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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

I was disappointed by the way the story's quotidian and mundane elements remain completely untouched by the sfnal elements. It would make no difference if George had been involved in something non-sfnal instead, like designing "ordinary" internment camps -- in which case, why include the sf bits at all?

I can see the story as a "Gernsback Continuum"-like metacommentary on sf in which, to put it crudely, the starry-eyed vision at the root of the genre is crushed by being made to serve the military-industrial complex. The story itself would then be like the treehouse: a homemade substitute, built with care and attentiveness; the mundane elements that make up the bulk of the story are the wood that "spaceships aren't made of." Unfortunately, I think that ultimately just makes the story *even more* the kind of thing that's so disappointing about so much contemporary sf. On this reading, the story thematizes its own abandonment of the visionary core of sf. ("Visionary" is a terrible word choice, but hopefully the point is clear.)


Ethan Robinson said...

You know, that's a good point (that had the internment camp been for ordinary human beings it would have changed nothing in the story).

Aside from my automatic allergy to "The Gernsback Continuum", and my weariness in the face of this story (and my irritation with the telegraphing of THE TREEHOUSE IS A METAPHOR PEOPLE in the story itself), I'm interested at least in the possibilities of your last paragraph...but yes, agreed, in the story as it exists, it's pretty disappointing.