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.

1 comment:

Erin Horakova said...

"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." that tea-activated memory wormhole cookie technology does though