GigaNotoSaurus, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone (pay), Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Lakeside Circus, Lightspeed, Luna Station Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, Nature, New Haven Review, Omenana, Perihelion, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, STRAEON (pay), Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, tor.com, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review, The WiFiles, and Words Without Borders.

Of these, no new fiction appeared in March (or, in those magazines new to my list, so far this year) in Abyss & Apex, Betwixt, The Book Smugglers, Expanded Horizons, Fantasy Scroll, The Golden Key, Interfictions, Interzone (more accurately, I haven't read the fiction in the March/April issue yet and will be covering it in next month's post), Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, New Haven Review, Scigentasy (I ask again: do they even still exist?), STRAEON, or Three-Lobed Burning Eye. The rest did publish new fiction, so if they are not represented in my recommendations it means I didn't find what fiction they published this month to be of any consequence. (I sometimes look at non-fiction and poetry, but don't include it in these posts.)

After this month, I plan to stop looking regularly at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (it is rare for me to love fantasy and they don't seem likely to publish those rarities; I'll look if someone asks me to and I'll follow a writer I care about there but otherwise no), Nature (because honestly), and the WiFiles (all soldiers, sadness about dead women, and rationalized religion; no thanks).

So now, arbitrarily in alphabetical order by writer name, the recommendations!

Gregory Norman Bossert, "Twelve and Tag" (Asimov's)
Thoroughly reminiscent of late-60s Delany, this story is however not pastiche but continuation — and it is both responsible and playful in that continuation. A strange story about strange people in a strange place telling each other strange stories for strange reasons; a moving, emotional story about moving, emotional stories that calls the concept and practice of moving, emotional stories deeply into question, in multiple ways. It shares, too, many of the concerns of Bossert's "Bloom," but explores them with greater integrity and deeper thought, to such an extent that it reads in (small) part almost as a critique of that earlier story — and certainly is a fulfillment of the promise it showed. Even the final page, an "action-packed" denouement that risks reducing everything that has preceded it into mere plot, manages to contribute rather than detract. Wonderful.

Suleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari, "Discovering Time Travel" (Jalada)
This story has many things to recommend it (though neither its mostly pointless ending nor its shaky grasp of the history of knowledge is among them), but what primarily interests me is the disjunction between its brief opening, which establishes a narrator just as foreign to the story's future as we are, and the vast bulk of the story, told entirely (until the return of the narrator at story's end) in dialogue between two people completely — though differently — comfortable in that future.

Maria A. Bukachi, "Jestocost, Djinn" (Jalada)
The golden age of science fiction is twelve, they say, har har har, how clever. Well, I'm thirty-two and one of the better sf stories I read this month was written by a twelve-year-old. The notion that we adults have a lot to learn from kids is very popular when reduced to a condescending, Hallmark card-style sentiment but the sense in which it is true — and it is true — is much more complex and much more radical. Though there are ways in which greater "maturity" could perhaps have improved "Jestocost, Djinn," as it stands it dramatically reveals, among other things, that children understand — or at least this one child, Bukachi, understands — on a much more fundamental level than most adults what fiction ultimately is.

Tracy Canfield, "Bears Punching Bears!" (GigaNotoSaurus)
A curiosity: this is one of those "hectic day in the life of a person with a wacky job involving managing the weird needs of aliens" stories that I thought no one wrote anymore. The all-time master of this kind of story, for me — the only person who ever managed to do anything more than just breezy entertainment with them, and who I had thought essentially closed off the era in which they were written — is Tiptree: "Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion" especially, which periodically interrupts the entertainment with utter negation in the form of the extragalactic aliens. Canfield doesn't achieve anything close to this, but it's clear that she doesn't wish to; "Bears Punching Bears!" is light, clever, and fun (if retrogressive — capitalists in space, etc.), and I recommend it as such.

Vajra Chandrasekera, "Documentary" (Lightspeed)
"But then, after all, we are cameras, because we are nothing but perspectives. We have no meat. We remember nothing of ourselves, if we ever had selves of our own. We are the world regarding itself, hungry for somebody's narrative, anybody's narrative. And maybe we are the dead." I still think Chandrasekera isn't quite "there" yet, but it is abundantly clear that he's listening, carefully, to what the world is asking of him, and he's well on his way to responding fully.

Chikodili Emelumadu, "Story, Story: A tale of mothers and daughters" (Omenana)
Though my focus is science fiction, I would be remiss if I didn't make note of this decidedly not sf, folk-tale-esque "fantasy" (I guess?) of three generations of women in one mythically peculiar family, told with far greater integrity than most contemporary attempts at "folk tales."

C.C. Finlay, "Morytober" (Daily Science Fiction)
A quartet to Canfield's symphony, if I want to use ridiculous metaphors. Not likely to change anyone's life but entertaining nonetheless, this is a little day-in-the-life piece about a kind of human-alien diplomacy I could get behind. I particularly enjoy Finlay's over-the-top language, sometimes quasi-scientific (the alien "had drooped on its large, orbicular pseudopod" and has a "squeehole at the commisure of its lips"), sometimes from the board room ("If we can't monetize the technology, we'll monetize our efforts to monetize the technology"), sometimes both — a kind of poetry.

Maria Dahvana Headley, "The Scavenger's Nursery" (Shimmer)
All over an Earth that's this much closer to collapse than our own, "garbage babies" begin to wake up, grow, and take over. In some ways a triumph of everything that bothers me about the free indirect, in others an exhibition of everything I love about the extrapersonal perspective of sf (these two are of course frequently at odds in my reading). Periodically the story will throw out (pun unintended) a fascinating twist of language — not "beautiful writing," not "lovely sentences," but a fascinating twist of language that will suggest an openness, a spiraling outward of thoughts and events the story could have included, but wishes the reader to think about instead.

Laia Jufresa, "The Cornerist" (trans. Sophie Hughes) (Words Without Borders)
Often tedious, this story opens up at times — increasingly so as it goes on — to become one of the better stories of sfnal art that I've read, and even the tedium contributes. Among the many areas it explores are the ephemerality of art, and how trying to make art "timeless" can degrade it; and the coexistence in the artist of the awareness that (in this case) his art could not exist if not for the decadence of his society, and the feeling that the art itself is somehow nevertheless necessary — not untainted by that decadence, but not necessarily controlled by it, either.

Melissa Kiguwa, "Daughters of Resurrection" (Jalada)
In 735 words Kiguwa encompasses more than most multivolume sf epics could even imagine. "The bodies weigh something..." Perhaps most powerful here is the story's understanding of how far science can take it, and where it must depart from it — a reflection of its disgust with the way human life has been, and continues to be, rationalized into lifelessness (both figurative and extremely literal), and the way the rationalization itself is rationalized (in a different sense, but also the same) into nothingness.

Sanya Noel, "Shadows, Mirrors and Flames" (Omenana)
I'm too insular an American to know how to feel about the politics here, so I'll stay out of that. And I'm also unsure how I feel about the tendency to label stories "fantasy" (or "magical realism") that treat the perceptions of a child seriously (just as I was unsure above about calling a story in the form of a folk tale "fantasy"), but I'm glad at least right now for whatever categorization it was that brought this vicious story to my attention.

Mallory Ortberg, "It's 2050 and Feminism Has Finally Won" (The Toast)
Unlike last month's left-field entry — Sam Kriss's "Manifesto" — I don't particularly think this is "actually" a science fiction story, but I'm gonna include it here anyway and why the hell not. It made me laugh more than pretty much anything else has in a good long while (with the exception, of course, of everything else Ortberg writes).

Sofia Samatar, "A Brief History of Nonduality Studies" (Jalada)
Sofia Samatar, "Those" (Uncanny)
First, notes on a buried history, the interaction of lost pasts on the scale of human history and that of a human life: "I wrote these notes only for Sylvia, and she asked me to write them, I think, only for me, in the hope that they would lead me back into the world. 'It will help you to dream of the future,' she said, but I don't. I dream of the present, of the now." Then "Those," by my lights less successful, but even a less-successful Samatar is still a Samatar; I admire her efforts here at combining didacticism and deep feeling in the particular, risky way she does — culminating in the stunning final three words, which I wish I'd written but know I couldn't have.

Yoko Tawada, "The Far Shore" (trans. Jeffrey Angles) (Words Without Borders)
I went back and forth on this one a few times while reading it. First I thought it was just agit-prop — and even when, as here, the cause (anti-nuclear) is righteous and extremely urgent, I don't find pure agit-prop particularly interesting or (more importantly) effective. But then came a much more intriguing middle section, in which Tawada takes full advantage of the extrapersonal dimension of sf without succumbing to its inhuman tendencies, particularly thrilling in the moment in which she describes an economic-technological "new mechanism of corruption" while leaving it an open — and finally irrelevant — question whether she's concretely "worldbuilding" or engaging more in aesthetic reasoning. Throughout this section the story keeps falling into language, into writing, in a remarkable way — almost as if a number of Kafka parables have been strung together. But then the final section, in which the story descends firmly upon one individual human being while also accentuating the one area — its concept of the motivations of politicians — in which it has been most naive all along, is much weaker, for all that it can be sardonically satisfying at times. Overall, though, a fascinating, and welcome, attempt at something more politically engaged sf should be trying to do.

Tade Thompson, "The Monkey House" (Omenana)
In a sense — possibly a superficial one — this feels like a more human version of Thomas Ligotti's office stories. At times a bit too on the nose, at times a bit too "metaphorical" when what would serve better is the sheerest literalism, this story nevertheless Knows What's Up.

Laurie Tom, "Even the Mountains Are Not Forever" (Strange Horizons)
The writing is a bit too tastefully "good" (read: dreary) for me, and it stumbles a bit toward the end (where I wish it would be a bit more skeptical of its premises; as it is it comes across as pat triumphalism), but I otherwise admired this story, about continuity and change, about the transmission of knowledge. It lives very much in the space I talked about in my post on lost time, and in that regard I was particularly gratified by the religious aspects of it (though some more direct exploration of religious practice, along with a deeper insight into the experiential oddities that would come with the story's conceits, would have been even more welcome).

Michal Wojcik, "Home Untethered" (Unsung Stories)
It's hard to shake an unpleasant feeling that Wojcik's original impetus here was "what if The Doctor had no knowledge???"; and if I had been the editor I would have been ruthless with the ending (delete the whole last paragraph, maybe retaining a line or two to put elsewhere; shuffle the previous two around a bit...). That aside, this is a lovely meditation on location and dislocation, purpose and purposelessness.


Most of the same sadnesses I had last month remain — it's clear that there are not really good magazines (though Omenana easily puts pretty much the entire rest of the field to shame so far in its first two issues; I selfishly wish their focus was more on science fiction than fantasy!); and it's a terrible lot of plodding work and a bad kind of reading to find these relatively few good stories, even if some of them, this month more so than last, are truly great. (Last month I asked if I'd remember any of the stories in a year's time, this time I feel certain that at least the Bossert, Kiguwa, both Samatar, and Tawada stories will stay with me.) But there's a wider variety of stories here (much of this is down to Jalada and WWB and Omenana, but not all of it), everything that appeared to be a pattern last time is...not so much this time, and it increasingly seems that while there are a great deal of general things you could say about the vast bulk of bad or irrelevant contemporary short sf, there is nothing at all you can say generally about what is good. Which, I suppose, is always going to be the case.