Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Sarah Pinsker's "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind"

This is a story so perfectly executed according to its own ambitions that it is impossible to critique it in its own terms. Indeed, though a cultural critic — even myself, since I'm occasionally inclined in that direction (though not at the moment) — might be able to find much to talk about in it (representations of aging, of gender, of complicity with oppressive systems), aside from that it is basically impossible to say anything at all about it, as literature, in its own terms. All that can be done is to speak in favor of or against those terms.

As a matter of principle, I should speak against them. Though it is not, like the last one was, formula and nothing other than formula, it is nevertheless the kind of story I find largely unacceptable, the kind of story most everyone, it seems, wants to read and write over and over. But I find I don't really have the heart to do it. For one thing, I've done it a billion times already.

But people insist upon writing stories this way, and other people seem to find great power in it. Why?

Her novel truly is written in living color and surround-sound; her efforts in these directions are sometimes astounding. But it is in these efforts, indeed in their notable success, that my problems with the novel lie.

What, for example, is all this "narrative" doing to us? What has it done?

If Konstantinou has his way...then sf, far from being a salutary "alternative" to realism, merely compounds — indeed "complements", in the sense of making complete and total — the problem of realism.

...and so on. For another thing, I can't really find it in myself to get worked up over this story. I didn't hate reading it; I even gave in at times to its way of being and allowed myself to "enjoy" it (using that word in the specific sense in which we speak of "enjoying" art that is not about enjoyable things). Were that way of being not hegemonic, I might even be able to say yes, this is a good story, recommend it, and leave it at that. As it is I can't do that (or, to the extent that this is "a good story" — which it certainly is — I don't think I can endorse "story" itself), but neither can I particularly work up the venom to denounce it.

So what, then? I considered writing about its relationship to sf, which is quite deliberately tenuous; there are interesting things to be said about sf stories that position themselves at such a distance from the sfnal without giving up their sf nature. Things are very different here than they were in the Val Nolan story, whose only claim to "being" sf is that no other kind of publication would have been foolish enough to be interested in it; instead, what Pinsker seems to be after here — and in itself this is I think very promising ground to explore — is what becomes of the utterly quotidian and mundane in a world that elsewhere has grown, or threatens to grow, sfnal. Fascinating things could no doubt be said about this endeavor in itself (as it is best seen on a re-read) as well as the strange things that go on from the reader's point of view when we first read a story that is ultimately so quotidian primed, by its position in an sf magazine, to look for signs of sf's subjunctivity — signs which are almost wholly absent. But, perhaps it's just the mood I'm in, perhaps it's Sturgeonblogging exhaustion setting in, perhaps it's an exhaustion brought on by this story in particular* — whatever it is, I find myself feeling that what I just said is enough to say about that, at least for now. I just don't have any need right now to explore those thoughts. If you want to, have at it.

*As I glanced over the first page of my print-out of the story, all the verbs in the past perfect — "She had always been calm in the family's minor medical crises"; "It had snowed the day they met" — made me sigh, get very tired, and contemplate giving up. Such sweepingly, authoritatively assertive constructions tend either to make me instantly combative — "Oh she had been, had she?!?" — or to wear me out, and this time they promised to wear me out. That they did not, that the story was eminently readable, is a testament both to its achievement and to the reasons I find that achievement problematic.

That spot of potential interest notwithstanding, I think a story like this — and its multiple award recognitions, and the string of "beautifully told", "made me wish for more", "wonderful characters"-type comments it generated in its own comments section — just makes me feel that science fiction, as it exists today, is not for me. A field that can produce, and recognize, a work this fully realized, this supremely well-executed, clearly knows what it's doing — and what it's doing cannot include me. A field that can produce and recognize this work is not my field. I can understand that no one else will particularly care about this feeling as much as I do (after all no one else is me) (and anyway I'm probably just writing out of a fleeting moment of overdramatic direness and will feel moderately better if I go take a nice brisk walk or something) but for me it can feel on the level of a catastrophe. I am not for the most part nostalgic for the field's past, but at some point (let's call it "1980" for convenience) as we journeyed from that past to today's present, I went one way and sf went another. Science fiction has always been my home and my calling; but as my home and my calling, I fear it no longer exists — or maybe rather, it refused ever to come into being.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Val Nolan's "The Irish Astronaut"

I hate to be a "this isn't sf" scold, but I'm sorry, in every sense in which a work can be considered to "be" or "not be" sf, this story is not sf. Shifting boundaries, contested definitions, all that, but no. It has to do with space exploration, which makes it tenuously linked to sf socially, but still, no. "Aha," someone might say, "but in the real world there was never a space vessel named Aquarius that blew up, and probably no astronaut has had his ashes scattered in Ireland, ergo sf," to which I say that there never was a man named Swann the way Proust describes him, but that does not make À la recherche sf.

It is not be sf, but it is "genre", oh so very much so: it is genre lit fic.* That it was published in a nominally sf venue is due, as far as I can tell, first to the refusal of lit fic's generic spaces to publish stories with space in them, even if it's not really in them, even if not remotely sf, and second to sf's willingness to take on lit fic's abandoned stories (no doubt itself a result of sf's utterly obnoxious inferiority complex; the field still largely thinks it needs to prove itself "as good as" lit fic, which usually works out to mean "the same as").

*Nota bene that that's two links there.

Well, it is not, or at least it should not be, sf's responsibility to absorb lit fic's unwanted. It is not remotely my interest to slam airtight doors around the field, but it is important to me that sf be its own unique thing, and not give up that uniqueness in pursuit of a vast mediocrity it has convinced itself is greatness.

Generic, generic, generic. This story is formula through and through. It begins in medias res because that's what you do, then quickly comes a scene break and some filling in of backstory, because that's what you do, and so on and so on. And so it goes, and so it goes, on and on until finally the inevitable climactic scene of emotional breakthrough occurs, the reader feels a brief stab of emotion-like something exactly at the moment expected, and then, temporarily satiated, returns to work, keeping capital flowing yet another day, after which the reader requires another hit of epiphany and seeks it in another identical story.

It's narrated in, what's-it-called, style indirect libre or whatever?, limited omniscient third person?, who cares, it's the third person but we're given the point of view character's thoughts, or rather the kind of irresponsibly authoritative absolute statements that masquerade as thoughts in this kind of story. Because that's what you do. But the story wants to keep one specific aspect of Dale's (the POV character's) thoughts vague, because it helps to build up to the emotion that has to come at the end if there's something to be sort of revealed, and so the disembodied narrator ceases to be able to read Dale's mind whenever his thoughts come close to that one piece of information. Why? Because that's what you do.

Would someone, someone, please give a thought as to what writing this way is saying? Why is it behaving this way? It's not like we're supposed to think Dale is playing coy with himself. What, then? If these writers would give half a second's thought to form rather than formula, maybe they could actually do something that mattered rather than filling in endless half-assed melancholic Mad-Libs.

And it's all just so writerly. A group of men with, not antagonism exactly, but a lot unspoken between them go fishing together; they exchange leading comments; and then "Their lines hung heavy in the water. Nothing was biting." Oooh. Because the fishing, and the silence. Ooh. Someone slap an award on this baby.

Maybe I'm being cruel. Maybe I should point out that there are some seeds of a good story here. There's some nice questioning of the "need" always to expand in order to experience strangeness, and of the feeling that experiencing strangeness is the only way to experience life. Nice. There are some bits about how the notion that Man's Destiny Lies In The Stars comes out of one specific worldview, and that there are others. Nice. There are some bits about the confusing-to-outsiders arrangement of a small town and the lives of the people who live in it, that reminded me of James C. Scott. Nice. And there's some good stuff about the uneven deployment of high technology in the world. Nice. But even the best seeds can't grow in soil this formulaic, tended by a farmer who either refuses or is terrified to think about what he's doing. Hey, look at that metaphor, ooh.

And not only that, but all of these hints at the possibility of something semi-approaching thought just make it all the worse that, excuse me but Mr. Nolan, did you know that you wrote a story about a mass murderer, melancholically figuring out how to dispose of the remains of his dead mass murderer friend? "I flew combat in Iraq," Dale says, and that dead friend, he "flew combat" too. "That's what you do in a war," says Dale later on, though the "that" is entirely free of antecedent and the sentiment neatly elides what choices "you" have to make to be in a position for that to be "what you do." "I flew combat in Iraq," spoken by a member of the goddamn US Air Force, literally means "I murdered a lot of people." I no longer have any patience for the massive machinery of mystification surrounding this kind of thing. It might be typical for the stories we continue to consume to behave as though people like this are not deliberate, cold-blooded murderers, to act like there's some kind of ethical gray area in working real hard to get the privilege to incinerate human beings alive, but typical or not it is not acceptable.

Dale's friend lived a life that Counts (i.e., he lived above the poverty line in the imperial center) and died a death that Matters (blowed up not by an Iraqi resistance fighter insurgent, but by faulty re-entry; sacrificed photogenically to the March Of Progress), and so his life and death are fetishized. Will we get melancholic stories about the disposal of the remains of any of these assholes' victims? Of course not. Those lives, those deaths, just don't matter. It's what you do in a war. (It's especially egregious that this story seems to grasp the fact that Imperialism Is A Bad Thing when the victim is Ireland, but apparently doesn't understand that the same holds true elsewhere. Irish lives matter more than Iraqi lives, I guess.) Instead, let's give the murderer a hero's send-off, literally fucking salute, wipe the single tear out of our eyes, and be very proud of the depth of our emotions . . . until we need a refill — which, don't worry, we can always get.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Alan DeNiro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica"

In the contemporary science fiction field of my dreams, disliking this story would come to me very easily. Stories so aware of their own status — both as stories in general and as science fiction stories in particular — would be common, as would stories so willing to be sort of batty and borderline incoherent. As things stand, however, such stories are vanishingly rare, and as such the temptation simply to accept this one as it is and praise it for the ground it is uncommonly willing to occupy is strong; and it takes an effort to say, no, I can't get behind this.

One of Samuel R. Delany's most famous contributions to the study of sf is his identification of sentences* that perform what I (stealing from Jo Walton) call an incluing role, as being particularly sfnal. Sentences such as Heinlein's "The door dilated," Delany has argued, which would be immensely odd — or simply meaningless — in works outside of sf, take part in the stated or unstated "scientific discourse" set up by the sf work, which not only frees such otherwise meaningless sentences to mean but also is itself revealed by such sentences. In other words, because we know that Beyond This Horizon "is" science fiction, we are free, in the face of the sentence "The door dilated", to understand that in this work doors work differently in such a way that to describe their motion as "dilation" is meaningful; conversely, in order to come to this understanding we are forced to imagine not only what this difference is (some kind of mechanical iris apparatus) but what it implies about everything else in the world of the work: i.e., we know that this world possesses the technology (and the economy) to create doors that function this way and, for whatever reasons (which we already begin provisionally to sketch in), the desire or need to do so. In such a way, to return to my favored terminology, we are "clued in" to the socio-technological differences between the world as we know it and the world of the work without actually having been told about any of these differences. In this sense the sentence is a window into science fiction. Simultaneously, science fiction is a window into the sentence — because if we haven't already decided that the work is science fiction, we won't know how to read the sentence.

*Delany likes to speak in terms of "sentences". I find this both less productive and less interesting than he does, but for the moment I will follow his example for ease of discussion.

So goes Delany's argument. He is clearly a partisan of such sentences, as is, far more so, Walton. In this they differ from me: I think that both incluing and the poorly understood, much-maligned direct infodump are central to the sfnal experience, and that the character of any individual sf work is determined to a large extent by the structural variation it establishes between the two.* (Indeed almost everything I write here is to some degree founded upon an analysis, implicit or explicit, of such variation.) At any rate the Official Party Line — which was in considerable flux when Delany began his critical project — has by now come down so firmly on the side of incluing (which is, we're told, "sophisticated", "immersive", and "subtle") against infodumping ("clunky", "takes you out of the story") that anyone who values the latter is practically forced into polemic.**

*This is one of many reasons that I think it is important to consider Joanna Russ's critical work along with Delany's; her frequent focus on sf's "didacticism" nicely complements his focus on what sf leaves unstated.
**Even the term "infodump" itself is generally understood as a pejorative, though I like it enough to try to reclaim it as a neutral descriptor.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Well, put a mental bookmark in the bit where I said that these sentences are for Delany particularly sfnal, but for the moment I'm saying it as a prelude to one of the things that makes me want to ignore my reservations and praise DeNiro: which is that his deployment of incluing in this story is strong, playful, and, I want to say, ostentatious — an intriguing counter to the received notion that the technique's primary virtue is subtlety.

An early example might serve to show what I mean. The narrator, a wealthy art collector, is observing (by means of "surveillance bees") Roxy: Shark * Flower, a genetically engineered living artwork he commissioned (who is in many ways the protagonist of the story, to the extent that it has one), as she is displayed in an art museum along with two other works.

[O]ne time she presses her body against the glass of the panorama, close to Epoxy and Paint. As if trying to capture the false sunlight in her body. (She does not photosynthesize.)
The parenthetical does not serve to reveal what it literally says, that Roxy does not photosynthesize (for why would we assume that she did?). And while it does establish that she could have been designed to do so, doing so is not its primary purpose either (it is an inexperienced sf reader indeed who would be startled by such a possibility). Rather than these technological facts, what the parenthetical conveys is more a sociological mindset — it reveals that what reads to us automatically as, and is intended by its (fictional) writer to be, a would-be poetic extravagance ("As if trying..."), would read just as automatically to people in the world we're reading about as conveying a specific set of unexceptional but relevant factual information, were the point not clarified. (It also suggests that the narrator is one who likes to indulge in poetic extravagances, but worries terribly about being misunderstood when he does.)

My point is not that DeNiro is able to accomplish so much with such a small gesture (good job, gold star, etc.; if technical skill were Enough, I for one would not particularly feel the need to write criticism). Instead, I point this out to indicate that when DeNiro does so, he calls attention to it. There are any number of ways to convey all the same information he does here in the kind of subtle way that the average incluing fan would approve of ("As if she had been designed to photosynthesize," say, eliminating the parenthesis altogether), but DeNiro does not want us to miss the complex of mental processes that are called up by an arrangement of words on the page, and so he all but points at the words, saying, "these are words that make your brain do things, you should think about it." Throughout the story, from the two very funny and unsettling of courses early on* to the sudden, somewhat bewildering indirect information about the narrator's appearance in the final paragraphs**, DeNiro insists, for the most part admirably, on such pointing. Even in less specifically sfnal terms, the story refuses to behave in the usual manner of stories; see for example the one scene of real interaction between the narrator and another person (the artist who designed Roxy), which, simply, is not a "scene"; it comes and goes as quickly and uninvolvingly as it can, as though embarrassed by its own anecdotal nature.

*Reminding me of Delany's comment that one occasion of the word "obviously" in Russ's And Chaos Died "could occasion pages of explication de texte."
**Of a living "sculpture of me": "Its skin gleams white as mine gleams. Its eyes are opalesque like mine." — suggesting what we should have but I at least did not already guess, that he himself is heavily genetically modified.

All of this is especially appropriate given that the story concerns itself specifically with the nature of art, particularly the role of art under capitalism (and if we are living under "late capitalism," the story is set during extremely, extremely late capitalism*) and the attempt, perhaps by an artist, perhaps by several, perhaps by art itself, to break out of that role. The narrator is not so much an art collector as an art consumer (he calls his buying trips "going shopping," has a "favorite art-buying suit," says that "Art, above everything else, is a sign of one's station in life") and his attitude toward art in general is a parody both of the philistine and the refined, disinterested aesthete — both attitudes unique to modern, Western(ized) capitalism. And as "his" art misbehaves, bucking against these attitudes, so too must "his" story.

*The decadence of the setting is perhaps best exemplified by the narrator's aestheticization ("I actually think it's beautiful") of the titular wildfires, product of worst-case global warming. Or maybe by his casual recreational activity of "firing satellite armaments into the ruins of Buenos Aires."

But let's take a look at this misbehavior, shall we? The fictional artworks first. Roxy, deliberately designed by her maker to have violent tendencies ("Would you have asked Goya to make Saturn Devouring His Son a little less violent?" he asks), gruesomely kills several museum guards (as do other works, by other artists, displayed along with her). The rigged sculpture the narrator is sent at the end of the story, it is implied, is intended to kill his comatose wife. The art, apparently, has not been reminded to "punch up," and so the primary victims of its violence are — as has long been the case — proletarians and women. The case of the latter is particularly telling, as Roxy was literally made in the narrator's wife's image — the former's DNA is based on the latter's. Passive to the point of being coma-bound, her only role is to inspire, and then be destroyed by, art.* Sound familiar?

*In this connection it is also not irrelevant that Roxy is specifically a "she".

All this is not necessarily "bad", in terms of evaluating the story at hand — these are after all issues that must be addressed in any thorough examination of the modern role of art — but given the way the story conducts itself — its own specific ways of misbehaving — I find it all, well, misguided at best. It's not that I think the story "endorses" the view that art should rise up and kill working people and women,* or whatever nonsense; I don't think the story seeks to endorse anything at all, and certainly it parodies the artist (almost) as much as it does the art collector. But the whole thing just gives me the feeling that DeNiro is certain that he's better than what he's writing about — which is never a good look, and it gives the proceedings an air of glibness that I find frankly irresponsible, not to mention irritating. Despite all I've said about the story's welcome self-awareness as art exploring the self-awarness of art, this air of certainty and superiority makes it all fall flat; DeNiro seems to me at least to see himself as above all that, and as such everything seems to come just so easily. Lob a missile into Buenos Aires, make a crack about an art-buying suit, kill that woman, sink the Netherlands under water, shove a Pollock into the side of a whale: it's all the same, it's all easy, it doesn't matter, it's all down there somewhere. Even the eyecatching incluing I described earlier starts to feel less like a work of art insisting responsibly on its own artificiality and more almost a kind of juvenile bragging.

*Recommended reading: Joanna Russ's "A Boy and His Dog: The Final Solution".

I'm not saying the story should be deadly serious rather than comic. I'm saying that it needs to not be so glib. There is a difference. Reader, glibness is the enemy: it tricks us into not caring, into thinking everything is ultimately the same, ultimately dismissible; it tricks us into thinking that these are the attitudes of the mature adult, who has left caring about things behind with other youthful pursuits.

Glibness is the characteristic tone of much that is called "postmodern". Though this strain of postmodernism* has been eager to clasp sf to its heart, and much of sf has been eager to return the favor, I've always found that what is valuable in sf is very different, and that the alliance between the two has been catastrophic to precisely the extent that it has been successful in its own terms. Sf, even at its most naïve, even at its blandest, is about texture, variation, difference, disjuncture; and while postmodernism sells itself especially on this last, the glibness betrays it every time — by smoothing everything over into one textureless mass which the artist, only playing dead, surveys from his (or, less often, her) lofty perch, nods, and says "Yes, I can make use of this." The kind of analysis I find valuable in approaching sf (not to tootle my own flootle, but say for example what I was able to find by taking Alaya Dawn Johnson literally, or just in general the kind of examination of variation I mentioned earlier) finds itself with nothing to do.

*As with so many words the poor literary critic is forced to use, "postmodernism" means so many different things to so many different people as to be basically meaningless. Here when I use the term I am speaking specifically, if also vaguely, of "this strain" of it, though also as a general rule I think that to suggest we are "post" modernity is premature to say the least.

Delany, I said earlier, considers the kind of sentences DeNiro deploys so skillfully (as examined above) to be specifically sfnal. I don't think this is the case anymore. They have been absorbed by other modes — or maybe rather, contextless aspects of many modes have melded together into a slurry. Delany (and first publication in Asimov's) notwithstanding, this story's use of these formerly sfnal techniques reads to me not as sf so much as generic — indeed genre — postmodernism. Or, perhaps, I could consider the story either mediocre-to-bad at being sf (flat, thin, superficial, too preoccupied with metaphor), or good at being postmodern — but not both. And if I come down on the latter side, which I think I do, the question, which I'm pretty sure I know how I'd answer, becomes whether "good postmodernism" is actually a good thing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Will McIntosh's "Over There"

This crap [PDF crap link] is so insultingly, uninterestingly bad that I almost want to refuse to write about it at all. But here I am, for, ahem, some reason.

So, some scientists perform a tiny little experiment in quantum teleportation, and for some reason (I don't know, because Roger Penrose mumbled something vaguely related once, who cares) this results in everyone on Earth (just humans? just here? who cares!) being aware of their sensations, thoughts, and actions in two different quantum realities or whatever simultaneously, in one of which, for sub-Langoliers reasons, there are big ribbons of light that everyone, en masse, spontaneously, without discussing it with each other, decides to call "dragons" for no good goddamn reason, that go around at random turning people into stone that still thinks, somehow, which everyone seems automatically to know is permanent and irreversible, and also it makes the other version of you go insane if you're a woman who is no longer important to the plot.

This, and (much more so) a whole lot of utterly meaningless running around, is accomplished through a formal device that I was actually mildly excited about before I started reading the damn thing, in which everything after the experiment and before [SPOILERS!!!!] one of the versions of the narrator dies (i.e., the bulk of the story) is told in two columns, sort-of-almost-simultaneously conveying what is going on for him in each reality. Before I started reading I kind of glanced ahead at this and noticed that the opening paragraphs of each column were identical but for one very minor adverb, and I was like, ooh. I was like, a science fiction story that resists being read straight through! I was like, maybe I'll get to quote Gabriel Josipovici on the struggle to make what are ultimately arbitrary writing decisions in the absence of a craft tradition! I was like, Derrida, something-something!

But the story doesn't support any of this — which would be fine, it doesn't have to support what I thought it might before I started reading it, but unfortunately another thing it doesn't support is anything else. This story is fundamentally not interested in anything at all. The unusual structure exists, I'm sure of it, because McIntosh DARED ASK: "Would this be kind of a neat trick maybe for some reason?" and lo he answered himself: "Meh, sure, who cares." Startlingly, the story answers all of the major questions it raises in ways that make "meh, sure, who cares" sound profound: McIntosh is deeply uninterested in exploring any of them. What would it feel like, what would it mean, to be simultaneously conscious of two distinct realities and two distinct versions of yourself? Who cares! What would it do to a person to know that he was responsible for a worldwide catastrophe? Who cares! What might it be like to be both dead and not dead? Who cares! In fact even on a more functional, procedural level I kept imagining McIntosh's whole writing process as a series of questions and non-answers:

Q. Wait, how do I deal with the passage of time in this structure I've chosen?
Non-A. Who cares, if you pretend things are simultaneous no one will notice. And just throw in section breaks wherever you get stuck, they don't have to make sense or line up with each other or anything.
Q. How do people behave during disasters?
Non-A. I don't know, but I bet they get selfish and violent for no reason unless they're the protagonist! And ooh, that's helpful, because I didn't know what to do after this section break.
Q. What motivates people to like, do shit and stuff?
Non-A. I don't know, women probably? Yeah, lemme put a woman in here. [He types: made... his... stomach... do... a... little... flip.] Hoo boy, now he'll wanna do things, that's for sure.
Q. Oh wait, aren't women sort of people too? What motivates them?
Non-A. God, I have no idea. Um, babies? Yeah, let's say babies, she's having a baby — his baby! Wow! Now there's a story! KEEP IT COMIN'!

I thought about quoting some individual sentences just to show how abysmal the prose is, too, but I have better things to do — literally everyone on earth has better things to do at all times, up to and including things your boss told you to do — than to examine this heap at that level of resolution. The writing is just really bad, OK? I mean, there's the link up there, look at it. It's embarrassing. Try the first five paragraphs if you want to experience successive jaw-droppings that will leave you, finally, jawless. Then skip ahead to somewhere in the middle and go down any page circling the occurrences of the word "guy," just for fun. Maybe their arrangement on the page is a secret code or something.

I'm trying at least to find it heartening that a magazine like Asimov's would publish, and an sf award jury would recognize, a story with some moderate formal oddity. But nope, I just can't.


P.S. Who wrote the note at the top of the story explaining that it might not display right on some Newfangled Handheld Contraptions and that there's a PDF with the proper layout on the Asimov's website? What a mess. "The plot to 'Over There' can't be separated from its graphic layout on some digital readers." Huh? To me this first suggests that the plot only makes sense if the story looks the way it does on some digital readers — so sorry, print subscribers, we just sent you a load of nonsense! Or is it trying to say that "plot" is ordinarily something you "separate" from any given story's "graphic layout" as you read it, but that with this story, on some readers, you just can't properly effect this separation? What? I can think of several different ways to interpret that sentence, and none of them is "Some digital readers won't display this story right, so in addition to being terrible it might also be needlessly confusing unless you get the PDF", which is of course what it's supposed to mean.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Alaya Dawn Johnson's "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass"

No one reading this, I hope, wants or needs a white guy to explain why it's nice to see a science fiction story narrated by a middle-aged black woman and treating the lives of black women as being of the utmost importance. And no one, I hope, wants or needs a white guy to explain that there are certain resonances in a story about a pair of black women, sisters, struggling to wrest control of reproduction, of their bodies, from an incomprehensibly alien occupying force and, to a lesser extent, from religious and social pressures that originate from within the women's own community but tend to support the occupying force. So I'll do us all a favor and leave it at saying: these things are going on in "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass" (PDF link), and they are very good; they form the context for everything else that I'll be talking about in this post, whether I say so explicitly or not.

The "glassmen," as the characters in the story call the occupying force, arrived (all over the world? certainly as far as the characters can see) several decades ago, when Libby, the narrator, was a little girl. Their origin, alien or human, is unknown, as are their motives:

No one knows what they really look like. They only interact with us through their remote-controlled robots. Maybe they're made of glass themselves — they give us pregnancy kits, but won't bother with burn dressings. Dad says the glassmen are alien scientists studying our behavior, like a human would smash an anthill to see how they scatter. Reverend Beale always points to the pipeline a hundred miles west of us. They're just men stealing our resources, he says, like the white man stole the Africans', though even he can't say what those resources might be. It's a pipeline from nowhere, to nothing, as far as any of us know.
"Who was to say what the glassmen were doing?" Libby asks herself at one point, and answers: "Killing us, that's all we knew." Later, "No one knows why the glassmen bomb us. No one really knows the reason for the whole damn mess, their reapers and their drones and their arcane rules you're shot for not following."

Those arcane rules, though we don't hear many of them, are the key to the anxious, sort of Kafkaesque (though not Kafka-like) feeling that the story sets up. For the glassmen aren't only an incomprehensible destructive force; aside from their cluster bombs (the "seeds of glass" of the title), the primary way in which occupier interacts with occupied is much in the manner of representatives of a managing bureaucracy. Libby and her pregnant sister Tris, taken prisoner by a glassman on their way to a rumored abortion doctor (abortion being emphatically forbidden by the glassmen, who prefer that pregnant women go to glassmen-operated hospitals from which neither women nor babies return), look for words to describe him and come up with "eager" and "young," and indeed he reminds one of nothing so much as an eager young lawyer or businessman, excited to join the firm, totally committed to its ideology and goals. Many of his sentences end in exclamation points, and even many of those that don't seem to imply them. "Good news," he says to his captives at one point. "I have been authorized to escort you both to a safe hospital facility." Though it is clear that he would not allow the sisters to escape from his custody, he does not treat them as prisoners — "I think our glassman is under the impression he's doing us a favor," as Libby puts it. This attitude of bureaucratic "helpfulness" leads to some bizarre exchanges:

       "It is my job to assess mission parameter achievables. Would you mind if I asked you questions?" ...
       We spend the next few hours subjected to a tireless onslaught of questions. Things like, "How would you rate our society-building efforts in the Tidewater Region?" and "What issue would you most like to see addressed in the upcoming Societal Health Meeting?" and "Are you mostly satisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the cleanliness of the estuary?"
       "The fish are toxic," I say to this last question. My first honest answer. It seems to startle him. At least that's how I interpret the way he clicks his front two legs together. ...
       "Well," says the glassman. "That is potentially true. We have been monitoring the unusually high levels of radiation and heavy metal toxicity. But you can rest assured that we are addressing the problem and its potential harmful side-effects on Beneficial Societal Development."
       "Like dying of mercury poisoning?" ...
       "I do not recommend it for the pregnant one! I have been serving you both nutritious foods well within the regulatory limits."
Though the bureaucratisms elicit, from time to time, a sort of rueful smile of recognition, they don't strike me here as playing the same kind of primarily comic function that they seek to play in the work of, say, a George Saunders. They form a part of the terrifyingly uncontrollable fabric of the characters' lives, as unpredictable as the cluster bombs, and as potentially deadly. The stakes are real, and they are high — and the story makes it difficult to laugh at that.

None of this so far is unprecedented; indeed much of it is well-explored territory. But Johnson plays it very well, for the most part, and at any rate the point, despite all the talk of "exhaustion" and "revitalizing genre tropes" and so forth that is always abroad in the field, is not to do something "new" for the sake of novelty, but to allow something that needs to, happen. For me, the "They Shall Salt the Earth" experience centers around the feeling I feel as the story moves to its conclusion, in many ways similar to the sort of rising awe that comes with imminent revelation in many a good sf story, but ultimately very different — because here, one knows all the while that one is feeling it that it is inappropriate, and one senses from very early on that there can be little in the way of revelation here.

The feeling I'm trying to describe is tied up in the glassmen's utter mysteriousness; their presence, in the world of the story and in the story itself as fiction, poses a question that both cries out for an answer and denies the possibility of answers. Central to this is the "pipeline from nowhere, to nothing," previously described, which Libby and Tris see close up during their captivity.

The pipeline is a perfect clear tube about sixteen feet high. It looks empty to me, a giant hollow tube that distorts the landscape on the other side like warped glass. It doesn't run near the bay, and no one from home knows enough to plot it on a map. Maybe this is the reason the glassmen are here. I wonder what could be so valuable in that hollow tube that Tris has to give birth in a cage, that little Georgia has to die, that a cluster bomb has to destroy half our wheat crop. What's so valuable that looks like nothing at all?
Looked at one way, a pipeline seeming to carry nothing from nowhere to nowhere could be seen merely as a metaphor for whatever the reader has decided the story Is About: rampant environmental destruction, racism, misogyny, the interface of any of these with the capitalism they power and are powered by, what have you — any of these could be the metaphorical answer to Libby's question here. And to be sure these notions do resonate powerfully. But, decades of clueless academic intervention notwithstanding, neither metaphor nor allegory on their own are fruitful ways to read (or to write) science fiction. However allusive, elliptical, or "poetic" — not to mention political! — it may choose to be at any given moment, sf plants its flag firmly in the literal, where lie its most basic strengths and weaknesses alike. And so while we can find whatever metaphors we like, and be affected by them as powerfully as the story's abilities and our own allow, we cannot stop there — we must confront the pipeline's literal presence in the story — which confrontation must necessarily take place in the context of all of these metaphors and social and political significances.

So what is the pipeline? In many ways it is what the SF Encyclopedia calls a Big Dumb Object,* but the meanings of the first two words in that term are different here than when they are applied to the "classic" BDOs — and this difference defines to a large extent the ways in which "They Shall Salt the Earth" is an experience unique to itself. Rather than having, as Larry Niven's Ringworld famously does, a surface area greater than all of the planets of Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire combined, it merely (merely!) "doesn't run near the bay, and no one from home knows enough to plot it on a map." And unlike, say, Arthur C. Clarke's Rama, the pipeline's "dumbness" consists not in disinterested — and passive — silence but in active obfuscation.

*I'm not linking to the online entry because they have alas pulled back from the term's use, preferring the much less descriptive, and more blandly respectable, "macrostructure". In the entry in my 1995 print edition, Peter Nicholls credits Roz Kaveney as the possible originator of the term. I'm choosing, incidentally, to interpret the word "dumb" as meaning "mute" rather than "stupid", as this is to me both the more relevant and the more interesting option.

Only those who have the power to define what knowledge is — and this is a structural power, based on countless violences — can simply assume that the search for knowledge will always be possible, and can always be fulfilled. When the world you are made to live in has never been perfectly explicable in your terms, at your leisure, when you have no expectation that things exist in order for you to grasp them (literally and figuratively), "no one from home knows enough to plot it on a map" is big enough to be Big — and what masquerades as helpfulness is worse than silence, worse than disinterestedness.

So. When this Big Enough Worse Than Dumb Object, practically by structural dint of its presence in the story alone, creates that aforementioned feeling of rising awe — the prelude to sensawunda, if you will — it creates with it a contradiction at the heart of this story, which seems almost like it should have no room for awe. It is disconcerting to feel that some wondrous revelation is imminent when one knows that it is not, or that if it is, it will be only a sign of the writer's betrayal of her own vision — and there is no such betrayal here. The closest we come to an explanation of the pipeline is in the passage where another prisoner, taking advantage of a moment when the glassman is temporarily deactivated (that is, the person controlling it, wherever he is, seems to be occupied elsewhere), proposes the theory that it is a wormhole.

       "A passage through space, that's what I heard."
       "That is incorrect!"
       The three of us snap our heads around, startled to see the glassman so close. His eyes whirr with excitement. "The Designated Area Project is not what you refer to as a wormhole, which are in fact impractical as transportation devices." ...
       "Then what is it?" she asks, so plainly that Simon's mouth opens, just a little.
       Our glassman stutters forward on his delicate metallic legs. "I am not authorized to tell you," he says, clipped.
       "Why not? It's the whole goddamned reason all your glassman reapers and drones and robots are swarming all over the place, isn't it? We don't even get to know what the hell it's all for?"
       "Societal redevelopment is one of our highest mission priorities," he says, a little desperately.
Any reader remotely similar to me is fascinated here. A wormhole? In a pipeline? Intriguing! Does the urgency with which the glassman denies it mean that it's true? Does the "what you refer to as" and the (accidentally?) dropped information that wormholes are "in fact impractical" imply that the glassmen are aliens? There are three pages left in the story — what might they contain? But at the same time, the reader knows that in this story there is no guarantee that questions like this can be answered. In this story there is no privileged right to know everything — attempts towards knowledge can simply be cut off at a whim, or by an anonymous official's sudden "I am not authorized to tell you" followed by some bureaucratic platitude as firm as it is empty. At any rate, surely those last three pages will have to be more concerned with simple survival than anything else (even the conversation about the wormhole is as much a cover for an escape attempt as it is a search for information). And indeed the last three pages are filled with survival. And so the reader is left trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, to try to grasp the immense in a world so restricted as to have no room for it.

In case anyone (still) reading this post (hello!) is maybe unfamiliar with the positive use of words like "contradiction", "irreconcilable" and "disconcerting", let me say straight out: this has all been praise. Where the story is irreconcilable, it lives.

Like "The Weight of the Sunrise," "They Shall Salt the Earth" is shortlisted not just for the Sturgeon but for the Nebula as well. That this double honor should be shared by two stories with such, shall we say, different merits led to me to wonder — why? And I suspect that it has much to do with those elements of this story that I do not think deserve praise, those aspects of it that threaten to overcome what is important about it. For the one thing that both stories (and "Bloom", for that matter) have in common is that they are very writerly — by which I mean, they very much desire to be "beautifully written". But is such a desire appropriate?

There is a thing people do over and over again, that other people praise over and over again, where stories of deep rupture are told as though there were no rupture, as though the stories we've been telling ourselves all along can just continue on unaffected no matter what's going on. As though skill and competence and mastery were not only of the utmost importance and appropriateness now (a doubtful proposition) but surely would remain so, unchanged, on the other side of a rupture. As though a story so much concerned with the lack of control should be tightly controlled. I've talked about this before, and while this story is not nearly so compromised by these problems as the one I discussed there (which also was going for a very different kind of mastery), it is compromised.

Or at least I think it is. But people insist upon writing stories this way, and other people seem to find great power in it. Why? What is the power of, for example, sentences like these, taken from two different parts of the story?

I lean back in the boat, the canvas of our food sack rough and comforting on my slick skin, like Mom's gloves when she first taught me to plant seeds.

I have lots of time to wonder about those marks; hour after slow hour with a rattling truck bruising my tailbone and regrets settling into my joints like dried tears.

What is the power of sentences such as these — sentences that seem to me so woefully inadequate to their task — that people return to them, as readers and writers, over and over again?* As a reader, I feel like I'm being asked — and not only, or even primarily, by Johnson — to nod approvingly and say, "Oh, good job, lovely." But what room is there in this story for "good job"? What room is there for "lovely"?

*Please don't come at me with an explanation of the similes. Though the one in the second sentence seems pretty much like a misfire to me, my problem does not lie in a failure to grasp what these sentences seek to mean.

On the second page of the story, we read: "We have a nice smile, Tris and I." Fine. Given the unhappy circumstances of the story, and the childhood reminiscences that surround this sentence, there's a certain melancholy weight to the observation. Not a big deal of a sentence, I have no complaints, no reason to particularly notice it either way. The story goes on, the experience is had, and then it ends with this final, short paragraph:

We have the same smile, my sister and I. It's a nice smile, even when it's scared and a little sad.
And....OK? Again, I understand the meaning this is seeking to convey. But to convey it this way? To me it just seems, once more, inappropriate: a pat conclusion, attaching neatly to something at the beginning of the story, a nice bow to complete the package — in a story that, admirably, has no conclusions to offer, refuses to be neat, and, though it contains beauty, does not deal in prettiness. Once or twice, the story seems to acknowledge the problems with trying to conduct itself this way, as when Libby tells us early on that "Wishful thinking is a powerful curse, almost as bad as storytelling." This reminds me a bit of Lorrie Moore's one good story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" (which I have touched on in the past), in the way that it seems Libby is saying: I know that what I'm doing is unacceptable, but it's all I know how to do. But here, these one or two isolated instances have nothing to attach to, and so they fall flat — and the problem remains. As with Bossert's "Bloom", the good outweighs the bad, and I am pleased that this story has received some well-deserved recognition. But I confess that I am bemused, and troubled, by the persistence of this kind of problem, even in cases such as these where it can be, mostly, overlooked.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise"

On the off-chance that you've come here via that one white-straight-cis-male supremacist whose unhinged, novel-length screed links to this post, pretending that it supports his points: I would like to state for the record that I repudiate both his misuse of my work and his view of the world, which is as deeply ignorant as it is repellent. His total misrepresentation of the points I raise in this post can only arise from willful — and unethical — distortion, unfathomable stupidity, or both. (I suspect at least the former, considering his careful cherry-picking of individual sentences and stringing them together as though they were consecutive, which is not the case, not to mention that I guess he skipped over the part where I say that the post came out of what I've learned from, among others, black women revolutionaries and communists.) This post is among other things a critique of whiteness, albeit necessarily from within and therefore inevitably compromised. And for anyone who may have forgotten, I would like to remind them that criticism of liberals and liberalism can in fact come from directions other than the right.

[Considering the subject of this essay, I think it is important to place these pieces of information: I am a white American man. To the best of my knowledge, Vylar Kaftan is a white American woman (if she's not white, my problems with the story as it is written and as it seems to me to engage with whiteness remain, though I acknowledge that her right to state an opinion on most of these issues would trump mine). My take on the issues at stake here is in part my attempt to reflect what I have learned from the works of radical thinkers, activists, and revolutionaries of color such as Angela Y. Davis, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Paula Gunn Allen, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and many more whose accounts of their knowledge and experience I have been able to get a glimpse of through twitter and other online forums, most particularly Lauren Chief Elk and @prisonculture (do follow through to their websites as well). I mention these names (which should not be considered a comprehensive list) not in an attempt to give myself authority, of which I have none, but so as not to claim that I generated the knowledges that have informed my opinions here myself. If and where I am right, it is because of them; if and where I am wrong, it is because of me.]

With its very first sentence "The Weight of the Sunrise" (PDF link) establishes itself as a tale told by a grandfather to his grandson, a piece of family history passed down orally to explain to the grandson who he is and where he came from as he reaches the age of manhood. But though there are some desultory returns to this framing scattered throughout, the fact is that the story simply does not commit to its chosen form; reading, one gets no sense that Kaftan is even aware of what such a commitment would require. Stories told out loud, passed down from one generation to another, are radically different in purpose and in form from stories written down in solitude and published impersonally in wide-circulation magazines. When one of the latter pretends to be the former, it needs to keep awareness of this difference, either by making the pretense plain — making it the substance of the story itself — or by truly behaving as an oral story, embracing fully the strangeness of the conversion of spoken words into the silent words on the page. Kaftan does neither. Instead, she gives us a totally ordinary written narrative, moving along inexorably from its start to its finish, engaging in all of the behavior characteristic of the American short story form as it has ossified since the middle decades of the 20th century. I could quote passages at you to show you what I mean, but it would be pointless and arbitrary. Take any passage from the story, any at all, except perhaps (perhaps) for those few sections in which the narrator is speaking explicitly to his grandson, and imagine them read out loud. Where are you, who are you? You can only be in the audience at a reading, listening to and appreciating (or not) the work of an artist for its aesthetic merits; you cannot be a member of a community, hearing another member turn his own experience into the life and truth of that community.

This formal failure is just one facet of a much larger problem. Throughout, though she gestures at it from time to time, Kaftan shows very little awareness that different places, times, and peoples carry with them different ways of looking at, knowing, and talking about the world and the things and events in it. And this is a major problem, because although the story she has written is set two hundred years ago, in an alternate world in which the Inca empire survived both smallpox and the Spanish, and is narrated by an Inca man, its worldview is not noticeably different from that of the typical contemporary Western white liberal.

The story deals with the arrival in the empire of an American diplomat, Loddington. He is a planter and revolutionary from Virginia, seeking the independence of the colonies from the British for much the same reason that the wealthy colonial landowners did in our own world's American Revolution, though a few decades later here. He has come to the Inca empire — which was able to survive smallpox by slowing its spread through the use of quarantine, developed by its own scientists, but has been unable to stop the disease — hoping to sell them a newly-developed vaccine in exchange for enough gold to fund the revolution. The Incas, to whom gold is not currency but a sacred substance, are reluctant to pay, but given the necessity of stopping smallpox are nevertheless considering, as the narrator puts it, "selling our gods for the people's health." The narrator, Lanchi, had been an ordinary peasant farmer, but because members of his family contracted and survived smallpox they have been elevated to a sort of honorary noble status, which has become the tradition in the centuries since the arrival of the disease with the Europeans. He becomes involved with Loddington and the events his arrival sets off because, given his elevation and his vague familiarity with English (his grandfather was an English trader who assimilated into Inca society), he is the only man of suitably high rank who can serve as a translator between Loddington and the Inca royalty.

Lanchi is at every turn indistinguishable from that aforementioned typical liberal. He is a Family Man, living with and taking care of his contemporary-American-structured nuclear family.* As with every modern pater familias living out the intersection of patriarchy and ideological capitalist individualism (despite the story giving us no reason to think that his society possesses the latter, and plenty of reason to believe it shouldn't), he behaves as if his family were nothing more or less than an extension of himself, and as such he is far more concerned with their individual well-being than with the near collapse of his people's entire social, political, and religious structure and way of life that occurs within the story, which elicits hardly more than a "meh" from him. At the same time, he displays the good liberal behavior of fretting about the suffering only of those whose suffering is shown to him for political purposes, and desiring the freedom only of those his people's enemies have enslaved.** The story's inability to imagine what anyone significantly different would actually be like extends so far as to include a scene of Lanchi — who grew up both a farmer, working the land, and a member of a sacramental society in which animal sacrifice is commonplace — exhibiting a prim distaste at the sight of animal slaughter, much as contemporary cosmopolitans prefer that the animals we eat be killed elsewhere.

*The story treats this as typical. I will confess that I am no expert on Inca family structures, but I think it is safe to say that they were not this similar in both their material and emotional bonds to those that arose in response to the specific pressures of post-WWII American capitalism. (At roughly the same time and for many of the same reasons as the development of the particular short story form Kaftan is limited to, in fact.)
**That is to say, good instincts distorted for ideological purposes, pointing only in useful directions.

This inability of the story to inhabit its own milieu is perhaps most damning in one of its major subplots, in which in order to make up for the gods-displeasing loss of so much gold the Inca High Priest plans to sacrifice twelve hundred children — and because Lanchi has now come so much to the attention of the nobility, he is certain that his own daughter will be one of them. I do not mean to suggest that it is inappropriate for him to be upset about this, but the way in which he is upset about it rings utterly false. Or rather, perhaps, it is the way that Kaftan makes use of his feelings in the face of this possibility that bothers me. For one thing, it is clearly a stakes-raising device, Kaftan trying to use her contemporary audience's presumed values to make them care more about what's going on. Worse, it is a way for her to distance Lanchi in the reader's eyes from his culture's sacrificial tradition — without which distancing he could not easily be "likeable" to readers from a culture that rejects human sacrifice (or more accurately, prefers its human sacrifice, like its animal slaughter, to be performed elsewhere). Even at a point when the proposed deal with Loddington has led to a rupture between the High Priest and the Sapa Inca (the religious and political leaders, respectively, both considered gods), a rupture that has become public as the High Priest performs a ceremony to determine "whether the bargain offered is satisfactory" — that is, even at a point where the stakes are so high as, basically, civil war on earth and in heaven, Lanchi is unimpressed:

       "I hope the omens are good," I said.
       "So do we all," he said. "Some are troubled, including myself. It is unwise that the High Priest should openily question the Sapa Inca's will. It's one thing to speak from his chair sometimes, but another entirely to consult the gods about another god's decision." ...
       I decided he must be nervous, and perhaps even looking to someone as unimportant as myself for guidance. ... I said, "Maybe the gods will confirm the Sapa Inca's decision."
       "I hope so," he said distractedly, and left for another room. Meanwhile, I hoped with all my heart that the entrails would say otherwise, that I might not worry about my daughter's fate, entangled with the fates of other children in the Four Quarters.
This is astonishing, but again Kaftan seems to think nothing of it. Mixed feelings I could understand; a conflict between public and private obligations, an inability to decide between them, sure. But for Lanchi to "hope with all his heart," to actively desire that the entire material and spiritual foundation of his society be torn apart in order that he not have to "worry" about his daughter is nothing less than the projection of modern, rationalized, non-sacramental, individualistic subjectivity onto someone who should possess an entirely different kind of subjectivity. It is nothing less than intellectual imperialism.

It is not only that contemporary liberal values are imposed on Lanchi; it is that they are imposed on everything. The story implicitly believes in capital-p Progress: that it is axiomatically A Good Thing, that it is inevitable, and that there is only one direction — namely, towards those same contemporary liberal values — in which it can move. This can perhaps best be seen in the fact that, in the story, the Incas survive — and immediately start reforming away from everything that the liberal of today wouldn't like about them. Sacrifice has been abolished by the time Lanchi tells his tale, and Lanchi himself has ushered in an age of universal (implied, standardized) education. I'm not saying that these and other similar changes are or are not plausible, are or are not desirable — only that Kaftan clearly assumes that they are both, and furthermore has no sense that these are enormous and fundamental transformations with incalculable ramifications on every element of Inca life. Instead, she treats them as though they were nothing more than, say, a minor change in campaign finance law to feel victorious about at the next Netroots conference.

Far, far worse, with all of this she all but says: the Incas needed to be overthrown, it's true, but wouldn't it have been nicer if they could have overthrown themselves through reform, in the name of tolerance and diversity, rather than having to be slaughtered?

All of this, I think, is wrapped up in a view of the world that treats the past in a way both teleological and instrumental: progress is unidirectional and inevitable (though always with embarrassing hiccups like genocide and slavery, which like all problems exist in order to be solved — because if there were no problems to be solved, how could there be progress?), and the purpose of the past is to lead to the better present. Past ways of being are to be respected and valued not on their own terms but only insofar as they were precursors to — sometimes "primitive" versions of — our current way of being. I doubt that, if asked, Kaftan would say that she felt this way, probably she neither means to nor thinks she does,* but I see no other worldview that could have produced a story such as this. And considering such a worldview, it is no surprise that the story treats everything — from history (real and imagined) to culture to its own sequence of events — as little more than resources to be made use of as it plods on to its conclusion. Nothing simply is; everything that happens does so in order that something else can happen. In one of its fictional aspects this instrumental worldview is often praised as "tight plotting." I'm not so sure it should be praised — certainly, at least, not when it's like this.

*And I hope it's clear that I'm not, like, imputing active deliberate evil to her or anything. Part of the reason I feel I recognize these dynamics is that I used to/still do participate in them myself.

Perhaps the most horrific example of this is when it is revealed that Loddington has been transporting the vaccine — which is nothing more than the pus from cowpox boils — in the bodies of very young slave children, chained to their beds, where they lie in agony, in their own filth. It is admittedly difficult to write about such a subject without either recoiling in horror or descending into maudlin performances of empty sorrow — but it is the responsibility of the writer confronting it to avoid both. Kaftan does, all right — but she does so by using the revelation primarily as negotiating leverage for Lanchi, and storytelling leverage for herself. This taken care of, the story moves on — gotta get to that conclusion!

Every once in a while, the story is able to break out of these limitations. There is a nice moment when Lanchi learns of the method of vaccination and is able immediately to incorporate it into Inca ways of knowing, rather than European. And at the climax of the story, the use of lying and theft to get the vaccine to the people who need it, rather than "honest" monetary exchange with Loddington, is treated as heroic — where what you'd expect from the typical liberal in response to such methods would be some variation on "I approve of your goals but I can't condone your actions," followed perhaps by some muttering about "the rule of law."

Both moments, and one or two others, are to Kaftan's credit, but it is too little, too late. And not only because of all of the specific issues I have discussed thus far, but because of the fundamental distastefulness of the story's concept. What it really boils down to is, "Wouldn't it be nice if that people we wiped out had survived long enough to (symbolically at least) free that other people we enslaved?" My first reaction was that this is downright obscene. In an email responding to my description of this aspect of the story, a friend suggested the more charitable interpretation that perhaps the story is suggesting that white people as a group are too much a lost cause to be trusted to solve the problems we created, that it would be best if we were just taken out of things altogether (a proposition it's hard to argue against). And it's true that the one real white character in the story is presented very negatively, while the major black character and several Inca characters are presented very positively. But the problem is — how are positive and negative being defined? Who is claiming the right to define them? To what end, to whose benefit?

The territory this story treads upon is so fraught that it seems to me that white people should just stay out of it, at least in the way this story deals with it.* With respect to racism, the responsibility of white writers is to explore our own experiences of whiteness, not to ventriloquize people of color. A white person should be telling this story, if at all, from Loddington's point of view — should be examining what, in her whiteness, she has in common with him, rather than distancing herself from him as an obvious villain. But this kind of examination is too dangerous for the liberal mind, whose self-definition is based upon a fundamental assumption of righteousness. On a more prosaic (but intimately related) level, telling the story from Loddington's point of view would have given less of an opportunity for the kind of feel-good conclusion the entire story points itself towards, the vaguely warm-and-fuzzy ending in which everything turns out for the best.

*Again, I am writing under the impression that Kaftan is white. As I said before, if she is not, the story as written still strikes me as problematic in all of these ways, but obviously some of this would not apply, and at any rate I do not make it my business to tell people of color how to talk about race.

It is frankly embarrassing that "The Weight of the Sunrise" has now been nominated for both the Nebula and the Sturgeon, two awards with pretentions towards seriousness — embarrassing, but not surprising. It is exactly the kind of self-congratulatory story whose flattery the white liberal ego easily confuses with greatness (I speak from some experience, alas), making one overlook its overwhelming clumsiness and dullness, and my sense is that the majority of the Nebula voters, and certainly of the Sturgeon jury, are precisely that kind of white liberal. It is embarrassing, but not surprising — and too it is perhaps appropriate that even now a story like this can be nominated for two serious science fiction awards: for its imperial instrumentalization of the "Other" and of times other than the present is a central, I almost want to say fundamental, aspect of science fiction — one that the field has long rewarded. I wish it would stop.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Gregory Norman Bossert's "Bloom"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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