Wednesday, May 15, 2013

By way of a review of Kenneth Schneyer's "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter"

Pardon my negligence--I've been reminded that it's considerate to include a BIG HUGE SPOILER WARNING. If you don't want to know details from the latter parts of the story, don't read this.

I've been pretty insulated from contemporary science fiction for quite a number of years now--by both inclination and circumstance.

By "inclination" I mean that for a long time whenever I would pick up whatever book I would see the sfnal masses raving about I would get a few chapters in and give up, finding the book weighted down by frustrating post-cyberpunk tendencies (chief among them a smugly hip postmodern glibness), the worse than frustrating new scientific misogyny, the wholesale and unquestioning importing of the worst aspects of "mainstream literature" into sf--or all three. Above all a bland sameness seemed to pervade everything. I knew that there must be good work being done somewhere in sf, but as my interests lay for a time in exploring deeply other areas--poetry, "the classics," feminist and other radical theory and history, modernism--I never got around to looking beyond this unpleasant surface. And so while I've never stopped reading sf, I've read very little of what's been written in the past, say, ten years or more. Even those few "new" writers I've stumbled across and been excited about--e.g., Candas Jane Dorsey, Kim Stanley Robinson, Kij Johnson, Rachel Pollack--have mostly been publishing literally since before I was born (Johnson, the only exception on that list, published her first story when I was six)--and mostly write more fantasy than sf, dammit.

By "circumstance" I mean, especially in the past few years, my limited internet access. Because it appears that the best work in sf--at least in the short story--is being done almost exclusively online now. And even that good work which actually appears on pieces of paper is difficult to hear of anymore without the internet. I wish this weren't the case for a number of reasons--accessibility and permanence being the two major ones--but I understand and am forced to accept the economic rationale behind it (the enthusiastically chosen embrace of the politically and ecologically unstable technology at the expense of print, on the other hand, though perhaps to be expected from sf people, I do not accept).

But now I'm slowly beginning to explore what's going on in the field today. A year ago a friend subscribed me to Fantasy and Science Fiction, which in that time has published a small handful of good stories--and one or two excellent ones--and a whole lot of unreadables. I've picked up a few recent Nebula Award anthologies, which I've found to be about 50/50, again with a small number of really excellent stories. I've just bought Athena Andreadis's The Other Half of the Sky, which a few stories in I'm finding touch and go (as is to be expected with all-original anthologies) but frequently marvellous (Nisi Shawl has become a priority). And though my internet access is still quite limited, I've just begun regularly reading Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons, both of which I've peeked at before and been impressed with, but only with the latest issue of each* have I started reading them thoroughly.

*As I write, anyway. By the time I'll get to publish this there will have been at least one new issue of Strange Horizons.

Which, finally, brings me to the concerns which prompted this post. It is easy in criticism to come off much more negative and harsh than one means to, so I want to make explicit before I begin that these issues of these two fine magazines are quite good. When I talk in the rest of this post about my "concerns" and "nagging senses" and so forth, I mean by these words just what they say, no more; and I discuss these feelings not because the stories are bad but, quite the contrary, because they're good--which is precisely why my concerns are concerns. I also want to make clear at the start that even though I ascribe particular problems to particular stories, what I'm really talking about is not really a problem of the stories themselves, rather of a larger trend of which I see these stories being a part.* On their own, independent of this worrisome trend, I suspect I would have found no problem with these stories, or at least not this problem.

*I could be wrong about this!--which is exactly why I started this review with a lengthy explanation of my lack of deep reading in contemporary sf. If I'm wrong, if this isn't a trend, I will be delighted to learn it.

First I read James Patrick Kelly's "Soulcatcher" from Clarkesworld, a solid story dealing with interesting concepts, though with perhaps a bit too much focus on MFA-style "fine writing" for my taste (I am not firmly opposed to this type of writing, though I am suspicious of it). Nagging at me throughout, though, was the sense that the whole story would be greatly improved, the interesting concepts better dealt with, if the story had been...well, if it had been about anything else other than what it was about: revenge, murder, violence. I do not say that stories cannot be about these things, but...well, I'll get back to that "but" later.

The second story I read was Andy Dudak's "Tachy Psyche", also from Clarkesworld, which I found to be just as solid (and impressively concise considering the broadness of its world) and conceptually even more interesting, though undercut in both by its frankly obnoxious semi-surprise ending.* But once more, the thought nagged at me that these fascinating (if not necessarily "new") notions, this play with time and consciousness, could be much better explored if the story had been about anything other than what it was about: political intrigue, murder (except at the end maybe not!), violence.

*I could write a whole post about the poverty of surprise endings, but I think I would just get depressed. Suffices to say for now that in sf I tend to find that surprise endings are where the story should have started.

Then, the vicissitudes of timing and attention led me to read third Kenneth Schneyer's "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter" from Strange Horizons. This is probably the best story out of the three*--and yet guess how I felt about it? On the sentence level Schneyer's writing is a nice combination of sf's traditional clarity with a sort of dreaminess (the attempt at which leaves much other contemporary sf feeling simply leaden). The interweaving explorations of communication and complexly ambivalent emotional attachment between parent and child on the one hand and human and alien on the other are intriguing and superb. And yet: war, murder, violence.

*Though not the best out of the two issues entire, that being E. Catherine Tobler's lovely "(R + D) / I = M"--a story which would require far more re-reading and re-thinking before I at least would be able to write about it.

Now, these tendencies are far from universal; Tobler's story, for example, could in some ways be said to be "about" violence, but in a very different, and individual, way, one that reflects a much more nuanced understanding of what violence consists of, one that seems to grow organically out of the needs of the story and of the writer. And this last point brings me to the center of my concern, which is that this focus on violence feels obligatory to me in much the same way that (as I argued in my review of 2312) the mystery structure has become obligatory. It has become so reflexive that it becomes the center of stories it seems alien to; one often gets the sense that the writer has not even considered whether the flashy spectacle of shooting and stabbing and blood is approriate to their enterprise, nor that they feel any responsibility towards this violence they have conjured into the world.

As someone who writes tries to write sf, I know it can be very difficult to figure out how to display one's sfnal ideas, through what lens to examine them; and just as the mystery story seems to offer up a helpful structure within which to lay out these ideas, "Oh I guess they'll try to kill each other" seems to provide a quick, convenient--and familiar--"plot" on which to hang them. But responsible writers should be more patient with their ideas, should not go for the quick, the convenient, the familiar, but the necessary.

And I'm not saying that violence is never necessary. Obviously violence in all its forms is something that can, and sometimes should, be written about; it is a thing in the world that demands attention, and to ignore it entirely is just as irresponsible as its lazy use. In "Hear the Enemy" in particular it does seem much more integral to what Schneyer is fundamentally trying to say than it is in the Dudak and Kelly stories--which is probably in large part why I think it's the most successful of the three. Even still, though, one frequently feels that he is just going through the motions, making gestures towards "genre tropes" that perhaps he feels he needs to hit. When I finished the story, I felt to some extent that I had been enlarged by it, which is always a wonderful gift for which I am grateful. But I felt in other ways that I had grown small.

I've never read anything else by Kenneth Schneyer; I don't know him; I don't know what his feelings and needs are, but as a reader the "war story" aspects of "Hear the Enemy" do not strike me as a felt need. This feeling is all the more apparent because much in the story does; it would be one thing if the whole story were just sleepwalking, one could simply write it off, but this story is not: it is much better than that. This passage, which I will quote at length, in which the narrator, Halima, speaks about her complicated estrangements from her young daughter immediately after she, in the previous scene, has described the earliest stages of an attempt to understand an alien biology, language, and social structure (including parent/child relationships), is a good example of the kind of thing I mean:

Kesi's use of language misleads me into thinking she has a mind like mine. She uses a subject, verb, and object in ways I understand, and so I imagine that she means by it the same thing I would mean. But a four-year-old, in some ways, is as different from an adult as a chimpanzee.

Last month she cut into small pieces Jabari's decoration for valor, which I stupidly left sitting on a low table after I had shown it to her the day before. I had not guessed that she was able to use her little scissors so well, nor that they would cut something that seemed so durable. When I saw the scattering of silk ribbon and golden twine on the table and floor, I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It was just a thing, it was not Jabari, but it was one more bit of him that I will never have again.

I asked Kesi what she had done. She saw the tears in my eyes and knew that something was wrong.

So she said, "Nothing."

I said, "But Baba's ribbon is all cut to bits."

She looked right at it and said, "No, it isn't."

It wasn't a lie, not in the sense that you would mean it. Kesi has learned enough about words to know that they have power. She knows that adults speak of things that are not present in the room, and that these things turn out to be true. It is logical, from her perspective, to think that the words make them true. She wished that the ribbon were all in one piece, so she told me, with conviction, that it was. I do not think she expected magic, but rather that the world would conform itself to her words, as (from where she stands) it seems to conform itself to mine.

But at the moment she said it, a miserable voice in my head screamed, liar! In that instant I judged her, found her untrustworthy, unloving, selfish. I hated her, and not for the first time.

Then I returned to myself and saw a scared, sad little girl who had not understood what she had done. I took her into my arms and we cried into each other's shoulders.

And I wondered whether someday I will misplace the reason to forgive her--whether there will come an instant of hatred that does not fade.

I find fascinating here the interplay of Halima's three narratives of Kesi's internal life ("It wasn't a lie," "liar!," "a scared, sad little girl") with one another and with the knowledge we have as readers that neither she nor we can be sure if any of them are "right." All she, and we through her, have is a set of observable behaviors, to which we must try to attach meaning. The parallels between this and the situation Halima faces with the captured Sheshash are perhaps obvious, a bit on the nose, but nevertheless sensitively and intelligently explored, revealing areas of experience that might otherwise have remained obscured. My favorite of the ways in which Schneyer achieves this is the moment when the captured Sheshash escape from their cell, in which he removes even the observable behavior:
How Ishish and Ashashi escaped is not important to relate. Our technology perplexes the Sheshash as theirs perplexes us. It may simply have taken Ishish this long to realize that what we thought was an impregnable chamber was as easy to violate as air.
I'm not sure how I feel about the word choices at the end there--impregnable/violate--but apart from that this is a really intriguing little uncertain pause in what might otherwise be a straight "action" sequence.

Now compare with this telegraphic paragraph that comes very nearly at the end of the story:

I fired my weapon. The baby popped like a balloon.
We are worlds away from the previous passages, and not in the good sfnal sense of "worlds away." This type of thing, particularly coming as it does at the end of a section, indeed the penultimate section of the story, its "climax," casts us into the worst aspects of sf's pulp roots.* To me it reads like a line from some rushed novelization of Paul Verhoeven's film of Starship Troopers written by someone too overworked to notice the irony in the movie.

*Which still also have many good lingering effects, mind you.

Again, I don't want to be harsh. The reason I complain so hard about these negative aspects of Schneyer's story is that I can feel a powerful urge in the story to be better, a desire which it very nearly fulfills. But to place this kind of by-the-numbers sensationalistic writing about by-the-numbers sensational plot elements at the very crux of the story--this is the specific moment around which everything Halima has told us revolves, her guilt about it the whole reason for her telling--is to undercut it all. Not fatally, but very nearly.

I said before that the violence in this story feels integral to it in a way that it doesn't in the other stories I've mentioned, and this is true. Indeed, in fine sfnal tradition the extreme violence of the war between the humans and the Sheshash literalizes the metaphorical violence of the parent/child relationship (in a way that is far less hokey than that sounds). And yet, and yet. I keep coming back to three concerns, separate but related; much like Halima with Kesi, I cannot say which--if any--of these three is genuinely at play here or in any of the other stories, but I worry that some combination of them is at play in a much higher proportion of sf than one might wish:

First, I worry that impatient--or, worse, lazy--writers are going to spectacular violence because it is readily available in the "genre toolkit" and provides a way to explore their ideas without having to fully engage with them. I do not think Schneyer is guilty of this, at least not very much, but I do feel that if Kelly and Dudak had had the patience to live with their ideas a bit longer they might have found better things to do with them.

Second, I worry that this ease, what I described earlier as familiarity, is a part of a much larger system that discourages us, as readers, as writers, and as humans, from thinking or caring about the consequences of violence, even in fictional terms. I am not being a moral scold here about "desensitizing" or what have you; cause and effect is not that simple. But I submit that even in a story which revolves entirely around guilt over violence, the creeping presence of glibly formulaic language like "The baby popped like a balloon" is indicative of a cultural--that is to say not arising from the individual--inability to deal with the reality of violence, the equivalent of a looking away even as it pretends to unrelenting attention.

And third, I worry that even in those stories where the violence is integral--as it is in the Schneyer--the reflexive turn to violence as subject matter is silently steering the kind of ideas that sf is willing to explore. To put it in heavily simplified terms, I worry that the thought process starts, most likely unconsciously, with "my story must include violence in order to belong to sf" and only then goes to "what kind of story can I tell?" If this is true of Schneyer, it makes the story he's written out of this thought process all the more impressive...but it is also a little depressing to think of a writer capable of what he is manifestly capable of being limited in this of all ways, by sf of all fields.


UPDATE: On twitter, after pointing out that he doesn't "acquire or edit the magazine's fiction" himself, Niall Harrison comments: "My argument...would be that the story is in part about the tension between simplistic, war, 'friend/enemy' understandings and complex, multivalent person-to-person understandings, and that therefore the crudeness of 'popped' is apt: it indicates the narrator failing. Making a choice to fail, in fact." I find myself in absolute agreement with his assessment of the story's themes, but hadn't thought to apply them to the language of "The baby popped." Now I am. The suggestion that this language might be "a choice to fail" in particular is fascinating to me, and I'm thinking I'll need to re-read the story with this notion in mind.


Niall said...

First of all, this really is an excellent post, thank you for it.

Second, let me try to unpack my comment a bit more (for my own benefit as much as anything). I think for me it comes down to whether you think the escape-scene is a no-win scenario. I mean, if Halima is just doing the unavoidable, what has to be done, it's a sad ending, but as you suggest, not a deep one.

I see a bit more in it than that. Halima talks Ishish and Ashashi down, the soldier kills Ishish, Ashashi kills the soldier -- and then there's a pause, while the other soldiers are approaching. Halima says she is "wanting to tell this child, this baby, that it was all right, that she could still survive"; but she doesn't actually say any of that, she doesn't make a second attempt to reason. After Ashashi says "Kri'ikshi", Halima makes a choice to shoot. That is a choice to make sure that human lives are saved; but it is also an admission that she believes the line of communication she's been working on all story isn't strong enough, that it will fail; so it's a choice to give up on that work.

It's surely significant that in the last sentence of the scene Ashashi is no longer Ashashi, but "the baby"; a function, not a person. And to bring in the parenting thread of the story, I think the last scene ties in with the medal-cutting scene you quote (which I think may be the best scene in the story). Communication and empathy are hard, and it's much easier to give up and react to functions instead of people. Halima has a much closer connection to her daughter than she does to the aliens, and she still feels that spike of anger. I think it's very interesting that we're not told her feelings at the moment she decides to shoot Ashashi, we're not given access to the emotional reaction she has to "Kri'ikshi"; but I think we're encouraged to fill it in by extrapolating from scenes like the medal-cutting.

All of which said, I think you can also make an argument that this only really pushes the structural problem you identify back a bit. If it's a choice Halima makes, it's still a rigged choice, Schneyer has set up just about the most high-contrast situation you can imagine, between a worldview where nuanced empathy is essential and one where it could easily be a liability. And that use of violence to create an urgent dynamic still does speak to the imaginative limitation of the field that you're worrying at in your post.

Ethan Robinson said...

Very interesting! I haven't had a chance yet to re-read with these thoughts in mind, but I'm very much looking forward to it--I think I'll admire it even more than I already do.

I agree that the medal-cutting scene is one of the finest in the story--in my first draft I had a much longer discussion of its intricacies, before I realized that if I indulged myself in every single thing I wanted to say my review would end up longer than the story, haha. One thing I wish I had left in, though, is a mention of something Christine Schutt said in an interview, something along the lines that as a writer you have to start from what you don't want people to know. Obviously we're not here to psychoanalyze Kenneth Schneyer, for like a billion reasons, but the description in the story of not just anger but sometimes hatred entering into the loving parent/child relationship, hatred alternately replacing and mingling with the love, felt very much like the kind of thing Schutt was talking about, hence my singling out that passage as an element of the story that struck me as a deeply felt need.

(While I'm talking about things I wish I'd done differently, I find myself wishing that when I mentioned the story's "revealing areas of experience that might otherwise have remained obscured" I had said explicitly that this is essentially the highest praise I can think to lavish on a work of art.)

On your analysis of the escape scene, I'm very intrigued, though again I think I need a re-read with it in mind. I think my immediate distaste for the war-storiness of the story led me to assume simplicity in those aspects when the complexity of the rest of the story should have told me otherwise. I'm especially interested that you focus on a "pause" in the scene, as such pauses, spaces, moments of stasis, are usually to me the most important and interesting parts of stories (which was one of my reasons for singling out the other paragraph I quoted, the "how they escaped" information gap); and just as interested (as I said in the update to the post) in your exploration of Halima's admission of failure. One of the most important things I've learned from critics like Gabriel Josipovici and Steve Mitchelmore is the necessity of letting failure into the work, of accepting failure as a condition of the work (cf Beckett's famous but widely misunderstood "fail better" quote--to "fail better" is emphatically not to succeed). I suspect both of them would think I was being much too literal in applying this notion to this story and what you're saying about it, but the admission that when it really matters one cannot trust one's efforts, one's painstakingly established lines of communication, or even one's love... well, I'm fresh out of ways to finish that sentence, but it's a remarkable thing in this story.

As far as pushing the problem back, I'm agreed, though I think it pushes it a bit further back even than you suggest--because now I really can't fault Schneyer or his story for its violence, which if I allow myself to be convinced by your analysis (which I'm thinking I will) it is both necessary and responsibly handled. And so we're back to the kind of problem where it is not any given story that can necessarily be faulted (though some can, and I cling to my criticisms of the mostly-good Kelly and Dudak stories), but rather the trend of the mass of stories. And in a situation like that, I'm glad that at least some of the violence-stories are as good as Schneyer's.