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.


Niall said...

I find myself not having very much to say about this one. I like that it exists, in terms of the tone and perspective and subject matter; I like stories in which aliens are unknowable as a general principle, and the neatness of it bothered me less than similar neatnesses in the Kaftan. I did think the shift in registers between aliens-as-unknowable and aliens-as-Kafka didn't quite work, but it wasn't so uneven as to sink the story or anything.

Ethan Robinson said...

Hmm, I guess where I see things differently is that I didn't think that it was a shift in registers--they seemed to me like aspects of the same thing...

Niall said...

I confess I wasn't at my most alert when I read this one; I might very well feel differently on a re-read. But that whole "tireless onslaught of questions" conversation felt like it came from a different story -- clearly it's there in part to humanise (for want of a better word) the glassmen, in contrast to the faceless oppressiveness of the early part of the story, but to me it felt like the pendulum had just swung a bit too far.

Erin Horakova said...

1. "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."

I see what you're saying, but given how modernist expression has emptied staged breakdowns and even staged blandness/simplicity of its capacity to represent rupture (now both are 'just another stylistic method'), isn't prose that is competent but lacking in a stylistic ornateness, such as this seems to be, pretty much what we have to operate with in order to generate the effect you speak of?

2. There's prose that's unreadable because it's not competent, and prose that's not readable because it aims to misbehave, but so much of SFF is operating in the former camp that I'm wary of championing the latter. You have to know what you're doing to fuck it up in a signifying manner, and I read enough first-year undergrad essays to be wary of expression that's awful b/c 'that's just my style', 'you're reading for my IDEAS', 'it's SUPPOSED to be awful' etc from people who have not passed through 'clear communication' into an informed doubt about the possibility of such communication.

Is textual rupture even the best way to convey the wildly other ideas you want to engage with? Couldn't fluid prose have some constitutive role in conveying a conceptual rupture? (This lays aside the question of whether rupture is always an effect worth valuing.)

Ethan Robinson said...

Hm, well, I definitely agree that many of the techniques that specific modernists used have become, precisely, "techniques" at this point. Another "tool" in the "writer's workbox". And it's not that I necessarily am looking for prose that misbehaves on a sentence level.

But on the other hand...well, for one thing, I'm of the persuasion that modernism is not over, nor can it ever be over--not, at least, in the sense that I understand modernism as, for one thing, to quote Gabriel Josipovici, "the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities," and for another (intimately related) thing, the response of individual artists to the conditions of modernity (primarily reaction against these conditions).

So in this sense one of my basic starting points is that the way we go about telling stories is always inadequate, and the hegemonic way of telling stories needs to be resisted as fundamentally dishonest--as these illuminating similes and glowing bits of imagery seem to me to be. The attempt to overcome this problem is always going to be specific to a given person, and there will be as many ways to try it as there are artists.

So, like, when I say that the "skill and competence and mastery" bother me, it's not that I'm specifically calling for their opposite. If I'm calling for anything, it's for people to question them as ends in themselves, and to ask themselves what they're doing.

Does that make any sense?

Erin Horakova said...


Okay so some background on why Modernism Is Not Over makes me scream inside:

Basically English studies as we practice it in academia (and the forms of discourse and analysis that emanate from that structure) developed sort of around High Modernism. (You could try to prize reviewing and critical theory off academia, but god it wouldn't be easy. It's not something I think happens in the world much atm because of the degree to which our theory comes from that structure, and so to in part our judgment frameworks and valuations. I'm not even sure how valuable this massive exertion of critical strength would prove.) Much interesting critique, much of it feminist and post colonial, points out that things we think about modernism and non-ornate prose and complexity are just historically-contingent opinions rather than literary revelations, and that often that contingency is commingled with grim shit about gender, power, empire, violence, etc. (

In a climate of funding-cutting, Modernism is very pointedly saying I AM STILL CURRENT, I NEVER DIE YOU KNOW! as a very political means of eating, say, post-colonial studies, post-modernism, feminist lit crit, genre or popular fiction scholarship, etc. The Modernists will survive at the expense of their fellows, and they have the heavy, bro cultural capital (excepting Woolf, Token Chick) to do it. If these other, lesser subjects, say Indian Lit, are all 'modernisms', they don't need their own department, or even their own specialist, not even at a BIG uni, maybe not even at an Indian uni--just someone who does some work on them sometimes within Modernism (but who ultimately must concern herself with also/primarily being a Good Enough Modernist).

Of COURSE this 'indian lit from the last century is Modernism too!' has a deforming effect on English Studies. Nothing, you see, is as Modernist or as good at modernism as while straight male English High Modernists who were, you know, consciously engaged in originating ideas about Modernism. The telescoping of the canon enshrines them as forefathers we all live in the shadow of, rather than treating this Death of the Novel shit as literary production actually has--as in interesting question we kind of asked, but one of many interesting questions. This vision of Modernism hugely warps the way we think of texts. Ishiguro is a Modernist, not a sort of Realist, though tbh I think his debt to the 19th c is immense. Earlier texts are good in so far as we can find the Modernism in Our Mutual Friend. Non-modernist 20th and 21st century output is badly framed or under-considered, a strange anachronism--we are all doing Modernism now! Did you not hear?

Erin Horakova said...

As though that was the only question, as though the death of the novel isn't a fucking laughable proposition because there is so much to say and we are engaged in saying it, as though these Modernist existential crises aren't often a grandiose framing of the splintering of consciousness that is the fundamental existential condition of the subaltern subject, here packaged in some sort of touristic experience by and for men. Fuck the fucking Wasteland and fuck fucking Prufrock.

But yeah, so, the 'make it new' dictum for me is highly political and risks collapsing the realm of literary possibility into 'make it novel' rather than 'make it meaningful' (not Hallmark meaningful, but signifying, exploratory, blah blah). And god, how tiring/limiting it is to work in cutting edge!!universities where Modernism is the big Product, the one valued or productive literary output (as though those over-worked Great Modernists wouldn't chafe at such instrumentalization!), and everything else is... twee. Simple history, or a generic accident.

This of course leaves the hegemonic implications of the privileging of High Modernism/Modernism as a Grand Narrative largely unquestioned--a problem only exacerbated by how WE are Cutting Edge, we could not possibly be, say, inherently sexist in our framing! Look at how we made Post Colonial work modernist, aren't we nice?! And of course this academic view of Modernism and the stylistic shit it entails is at the back of a lot of wider cultural assumptions about what 'serious' work should be. You get your idea of that in public school, the backwash of old uni syllabi and corresponding thinking.

So re: "the response of individual artists to the conditions of modernity (primarily reaction against these conditions)." I'd say... so are Hardy and Dickens?

That rant over, awareness re: art generally and art personally and a consideration of method is well good. But this is at the core of my distrust of the politics of Modernism and the aesthetics of rupture. I do see prose or story-level rupture as a potentially useful tool when texts are commercialized like Adorno's nightmares or are just pablum, but a tool that comes with so. much. baggage. and so many assumptions about what needs broken and breaking as the best way of going about the process of making.

Ethan Robinson said...

So, I'm having an attention span and focusing and also stressing out problem right now, totally unrelated to this interaction, so I can't really read & think & respond thoroughly at the moment--I hope to be able to tomorrow? but I want to say real quick that I think we're talking about slightly different things from EXTREMELY different perspectives. Like, you're coming from a perspective critical of academia from within academia, and I'm totally outside of academia--as in, I don't participate in it, I don't know much of its current debates and politics, and I don't want to, because I decided long ago that that form of discourse has nothing to say to me.

Where you say,

"(You could try to prize reviewing and critical theory off academia, but god it wouldn't be easy. It's not something I think happens in the world much atm because of the degree to which our theory comes from that structure, and so to in part our judgment frameworks and valuations. I'm not even sure how valuable this massive exertion of critical strength would prove.)"

Well, this is what I think of myself doing. I don't talk to academia. Most of the criticism and "theory" (to the extent that I even know what that means, in this context, which is not a very large extent, because I am so academically ignorant) that I read comes either from outside of academia entirely, as in things from fan culture etc., or from people who are technically involved with academia in the sense of being professors and so forth but who seem to me at least to be coming from a TOTALLY different world--I'm thinking here of Delany and Russ, and outside of sf, Josipovici. I'm hopefully engaging with, and hopefully contributing to, a separate (though at times overlapping) discourse--much as, for example, American magazine sf from (roughtly) the 20s-60s was a separate (though at times overlapping) discourse from the "mainstream" of American literature at that time.

And so, for one thing, what I mean by modernism is something very different from what the academy means by it, in terms of both who is considered to belong to it and what I think they were up to. I tend to think of the academy's treatment of basically any subject as a kind of enclosure and defanging--so, say, the academy claims Woolf as a modernist, they claim the definition of modernism, they claim the BOUNDARIES of modernism, and as a result Woolf and modernism both become harmless, and unreadable. (In Woolf's case she DOES become precisely the "token chick", both by virtue of her dangerous aspects being elided and by the erasure of basically any other women.)

I'm being incoherent, and not sure how to stop being that way. But the other thing I want to say is that in this post when I say "what is the power of this kind of writing?", I really mean that as a question. I don't know what the power is, I don't feel it; but other people plainly do, and I'd like to understand it.

Ethan Robinson said...

Another thing is, despite the different perspective I'm coming from, the issues of gender/power/empire/etc/etc/etc that you bring up are still absolutely relevant, definitely things I have to be concerned about (as in, it is NOT a coincidence that the vast majority of people who think about writing sort of the way I do are white men), and though it's always on my mind I have not figured out even anything close to how to articulate my thoughts & concerns & lack of full thoughts and so forth on all of that.

Erin Horakova said...

That's totally cool! We can follow this up whenevs.

I mean, I guess you're actually more hopeful than I am about the possibility of creating a critical realm distinct from academia? B/c yes, you mention this functional example, but like, my entire formal training in how to operate with literature (i.e. school, all kinds) comes with the caveat that it's based on academic assumptions (or assumptions that share with academia proper a history and a trajectory that render them, if not formally Of Academia, effectively fellow-travelers). And then my informal education--through a great deal of reading and learning outside school--consists of reading people who were largely educated by similarly 'infected' sources. And my reading always occurred through the lens of my educational framing. So with that in mind, I think of escaping academia as somewhat like escaping gender constructs or economically and intellectually escaping capitalist modes of living--you can take deliberate stands against these, but those stands are predicated on the constructs you oppose and you're always-already infiltrated by them, etc.

I mean I guess we can break this understanding of Modernism as it's practiced today into:

1. the political branch, as practiced in Academia, which I think we'd both agree is intellectually and practically balls (and which maybe I should shake from my thinking about undead zombie jesus modernism but it's hard when it does so much damage in academia, is poised to do so much more, and I hate it so much), and

2. the artistic and intellectual practice of modernism from mumble mumble until mumble mumble, which we'd possibly agree is far, far less intellectually and practically balls, but which I perhaps have different or more vituperative reservations about than you do (in part because I view modernism's structural limitations as possible facilitators of Point 1's weaponized modernism).

That's a really interesting question. I had something there but it's slipped my mind. Will come back to it.

"(as in, it is NOT a coincidence that the vast majority of people who think about writing sort of the way I do are white men), and though it's always on my mind I have not figured out even anything close to how to articulate my thoughts & concerns & lack of full thoughts and so forth on all of that." GOD I feel like I know what you mean? And it is a particularly difficult thing for me to articulate my frustrations with, both bc it's always difficult to question entrenched valuation and bc of the nature of the modernist project, which rejects being pinned down and answerable (in a way I sometimes suspect of being just an evolution of earlier forms of literary power's unanswerability).

Erin Horakova said...


Okay first off I bet there's a ton of good stuff on the suspicion of nice language because that is the kind of topic people love, from Roman rhetoric onwards. But your question made me think of history of the emotions research, specifically this ( on tears. There's a lot in here about affect and crying for art. So like, I cry about ideas. My friend Molly Katz cries about particular characters' very personalized suffering. Some people in the special cry about tonal changes in music. And that, I can't even conceive of. It seems showy masturbation to me, like, how could you cry without some frigging narrative, just over a /key-change/? I can get crying for a fictional person being thwarted, though it's not my jam, but I can. not. get. the Opera Crier. So I think maybe in some ways it's like that: there's this language-level trick that is authentic for people who're finding it authentic but like, the idea of being moved to tears over that feels like nonsense or maybe even a bit repulsive if that is something you REALLY don't have the programming to flip out over /in that way/. Like I can really deeply love music and the swell or plunge of a key change, but would I CRY for it, fuck no.

Also, once in uni Rachel Swirsky and I were talking about A Redacted Very Big Fantasy Writer (I was her undergrad TA or something at the time), and she was like--why do people dig him SO much? His fantastic shit, his imagery, his language--they're so perfunctory. Here he has this massive platform and he does fuck-all with it, just shows up and is Basically, Safely Liberal and Competent and collects his accolades and fucks off. But so many people think he's not just decent, but AMAZING, that his words drip the lifeblood of poetry blah blah.

And I had to reset my whole opinion of ...that individual's work, because by and large that was some spot-on truth-telling. It's pretty writing, but not a pretty that pushes and stretches itself, intellectually, sj-wise, at the prose level, at the SFF concept level, anything. And you can be the perfect example of a staid story, but even then, his work rolls along, it doesn't do anything amazing, in any direction.

This also feels like what you might mean when you talk about 'what is the power': the contrast between the prose that gets cited as amazeballs and like, the prose that exists out there that has power worthy of these descriptors, that is being deployed consciously.

Ethan Robinson said...

OMG, so, there's a lot of directions I could go from here, but I think what's kind of paralyzing me is that I would need to begin by explaining what I mean when I say "modernism", which is an understanding I've reached only after years and years of reading and thought, and which is constantly evolving. So, hard to sum up. Easier, maybe, to say what I don't mean by it:

Certainly not "that stuff they used to do in the 20s". Or even, as you hilariously put it, "from mumble mumble until mumble mumble". I don't think modernism is something that can be periodized. Nor do I think it can be reduced to a set of techniques. I think of it as a way of being in the world that places certain demands on the work of art, and this way of being is one highly contingent upon the conditions of modernity that have held sway, albeit in highly changeable form, for the last five or six centuries. As in, I would call a "modernist" anyone whose work grapples with the question, "given the nature of life under these conditions, how can one go on making art?"--not (only) in the "after Auschwitz" sense taken literally, but in the sense of--

-art is no longer an integral part of life
-most of us no longer have access to the transcendental
-though power structures are stronger than ever, the social structuring that gave people a clear sense of their responsibilities and possibilities have gone
-craft traditions have broken down

for example. And in a lot of ways these & others are white guy "hegemony is slightly less comfy than it used to be" problems, but in other ways they are not--just e.g., women from Woolf to Dorothy M. Richardson to Ingeborg Bachmann to (since I've just finished one of her books) Agota Kristof (and in sf, I'd say Joanna Russ, Vandana Singh, and Octavia Butler) and are very much struggling with these issues, though naturally in a different way.

As far as the weaponization of modernism--well, I'm not in academia, so I can't say how it plays out there. But what I see in most of the discourse I look at is a contempt of modernism--take for example Lorin Stein's breathtakingly philistinish comment, which I happen JUST to have seen, "I don’t want stage-managing from a novel. I want fiction to deal in the truth." Whereas the position of the modernist would be to say, fiction cannot deal unproblematically in "truth", because is is fundamentally different from life, and must therefore be explicit about its "stage-managing", must make the failure to BE truth part of the work itself. There's this pervasive attitude that modernism was a failed experiment by a handful of snoots and it's thankfully over now--which, even if there is some truth to that evaluation, I find what has replaced it (the celebration of "the traditional novel," for example, and endless examples of it being praised to the skies) both irresponsible and empty.

(Also, though I think there are aspects of most of the modernists that make it easy for them to be weaponized, misogyny, worship of power, racism, etc., I don't see these as problems of modernism specifically so much as pervasive problems of this horrible world we live in.)

Ethan Robinson said...

As for your notes on tears, and where you go from there, augh, I am fascinated, but finding myself unable to formulate any response. I am thinking about this, I am thinking about this.

Molly Katz said...

Thought I'd chip in here, too. Don't have much to say about the tears, except that Erin has accurately represented me on that point.

I often dislike similes, because they seem too glib. That's the problem for me with the first one you quote (I agree the second is a complete misfire). It's making connections too fast--it's trying to be a moment of compact memory, character, and emotion, a likening that is specific to a character and shows us something about her. But the connection feels so much more effortless and factual and clear than any connection like that I've ever made in my own mind. I'd like to see a slower drawing out of the similarity of those two experiences in this character's mind. And I don't like "on my slick skin," because it feels like a third person POV description masquerading as a first person POV thought. Of course, POV is always smoke and mirrors, but this is one of those ways of writing descriptions that always makes me feel a sense of wrongness.

Ethan Robinson said...

Ah, yes, that's very well put I think.

"the connection feels so much more effortless and factual and clear than any connection like that I've ever made in my own mind"

Yes! I think this is a big part of it (though, even though I chose two similes for my examples, and I think similes were my biggest problem in this particular story, they aren't the only kind of sentence that irks in this kind of way). Sort of, to put it goofily, we get "like mom's gloves" when the actual feeling would require the full A la recherche treatment. I balk similarly at really basic sentences like "I felt upset" or whatever (or worse, "He felt upset").

Jesse said...

Reading through the ramble above, I came across the following: "neither metaphor nor allegory on their own are fruitful ways to read (or to write) science fiction".

I'm not precisely sure what was meant by this, but given the context, it appears that time, the tactile details of setting and technology, and the physical and personal details of character are somehow necessary to properly understand sf? Lem's Solaris, Budrys' Who?, Stapledon's Star Maker, Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest, Leiber's The Big Time, Matheson's The Shrinking Man, Pohl's Gateway, Tiptree Jr.'s The Girl Who Was Plugged In and others come to mind as books that are innately sci-fi and which were written as metaphors and are best understood at the metaphorical level.

Thus, I have a feeling I misunderstood something. So, if you would be so kind as to untwist my thoughts, it would be appreciated.

Ethan Robinson said...

Hah, i'm trying to find a middle ground between "this is so big a question I'd need to write a book to answer it" and "this is too big a question I won't reply at all", so forgive the sketched-in nature of this response.

First I'd want to emphasize "on their own" in the part you quote - I was not trying to say that there can be no metaphorical resonances in sf works. Indeed what I go on to discuss in the story at hand has many such.

But roughly speaking, I see sf as being all about concretization, about claiming that things are literally, not allegorically, happening (though they are not actually happening); I'd recommend Russ's "Toward an Aesthetic of SF" and "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of SF" on this, particularly the bit (don't remember which it's in) where she argues against psychological readings of sf stories; I think the argument can be expanded.

As to your specific examples, or at least those I've read (which is most of them!)...I frankly don't see any fruitful way to read Stapledon metaphorically. Lem himself would probably be very angry at the suggestion that he should be read metaphorically (which is not to say we all have to listen to him, but it should probably be noted). Solaris is not a metaphor for unknowability, it presents unknowability. Similarly, the Tiptree is not a metaphor for women's alienation (or what have you), it presents an alienated woman; the Budrys is not a metaphor for the indeterminacy of identity, it presents an indeterminate identity. As for the Le Guin, I'd argue that that extremely uneven novella (I've not read the novel, which I believe is expanded?) suffers - i.e., is not a particularly good work of sf - precisely to the extent that it is collapsible to a metaphor only for Vietnam, and lives - as sf and as writing in general - only in those moments where it is something else too.

Elsewhere, comparing a Simak story to Greek tragedy, I wrote: "Agamemnon does not symbolize kingness, he is a king, and acts as one; the Human does not symbolize Humanness, he is a Human, and acts as one."

And all those "presentations" I listed above, Tiptree's and Lem's and Budrys's, certainly they encourage us to think about other situations that resonate metaphorically with them, but if one loses sight of the concrete specificity and claims to factuality (claims which are patently absurd, which is part of the point; see, again, Russ, and also e.g. the way Tiptree in particular plays with this in the story you mentioned) in the face of searching out the metaphor, I think one has misread them as science fiction.

Jesse said...

I understand your point better now, thanks. But I still believe it unnecessarily limiting.

Every metaphor is innately a relationship, and every object - fictional or real - is a potential source of metaphor. Certainly in Solaris Lem presents a scenario depicting unknowability, but at the same time that scenario forms the basis of a metaphor which represents mankind's confrontation of the unknown in actual reality. In other words, the paradox of reality that is admittedly not reality can only be made relevant through metaphor. We can discuss the intratextual (i.e. concretized) qualities of Solaris, but not until we treat them metaphorically is any relevancy gained. Compared to talk regarding alienness, planets, character behavior, etc., the metaphorical relationship to the real world would be the true value of that discussion.

Therefore , I remain skeptical of the exclusivity of your original statement. Why can't science fiction be read/written solely in metaphorical terms in fruitful fashion? (In fact, one would think that with the distance science fiction places itself from reality that metaphorical value would only increase.) Johnson's novelette, for example, is the presentation of a scenario wherein aliens oppress humans in various fashions. Based on this, the novelette can also be taken wholly as a representation of oppression by one group over another. Metaphorical lines can easily be drawn between the aliens/whites and humans/blacks in real world Africa, for example. Intriguing questions result: why do the whites not open their stores and provide every medical technology available to the blacks? Why do they retain some tech while offering other tech? The resulting discussion is far more fruitful than: who do you think the glassmen are? What are their aims? Why do they put bombs in the fields? The answers bear no tangible fruit.

I hope that I have not skewed the discussion such that I think you seek to avoid metaphorical interpretations. This is not the case. My intent is only to point out that it's possible to read/write science fiction solely from the metaphorical point of view and have the material retain its value.

Ethan Robinson said...

I guess I don't see how approaching the work with an eye for what it itself is and what it itself is doing is "limiting" while a reading in which the work "can only be made relevant through metaphor" is not. (For that matter, is "making relevance" the be-all and end-all of reading?)

Jesse said...

Forgive me, I was not explicit enough. Concretizing the story (establishing what it is and what it's doing) is the initial step toward building a metaphor (hence my opening remark regarding relationships). Concretization is therefore limited only by comparison to consideration of metaphor as a useful means of reading/writing, as it certainly has potential in and by itself.

Relevancy the be-all end-all of reading? Well, technically the answer is 'no'. One can read A Princess of Mars and be entertained, which is an end to itself. But beyond entertainment qualities, there is little substance for meaningful discussion in Burrough's tale. Johnson's novelette, on the other hand, can be engaged with more substantially - your review a good example - precisely for its relevancy to real world concerns.

So, I would say creating relevancy is not the defining purpose of reading/writing, but it sure goes a long way toward provoking meaningful discussion that extends beyond the fictional world into the real world and the human condition, as well as offering a more in depth, rewarding experience that has a chance of taking effect beyond the page. After all, which discussion question would seem more fruitful: How cool were the glassmen's spider drones?, or, In what ways can the glassmen be seen to represent the interests of the West in Africa?

Richard said...

"Concretizing the story (establishing what it is and what it's doing) is the initial step toward building a metaphor..."

No, no it's not. You haven't understood Ethan's point at all. Which is especially evident where you suggest he's remotely talking about "entertainment".

You keep talking about metaphor. But something that is concrete in a story is not a metaphor for something else. It might make you think of that other thing, or be helpful in illuminating some real world thing, but that doesn't make it a metaphor. That is, that the alienation presented in a book makes you think of, or can be applied to, alienation in real life, does not make it a metaphor.

What Ethan's discussing in this post, and throughout his blog, is a lot more interesting and complicated than such a simple reduction would suggest.

Jesse said...

Richard, I am not a wild poet who believes that everything is a metaphor for something else. As such, I am not saying what is concretized is also a metaphor, rather what is concretized can be in relationship to a metaphor. Thus, by refusing the possibility a science fiction text can only be read at the metaphorical level, one limits themselves - intentionally blinds themselves to a possibility, to be more precise. It's this usage of the word "only" in Ethan's original statement that I am questioning.

If you would kindly re-read paragraphs two and three of my previous comment you will notice the content regarding "entertainment" was not a suggestion that concretization equals entertainment, but instead a comparison which uses both concretization and metaphor to present the value of relevancy - which is the topic Ethan had questioned, and is the topic directly identified in the statement opening paragraph two.

As proof, take another example: Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. This is a novel with little to no metaphorical value. It is a book to be read at the concretized level. If I ask similar questions of it that I did Johnson's story, the result is noticeable: how cool was Big Brother?, and, in what way can Big Brother be seen to represent Western interests? The second question is patently absurd. Unlike Johnson's glassmen, Big Brother is a real part of our real world. No metaphor is possible or needed to relate it to actual surveillance concerns. In other words, it is the concretized elements of Nineteen Eighty-four which give it relevancy. This is different than Johnson's novelette wherein a portion of its relevancy (not all) is available through metaphor. Aliens are simply not a part of the world as we know it, and therefore a metaphorical relationship needs to be established to bridge the gap to her fictional world. A Princess of Mars was an example which used concretization and metaphor as a way of showing how little relevancy it possesses. 1) its concretized elements are abstract from our reality 2) its nigh unto impossible to create metaphorical relationships from said concretized elements, rendering the novel simple entertainment of little depth.

Thus you may relax, Richard. I have not assaulted the idea of concretization. I have merely questioned the view that reading a text only as metaphor is invaluable, and in my examples relevancy is one way to measure said value but not the be-all end all.

As it seems we will have to agree to disagree (or be confused by each others' explanations), I would just like to say this is the first blog I have stumbled across on the web wherein intelligent discussion of speculative fiction (love or hate the term) is happening. Kudos, kudos, kudos. I will be back - and I hope create less stir, as it was not my intention to get people riled up. Apologies for that.

Ethan Robinson said...

The notion that either Richard or I are suggesting that the question to be asked of a work is "how cool is x" is such a colossal misreading of everything that either of us have ever said in basically our entire lives, let alone on this blog or in this comment thread, that your constant recourse to it makes it difficult at this point to believe that you are arguing in good faith. If it is not your intention "to get people riled up," perhaps you should attend to the arguments at hand rather than creating insulting and diminishing misrepresentations of your own inability to understand them. Like, sorry if I don't sound "relaxed," but honestly.

Ethan Robinson said...

I mean good grief, re-reading your latest comment, you have literally, 100% reversed a good deal of what I've said, and in every case where you haven't you've immediately leaped to the most reductive possible misinterpretation. You somehow think that my saying sf should not be read only metaphorically means that I think it should never be read with any connection to the outside world whatsoever; you misunderstand Richard's objection to your use of "entertainment"; you bring in 1984, which certainly can be read sfnally but just as certainly was not written or originally received as sf, and thus is perfectly suited to make your misrepresentation of my position sound as ridiculous as possible; you somehow interpret my asking whether "making relevancy" is what we should be doing when we read as an insistence that we must somehow make our reading relevant! I could go on, but good grief, why would I want to.

If you genuinely want intelligent conversation (I'd love to have some!), try harder.