Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Here Is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All" by Rahul Kanakia

The cutesiness announced by the title is present and I wish it weren't, but so is the lightness — and it's the latter that moves me, because the "situation" here is death, or life, or existence. The rambling narrative of a spaceship that is (or was) the earth's core, its only purpose to travel billions of years to die and, with the matter-energy it brings, give "the creators" a few more decades of (we're told) blissful existence — but who first spends some time observing, with both enjoyment and sometimes a "cold aesthetic distaste," the dance (with missteps) of human life (the aside about the girl who says "Hellooooooo" then grows into a life of misery somehow redeemed from mawkishness by the ship's combination of attention and inattention [though it is also mawkish]), and becomes fond of a human it talks with about epistemology, consciousness, and telos:
And when I ask him the basis for his statements, he speaks twice as fast and lays gibberish on top of gibberish. With Abhinath, it is not the words that matter. The words are meaningless. It is the way he says them. He speaks with such passion that he creates his own truth. In that, he is like the creators, and if I did not have their voice singing inside me, then perhaps I would be able to . . .
— the story flits from level to level, time scale to time scale, skimming the surface, touching what it touches only lightly, in so doing staying truer, despite its own missteps, to the depth and weight it pursues than many a self-serious treatise.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"The Closest Thing to Animals" by Sofia Samatar

An artist who makes sculptures of extinct animals out of trash, "her genius: she understood that whales are made of milk." A drug whose users "feel a ghostly presence." A city quarantined under a tent, residents depressed not only by the diminished sunlight but by the "extra blackness" at night; the solution: artificial lights "sliding down in different colors, like glittery rain [...] They hadn't tried to mimic the stars: studies had suggested that would only make people feel worse." A woman who feels herself constantly betrayed and abandoned discovers others consider her the betrayer, the abandoner: "I'm made out of cardboard." One of her former friends writes a memoir of her illness in the quarantined city, putting everything in quotes: "Like I say we made 'sweaters' out of 'yarn.' We had 'milkshakes' in the 'park.'"

Where with the last Samatar story I wrote about I said its constellation of metaphors all pointed inwards, further and further into one another, here it's more that they all flow outwards from a center that does not exist, or at least is "difficult even to imagine," as the garbage artist writes. Without animals (the "closest thing" the title refers to is other people, "with their warm weight, their softness, and their smell"; the plague, "the lanugo," covers human bodies in fur before killing them), without family (tent orphans, tent widows, all these tent losses), without home (both the artist and the abandoning-abandoned narrator are Somali expatriates), there is no ground on which a center could rest, from which one could grow; there is only this flowing outward into an alienated and alienating sea of experiences, and different ways of relating to and feeling about it all — many of which the story presents to us without enabling us to judge, with its array of "characters" and its confused, unprivileged narrator.

"What's the point of experience if you can't turn it into something else, some sign?" the narrator asks. Miguel de Beistegui writes, of reality, that "We always want it to be in its rightful place but that place is precisely where it's not, precisely where it's lacking. We would like it to be here, in front of us, in the flesh. But it’s in that very immediacy or fullness that it steals away and goes missing. Which doesn’t mean that it has in some way disappeared; rather, this absence or this lack is the key to its mystery, the secret of its functioning." As the story ends, the two Somali women, refusing mutual understanding and misunderstanding alike ("It was like peeling off skin and throwing it away"), wrap themselves up in a quilt depicting scenes from home — some explicitly violent, some not, few that could be called "happy" — and, "still falling, but more slowly," thus enfolded by "the brief lovely grotesque menagerie of our childhood" they go to sleep.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"Under a Steel Sky" by James Mapes

Prison-as-metaphor feels significantly more tasteless in a story written today than in one written before the decisive rise of mass incarceration and the PIC; the concluding revelation is hackneyed and anything but revelatory (though to be fair it is one of those clichés that made "it's a cliché for a reason" a cliché). So what's good here? What brings me to write this? Something that discussions of plot and character would never touch; something that is in part related to the notion this story allegorizes, that we all know without being told the rules of our own domination — that we all expend enormous amounts of energy keeping up with these rules, memorizing them, updating them, and always enforcing them — but which a description as literal (and politically reductive) as the one I just put between em-dashes does not quite touch. Something to do with the complex pirouette of bodies here (I can't find it now but Keguro Macharia recently tweeted something about the Marquis de Sade's choreography, that only with and after him does one find such attention to bodies-in-space, that this attention and this choreography are often boring), and the way their movements are never, not even for a moment, naturalized. Something to do with the pain and longing and loss that somehow infuses every moment of the story's language, despite its being the very definition of the phrase "workmanlike prose," as if there were something beyond or between the words on the screen. Something to do with desire, the desire shooting through the whole story for something outside: outside these rules — outside these movements — outside these walls — outside these metaphors — outside these clichés — outside these words — outside.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Swan Song" by Omi Wilde

An artificial intelligence speaks in the first person plural, and though I am very suspicious of the entire notion that we — each individual human reader, each individual human I — can experience this voice with anything approaching honesty (let alone replicate it, in the case of the I that is Omi Wilde) this is certainly much better than some notable recent attempts. What I most appreciate here is the resolutely external perspective: there is no pretense that the narrators can "figure out" the humans and other beings around them; they simply relate to them, puzzled or otherwise. Then too there is the strange shifting of time scales, a bit like what I mentioned in my post about Caroline M. Yoachim's story. It is impossible to convey in human words what the experience of a being whose mind runs hundreds of times faster than our own and who has a life spanning thousands of millennia would actually be like, but the sudden and unnoted variation in time here — now a day goes by in pages of text, now thousands upon thousands of centuries pass in one line — provides, not an illusion, but a rhythm and a glimpse — less shattering than the one that ends the story, but a glimpse nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Birdwoman" by Pemi Aguda

A fairly unexceptional good story, I like it primarily for three sentences toward the end, after the first transformation: "She smiles. But there is no one to see it. Nobody to witness what it is for a bird to smile."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mean Time

When it came time to open the door was stuck.
Turning the key did little of any avail
or less, perhaps because opening had been
made illegal by an act of Congress

the previous year (—98). It was
in no one's interest to object, they made sure
of that. Getting up to look around, then
returning to tap away with the finger,

tap away until perhaps a hole is worn
through the surface where we sit. Interstices1
insist upon so little, though busily
consisting, moving from instinct to research

so quickly. Partitioned off was only
the beginning; the end, yet to come.
1late M.E.: from Latin interstitium,
from intersistere 'stand between', from

inter- 'between' + sistere 'to stand'.
New Oxford American Dictionary,
Third Edition, 2010. I refer
to it as it is what I have to hand.

—North Providence
December 2012

Friday, October 23, 2015

"The Sisters' Line" by Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer

At times a bit too gleefully "quirky" for my blood, underneath it all this is, like the Gabby Reed story I wrote about recently, a story of creation and compulsion. Here much revolves around the seemingly contradictory fact that in any creative process everything is both arbitrary and necessary; as the story goes on much of its absurdity is revealed as living in this contradiction. For example there is Becky, who will only do anything if it can be named with a word starting with B (an arbitrary necessity in itself), leading us to the spectacle of the narrator combing through a thesaurus trying to find the right B-word to invoke to get her to drive the train on a search for the narrator's sister, sometimes goofy in desperation: "Can you bus the train, Becky? ... Broom, broom?"

The narrator — who has for years been attempting to assemble this train which the missing sister has been mailing "piece by piece" — is horrified when Becky yanks a piece of it out of place and puts it somewhere else, where it fits every bit as well as it had before, now serving a completely different function. "If the parts are malleable and contain as many hidden pockets as the letters, the variables are infinite. How will I piece it together if even the pieces lie to me? ... How much of my train is a lie?" But in this very interchangeability — arbitrariness seeming to come to the fore, taking precedence over necessity — perhaps lies the truth. We look for a luggage rack and find instead a control panel; we reach for the word "drive" (already inappropriate, surely, for a train?) and discover we must find some other word. Literature, writes Miguel de Beistegui,

lets itself be carried off to where the real flees its own self-presence. Ultimately, the real just is that very self-absence. And if it always disappoints, it's not because we always expect too much of it but because we expect it where it actually isn't, because it's never where we expect it to be, because it can only be grasped in its own drift or constitutive gap. We always want it to be in its rightful place but that place is precisely where it's not, precisely where it's lacking.
Now, the story at hand may not always let itself be carried off as fully as I think it should. But the train, in its malleability, in its infinite variability, indeed in its arbitrariness, is not a lie; though who knows where it may be taking them as the story ends, though it looks entirely different than expected, it brings static futility to an end: it works, it goes, it is.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Glaciers Made You" by Gabby Reed

A message that is directed — that is directions — but has no knowably concrete origins or ends, only infinite suggestion, predecessors, consequences. The writing is in her skin, but only appears when she pulls that skin off of her body. What did this story make this reader think of? Sofia Samatar's "Skin Feeling", which I had just read the day before, in so many ways, in every way, with endless differences. Samuel R. Delany's offhand comment (somewhere — it's so offhand I can never find it in indexes) that all writing is automatic writing, because who is to say where all these words come from, who is to say that it is from us, that we chose these words? (What is a choice?) Maurice Blanchot, everywhere, always, on the silence and emergence of writing. The Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, before subsequent volumes domesticated it, traveling along blindly in the dark underground, writing a sentence it cannot read (Blanchot here, again), that never ends and is literally alive. (The uncanny encounter with wildlife at the end, too, put me in mind of that novel.) And it made me think of "Glaciers Made You" by Gabby Reed, which resonates with all of these other things (and many more, some along the same lines, many along lines parallel, perpendicular, orthogonal...) not by being constructed from them, not by being like them, but by being constructed out of and like itself.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"When the Fall Is All That's Left" by Arkady Martine

The language immediately announces that here, as Steve Mitchelmore has put it, there will be "nothing at stake except the mastery or otherwise of the [writer] over his or her material; a mastery that is enough to convince many that what they're reading is great art." I'm so very tired of writing this over and over again: the language is so concerned with being "luminous" and "lovely" and even just "well-written" that it has no concern for anything else, and yet I sense something struggling out from under that weight..... But here again there is that weight; and yet here again I sense something struggling out from under it; and so yet again I write it.

Whatever unconscious part of my mind chose "weight" as the metaphor here has a goofy, maybe pat, sense of irony, because the plot information which that language that announces its mastery seeks to convey so masterfully, right at the beginning, is that Gabriele has lost gravity. The ramifications of this as they play out over the deadly and short course of the story is where the interest lies, for me, particularly as the story nears its end and Gabriele's consciousness returns to her human body — rather than that body being, as it has been for so long, merely something like "a hand or a foot, a useful part of herself that did not and could not possibly contain her consciousness." The juxtaposition of this return to "ordinary" human experience with the removal of one of the most central aspects of that ordinary experience is a suggestive situation (one which, indeed, puts me in mind of certain comments from a book by Josipovici other than the one Mitchelmore was reviewing in the above-linked post, namely Touch, along with the very different perspective on embodiment one finds in the work of Eighteen and some other cyborg thinkers). I am grateful to Martine for opening up this associative space, and hope that some day she may find a way to approach it (or whatever else) on its own terms — and those of writing itself — rather than those of the assembly-line writing workshop.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Kerttu, the bride of the title, bows "that ancient bow, as elegant as it is incongruous with her outfit," and Heilui, her more rooted wife (and client), "realizes with a start that no matter the correctness of her gesture, no matter her fluency in Gwongdungwa, Kerttu will never fit quite right." Such questions of performing versus inhabiting culture — and through it individuality, personality — permeate the events that unfold before us. The question goes both ways, too, though the situation — as so often in Sriduangkaew's work, one of deception mingled with honesty, subordination to and entanglement with power, attempts to build something genuine out of artifice — is far from symmetrical, lending a great deal of irony to the give and take. Heilui, having built a simulation of Kerttu's shattered homeland, wants Kerttu to give this creation an "authenticity check" — and as Kerttu enters it, as she and Heilui spend time in it, the issues this simulation raise echo those raised by fiction, really those raised by any art which can be taken to be "representational," especially as so-called representation always involves the seizure of another, or indeed "the Other." "There are no people here," Kerttu observes, and Heilui responds:
"Anything I populate this world with would be just automatons — as complex a set of heuristics as I can buy, but they wouldn't emulate human behavior with any degree of verisimilitude. I thought of modeling you, actually."
Along these lines what especially fascinates me is the moment in which, immersed in the simulation, the emotions Heilui feels when explaining the real situation to Kerttu cause physiological responses, not in Heilui's "real" body, but in her avatar, not out of necessity but out of habit. Here "authenticity" and artifice struggle against one another and end up so intermingled as to be, as they perhaps fundamentally always are, indistinguishable.

In fictional terms, in terms of the writing, where does this leave us? Perhaps what it all really means is distance. About halfway through the story seems to allow into itself a statement of its own methods. At the tailor to buy clothes of her own choosing with her client-wife's money, Kerttu

chooses a postmodern keipou, unpatterned black sheathing her like carapace. Sleeveless, high crescent collars, unrelieved contrast between fabric and complexion making a monochrome print of Kerttu. “I lost much and there was never a funeral,” she explains the color. “I need to mourn. I expect I’ll always be mourning.”

But this, like everything else, is said with distance as though discussing someone else’s grief.

(Note the passive voice, even, which seems almost to remove the observation from Kerttu specifically and suggest it really does mean everything else.)

In her review of "The Occidental Bride" Nina Allan refuses the common but superficial, too-easy description of Sriduangkaew's prose as "lyrical," going on to say that "The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass — bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths before revealing them full force." Though I think the rejection of "lyrical" is absolutely correct, and though I think Allan and I are responding in similar ways to the same aspects of Sriduangkaew's work, I find the mirror analogy somewhat off. The scene early on, in which Heilui and Kerttu are married on a train with a "portable altar" officiating (and with "simulated incense and ancestors, two-dimensional gods rotating to give them blessings"), gives the key to my reading: "They marry on the train," we read, "the world's ruin rushing past in silent witness." Without getting too high-school-symbolism about it I take "the world's ruin" as including us, the damaged readers rushing past in silence.

It is difficult to know how to bear witness in this world that keeps us distracted and misdirects our best impulses into violence (a world mirrored in this story by the ubiquitous surveillance, the sniper team, and so on — and with the portable altar and simulated ancestors, could even the wedding require the legal formality of a witness?). In this context I see Sriduangkaew's writing as immersing us, not in the world of the story or its events but in the language itself, precisely so as not to immerse us in the event (and I differ from Allan again in that I think nothing here is ever revealed full force), precisely so as to provide a distance from which we can witness, and also ask what it means to do so.

(What we are witnessing in this story I have essentially not mentioned.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Tender" by Sofia Samatar

If — if — Samatar's work has a fatal flaw, it is that her metaphorical systems sometimes have a tendency to be just that — systems, worked out, everything corresponding so neatly and perfectly to everything else as to prohibit as full a sense of the discordance of (what I hesitantly call) reality as they seem to seek to convey. On a first reading "Tender" seemed to me to be such a story, brilliant but undermined by perfection, and I'm still tempted to say that it is, somewhat. But what interested me the second time through was to realize that these metaphors don't just line up — they all point inwards, referring deeper and deeper to themselves, to one another, a sought out claustrophobia that is deeply in resonance not only with the narrator's (chosen and inevitable) situation but also with a good deal of what I, at least (and alas), experience as life.

(There is a moment in A Leg to Stand On by the late Oliver Sacks where he describes emerging for the first time from his hospital room and realizing that long confinement has distorted his sense of perspective: everything further than where the walls had been looks "flat as a pancake, and seemed to lie like a giant Kodachrome in the air, exquisitely colored and detailed, but perfectly flat. [...] I was still enclosed, visually, in a transparent box, about nine by seven by six feet, the precise size of the 'cell' I had occupied for twenty days. [...] I could observe, even measure, the parallactic displacements which are normally seen as 'depth,' but noting this, knowing this, did not restore depth.")

Thus, as just one example, the vocationally radiation-obsessed narrator tells us about the "lovely green glass colored with uranium" that was so cheap in the 1930s that "they handed it out free at the movies"; then about her "hurt friend" who, in the hospital, looks "like a broken, greenish piece of glass" (no way to miss this one); then later, taking advantage of a readymade double meaning, points out that this glass is called "Depression glass." On top of this, the mention of Depression-era radioactive products branches off to the "Radium Girls," poisoned to death by their work (and by their at-work recreation); the color green points back to the meaningless "environmentally friendly" stickers; the glass, to the glass the narrator works behind. Even when the story reaches out and down into the earth itself it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between the narrator's cyborg implants and the earth's mineral composition; even when it reaches out and out and out to the sun it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between solar radiation and industrial radiation.

I no longer feel, or even comprehend, the desire for another world, that passion which produces both marvels and monsters, both poisons and cures. Like the woman in this story, I understand that there is no other world. There is only the one we have made.
A significant portion of Samatar's work seems to involve this sort of feeling: the need to come to terms with the way things are: to weep, and accept. And it seems to me that one of the questions she, and we, are struggling with in this work is how to do that without complicity, how to do it on the way to resistance. The last paragraph of "Tender" exits the claustrophobic metaphor system and just presents a past — but one that cannot be reclaimed, cannot be a source of hope or joy (which the narrator has just a moment ago associated with her beloved poison — beloved in the sense of φιλία, "nearness and dearness" in John Jones's rendering). It's cut off not only from the story's inward-facing metaphor system (which it replaces with another) but from the outward-facing metaphor that is reality. But what the narrator cannot do is not, or does not have to be, what we cannot do. It was fascinating to re-read this story while immersed in the rhetoric emerging from the astonishing Ferguson Is The Future symposium — in which Samatar participated —, so much of which revolved precisely around the necessity of imagining, desiring other worlds. To see this story as a contradiction of that would be to misunderstand art, of course; better to see it as — I'd rather not say "cautionary" — perhaps: complementary.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World" by Caroline M. Yoachim

What a strange experience! On a sentence-by-sentence level this is very much of the blandly well-written norm of the contemporary short sf field (particularly at the Lightspeed et al level), and I will confess I almost stopped reading before I had time to realize how deeply unhinged the story is, in very much the way that Sandra Newman wished for (in the solitary worthwhile entry in the Guardian's ongoing series of columns published with the intent to outrage gullible sf twitter into days of unpaid promotional work). The moment that convinced me to stick with it was when, early on, Mei's ruminations on the impracticability of her desired human colonization of the universe are interrupted by the sudden appearance of a disembodied, timeless voice speaking to her from nowhere and nowhen — and technically Mei may blink, but the story displays so little concern with placing her reaction in the "emotionally plausible" or "psychologically realistic" way that the field typically concerns itself with so fussily that I found myself needing to read on. Soon enough it's millions of years later and (sort of) formerly human spaceship (sort of) AIs are playing games with evolution from orbit — and things have just barely begun.

The story allows itself a lot of things that could be interpreted as massive failings — all this vastness, these disjunctive elements, all are shoehorned in together "awkwardly", but it is precisely the way that their coexistence and progression is not smoothed over (in the way that the basic language suggests they would be, and the way I normally expect this field, alas, to require at this point) that is so important. As just one example, the moment in which Mei's mind is transferred into the "black cube" of a computer and suddenly finds that, with this increased processing speed, mere seconds stretch out boundlessly, is followed almost immediately by the moment in which she and another AI casually engage in recreational activities that last millennia as part of a much longer strategy, as if the time were inconsequential, just a brief moment in the vast span of their lives. The story says nothing in words about this contradiction, but the unspoken juxtaposition speaks loud and clear — and what it speaks so clearly of is, specifically, the unspeakable.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"In the Garden with the Little Eaters" by L. Chan

My impression is that gray goo stories are passé at the moment, which means that the only people who would write them are either people who want to be fashionable but haven't caught up, or people who insist on following the sfnal impulse, the work, wherever it takes them, regardless.* To judge from the story before us (which technically — and specifically — is about blue sand rather than gray goo), Chan is the latter. The easy comparison is with Simak, and often in the story's first half I almost felt myself in his presence, the quiet, the contemplation, the loss, the painful disconnect from the past ("The Maker Machine could assemble books, but severed from the sea of information that existed before the fall, the pages were blank"), the melancholy grandeur that not only is not embarrassed to use superficially overwrought phrases like "Now, in the twilight of all things..." but also somehow knows instinctively that such phrases are precisely what is called for. But though there are appealing similarities, the sensibility here is all Chan's, not Simak's, and particularly as the story moves into its second, more eventful (though never action-packed) half, it becomes clear, if not easily articulable, what this means.

In the end this is a rare case of a wonderful, beautiful story that leaves me, not with nothing to say (all sorts of theorizing and investigation and explanation of Significance could be done here — around the garden, the bells, the music, the blue, the sand, the sleepers, the machine, the knife, the food, the memories, the birds in the distance, the collapsing buildings, the forest...) but with the desire to say little. The story exists, I have read it, and I will read it again; I want to be content with that.

*I could go off on a tangent speculating about the difference, which I'm increasingly convinced is enormous, between what I call the sfnal impulse and sfnal "ideas", but that might be better for another time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Haunting the pursuit

Lately I've been wrestling with Stephen Mitchelmore's beautiful and difficult post reviewing Jeff Fort's The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett. (I say "lately"; I'm always wrestling with Mitchelmore's thought.) When I first read the post it filled me with what I can only call a sense of wonder; my struggle to "understand" was always leavened (if such a struggle needs leavening) by moments in which something I've always felt but only in recent years have begun to allow myself to take seriously seemed to rise to the surface with startling clarity, a feeling quite different from that of comprehension.
All three writers trail in the wake of the Kantian revolution in which reason replaced divine authority, disabling in its wake the religious function of art. In what Fort calls a cruel compulsion, but might also be called a categorical imperative, the artist, philosopher or scientist is nevertheless left with reason's immanent drive to colonise what is beyond its limits, what we might call the ideal or the sublime. In doing so the imagination substitutes an image for the departed authority (hence words like 'ideal' and 'sublime'). In art this appears to have no more than a decorative function, while in more rational discourse it is a means of dismissing what cannot be contained. Resisting both, Fort argues the specific condition – the imperative to write – is the echo of the sublime behind the attractive images, which makes the impulse to write fiction significant. The echo is heard in the uncanny space of Kafka's castle village, Beckett's 'timeless void' and Blanchot's 'literary space'; images haunting the pursuit of the ideal into the fictional void...
My (over-)emphasis. I could have chosen any of a number of such passages. As I read this, I thought of something Gabriel Josipovici said in an interview given on the occasion of his great novel Infinity, when the interviewer asked him about learning from other writers: "I'm not sure one learns anything from other writers, except the confidence to go at things in one's own way." I would put the similar feeling I have in terms of permission: for in a general climate that disdains and ridicules such feelings as the "specific condition" Fort and Mitchelmore are writing about, I for one needed — and in many ways continue to need — to feel that I'd been granted permission to take such feelings in myself seriously, to attempt to bring them out and indeed, as Mitchelmore had put it earlier, to find a way to write by "subjecting the writing to the condition." Which is not to say that I've as yet been successful in this art of failure. But simply knowing that it is possible, that these inchoate things I've felt as long as I've known that Writing Is A Thing I Should Do matter, is the only thing that has made writing — which was quite literally impossible in the hellish experience of an MFA writing program, and in the devastation that followed for years afterwards — possible.

I'm writing this half out of gratitude — to Steve, to Josipovici, to Richard who was the first to grant me this permission and started me on this path; to the other writers the path has led me to, including the ones Fort writes about and others; to those whose perspectives (or attempts to hold onto and/or form perspectives) outside of "the Kantian revolution", or outside of colonizing Western thought, help keep me aware that there could exist something else, even if it's too late for me — and half out of anger at all those who make it so difficult to grant oneself this permission by noisily insisting that such feelings do not exist, that reason is sufficient, that adding more writing to a clogged and indifferent market is the whole of a life's work. This is why, for example, Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy made me so upset even as I liked it, and why I was so grateful for Agota Kristof's trilogy which I read at about the same time. (It's also why VanderMeer's more recent attempt to seize Clarice Lispector for genre and assimilate her to a pile of "similar writers" — as "the weird" tries to do to so many — bothered me far beyond the eye-rollingly overheated prose.)

For years I would start writing stories much like any other, stories whose disembodied narrators had unproblematic access to The Truth Of What Happened, stories that sought to ignore the nagging feeling in me that I was doing something terribly wrong, being untrue to myself and the world, and to no justifiable purpose. When I never finished them, when they screamed at my neglect for months and months until I destroyed them unwritten, I castigated myself for my laziness, not yet knowing that it was possible to let myself feel these other buried impulses, and to come to the work through them, rather than using glib writing to paper over them. Laziness is real, and at this point I have to admit to myself that it will always be with me, but simply knowing that something else was going on, and that I had permission to care about it, is the one thing that has made my writing, such as it is, possible — my work on this blog as much as the fiction that (with one uncharacteristic exception) has not yet been exposed to The Public, both of which are aspects of this same impulse.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"A Young Thug Confronts His Own Future" by Ras Mashramani

The story is what its title says it is: an eleven year old boy tells us, with as much certainty and uncertainty as if recollecting the past (and often sliding without break from the future tense to the present to the past), what his life will be. No explanation is given or needed for how he can know this; as another part of the zine the story originally appeared in says, "the future is now and always has been." At times, too, some strange retrospective elements enter — like when he steals a Walkman from Circuit City (which feels odd to read now regardless of when the story is "set") — and as we read we find ourselves experiencing as one what we're more used to think of as different perspectives on time, different relationships with our place in it.

As in the accompanying illustration by @RecTheDirector, what stretches out in front of him — a life he's constantly trying to reclaim from the shape given it by poverty, the police, death, the whims of white people — seems to constrict and constrict, with maybe a way out — but to where? — in the distance. At the end of the story, he's fishing on a river, giving a sense of openness and freedom, but he's doing it "on my day off from the group home." The phone call that connects him with his sister and with her apocalyptic reminder, "You were a life" (that verb tense resonating off in thousands of directions) connects him also with his own mortality (and the quickness with which the structures surrounding him are willing to dismiss the significance of that mortality) as well as the other, entirely ordinary, apocalypse that's going on on her end of the line and, by the time he wakes up (will wake up) the next morning, at his end of it as well. And there are a million other significances I'm sure I'm missing.

But it's not a hopeless story, not a defeatist story, instead a realistic one — and this, not whatever nonsense Kim Stanley Robinson wants to babble about, is the sense in which science fiction can be uniquely realistic — and realism has to include the reality of alternatives, of possibilities. By telling this story, by imagining the ability to tell it at all, the narrator is resisting, refusing to become the "ideal blackbody" the oppressive world around him wants him to be; and the story itself, Ras Mashramani's story — the story she imagines, the work she lives, the other life she writes — though it is only words on a screen or in a zine, is the presence of possibility in a world that needs it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Johnny Rev" by Rachel Pollack

One of Rachel Pollack's recurring fixations seems to be the creation of worlds that are in most respects not unlike ours, but in which everything, even the most quotidian of acts or details, nevertheless needs to be explained to her readers. This goes a long way toward explaining why I love her work so much, I think; often it fixates — again I think the word is accurate — specifically on the question, what makes this work different from any other? what makes it "fantasy" (or, more rarely with her, "science fiction") rather than otherwise? and answers: one is allowed neither the luxury nor the irresponsibility of taking anything for granted. The language of exposition is central to this, to her, project, and she makes no effort to hide it. What might be superficially misinterpreted as a flatness of tone for me serves to emphasize this: when so much of the dialogue, so much of the plot-oriented narration is so resolutely banal, to encounter these expository intrusions of wonder over and over and over again becomes a kind of extraordinary experience that it simply could not be in surroundings that reached for more stylistic "poetry."

That's her work in general. (Or at least one corner of it; her work is vast.) This story specifically? There is a glorious moment as it nears its climactically anticlimactic climax in which Jack Shade, in order to prevent himself from being annihilated by an incomplete duplicate of himself that wants nothing more than to take on Jack's full existence for himself, must write down as full a record of experience — his specific experience — as possible. To do so he uses a special kind of magical pen, possessing

the ability to write very, very small, in words that couldn't fade or be erased. Everything Jack saw he wrote, and still it all took up less than two sheets of paper. [...]

Painstaking as it was, the physical part was easy. The memories, however... Someone once said that to set down all your experiences would take longer than it did to live them. But neither could you consciously decide on the important ones. You had to allow them to come to you. So Jack closed his eyes, let out a breath, and invited his life to parade before him.

In order, then, to remain himself, Jack must write his life, must make sense of his life in writing — and he can neither record a fully accurate accounting of that life nor be paralyzed by mistrust in his ability to select details. He has to give himself over to writing, to trust its ability to do something he knows it cannot do in order to invest it with precisely that ability.

For this moment I am eternally grateful, but in other ways I have to say that the Jack Shade stories (of which this is, I believe, the third, and the second I've read) feel like something of a misstep to me. This story, like the earlier "Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls" (I haven't read "The Queen of Eyes"), seems overlong, heavy, often plodding aimlessly from event to event, one thing after another, in a way even Pollack's explicitly arbitrary stories seldom do. And though the world is quite different, the particular ways in which the wondrous and the mundane are mixed feel a bit like a retread of material that worked better in Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency (and if, as Kip Manley has suggested, "fantasy, to do what it does, must" appropriate, that appropriation is — for better and/or/but worse — much more on the surface here than it was there, and it was on the surface there, too). Combined into a novel, as they seem destined eventually to be, these stories might read better by virtue of the disjunctures such combination would create (the ol' van Vogt effect, and god bless). In the meantime, I will try to remember that what seem to be an artist's missteps may always be revealed as necessary, may not in fact be missteps.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Tropical Premises" by Peter Milne Greiner

I was predisposed not to care for this story, not just by virtue of where it appeared (though, my premature and even to me frankly inexplicable concession notwithstanding, that's bad enough) but by the characteristic tone-deafness of the editors' introduction that precedes it. "[M]arvelous, lyrical, and strange, as though looking so far into the future created a distortion, like the haze of a heat mirage," they say, and suggestive as this is in theory (not so far off from something I've suggested myself, even) it is immediately belied by the first paragraph, sentences like "In orbit, geopolitics get pretty low-res" that are both entirely contemporary and entirely concrete. But once I disentangled the story from what I was being told to make of it — reminding myself of the violent, appropriative misrepresentation that is Vice's entire reason for existence (and which allows it to occasionally publish worthwhile work without running much risk that it will meaningfully affect anyone), and forcing my way through the after all slightly obnoxious first paragraph — I began to realize that I was in the presence of something remarkable.

Like the Sierra July story I wrote about the other day, Greiner's has to do with artificial intelligences exploring the universe and coming face to face with some of the most irresoluble questions of existence. But where with that other story I cautioned against confusing the robots' experience with that of humans facing such questions, here the confusion of the two experiences is the very substance of the work. The narrator Cory, in periodic attempts to be objective, keeps telling us — and a theoretically human colleague — that the AI Smarti is having "a full melt down," but in less guarded moments things are much less clear-cut. By the time Smarti announces, almost at once, "I'm no longer an intelligence I reject intelligence" and "I'm human I'm human I'm human I'm human," not only has Cory's epistemological security (vestigial to begin with) become obviously untenable, the vitality of Smarti's confused searching, as well as the patent arbitrariness of every aspect of her existence (emphatically including that pronoun), has lent such paradoxical authority to her statements that they cannot be dismissed, though surely it can and should be asked whether they mean anything at all. "Smarti has learned uncertainty," Cory tells us, or maybe just himself, "learned that it can never be mastered." It is this unmasterability that leads the insipid instrumental minds of the editors to call this extraordinarily concrete story hazy, to present it to us pre-diminished by their miscategorization.

I can't speak for Greiner, who may for all I know love this shit and who at any rate obviously made his own decision which I do not begrudge him personally at all (a creature's gotta eat, and a creature's gotta scream into the void), but for me the enclosure of artistic work inherent in a publication like Terraform (or, perhaps always and certainly increasingly, pretty much any publication, though Terraform is on a whole other level of extractive capitalism from the merely philistine social-jockeying norm of the sf world), and especially as part of the ludicrous "Post-Human contest" that is literally nothing but an advertisement for AMC and its no-doubt horrifying programming, is easily worse than not being published at all. (On the other hand, in the extremely unlikely event that Terraform ever came knocking on my door I probably wouldn't turn down their per-word rate.) But when AMC's advertising budget accidentally pays for something greater than they were looking for, as much in excess of as this is, what are we to do? Obviously this is just the general problem of art-under-capitalism in particularly naked form, but still — what are we to do? Is there a way to claim an advertisement as something other than an advertisement? Is even this post just unpaid marketing for marketing?

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Reverse Logic" by Sierra July

A community of robots, whose "minds were a trifle eccentric, as best minds are," wandering the solar system seemingly independent of humans (have we died out? abandoned them? they us? — there are hints, or more accurately there is a feeling, but I believe nothing definite), settles on Pluto where they produce an artistic genius: the ice sculptor RL. In beautifully elliptical form — "Everything happens by means of short cuts, hypothetically; narrative is avoided," as Mallarmé said of his very different kind of writing — the story traces the successive waves of joy, pleasure, disillusionment, and destruction that this causes: in RL, in the rest of the robots, and even in the physical medium and the increasingly depleted Pluto itself.

"Starving for purpose (except in Robot minds), the sculptures hollowed out." It is tempting to take that parenthetical equivocation as meaning that if only humans (who July pointedly refers to as "Man") were present things might have been better, but I think it best to resist this temptation. Humans, as the creators of the robots, may have provided some larger context, some external sign of...something, but our presence would perhaps only have deferred the problem. I do not wish to suggest that the robots' problem is our own — I won't disrespect the specificity of what July has created by reducing it to some generalized metaphorical mirror — and RL's struggle is specifically robotic. But what, after all, are we doing? "He no longer saw Paradise. He saw Desolation. He saw Collapse. And he could do nothing to stop it, no matter how he yearned to. Reverse Logic. He kept consuming."

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Stick a Pin in Me" by Vajra Chandrasekera

"You know the saying..."? A speaker caught in the painful, political conflict between the immutability of the past and its fluidity tries desperately to explain what has happened: to find the point (in the past) at which the past (which hasn't changed) changed: to name those responsible (who have enforced a brutally useful combination of unnameability and inescapability for themselves): to find a ground in a space that is all map and no territory: to hold on to the past even if only in linguistic form, by repeating cliches, sayings, and famous quotes — those elements of language most explicitly defined by being shared links to times past (which of course all language is) — all of which seem to slip the mind or solidify on the solidifying tongue as soon as they seek utterance: to speak a lacuna in the speakable: to live at all costs, including the very high cost of avoiding certain costs. Though no parentheses appear anywhere in it, the entire story is a parenthesis surrounding what it does not and cannot say, even if at times it comes as close to saying it as those American prohibition-era instructions on what not to do lest you produce alcohol, which would of course be illegal.

I often try to write around the powerful sense I have that to refuse certainty, or at least certain hegemonic forms of epistemological certainty, is an ethical necessity; you might say that this story is an attempt to write around the flipside of that, the violence that makes some kinds of certainty impossible — and after all, all we have here is one person's testimony, and unlike a "real life" testimony or a fictional one that asks us to believe it "takes place" in the given world, we can't even compare it against our own testimony to decide whether and how much to believe it.

Please don't let my overwroughtness dissuade you; I've had my eye on Chandrasekera's fiction for a while now (and recently have had the inexpressible privilege of talking about a beloved book with him) and of what I've read this is his best yet. It's also, in the extremity of its allegory and metaphor (and in its proximity to the given world it just barely refuses), by my lights his least specifically sfnal. Take that for whatever it's worth; I tend to suspect it's coincidental, but I suppose we'll see as his project continues.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"The Glad Hosts" by Rebecca Campbell

A woman infected with an alien parasite that will change her perception and cognition so much as to make her no longer "her", before the parasites cross the blood-brain barrier and effect this transition, thinking about the analogous behavior-changing parasites known to earth and through them her own future, wonders:
Does the fish flash in the shallows where the bird can see it because it is the parasite's creature, or because of the pleasure it takes in sunlight? Does the caterpillar love the little wasps, and the rat feel a transfiguring passion for the cat?
This, in a letter she writes but does not send to her mother. The questions are, of course, unanswerable; only the fish, the caterpillar, the rat — or perhaps only the parasite — knows. In Mai's case, oddly (or not), Rebecca Campbell seems to know: these (wonderful) excerpts from letters sent and unsent aside, we spend most of the story both inside and out of Mai's head — even after Mai per se no longer exists, even during and slightly beyond the death of what has become of her body — through the all-knowing magic of the free indirect. Like the James Patrick Kelly story I wrote about the other day, this is a story in large part about why it shouldn't be written the way it's written. Imagine this story instead written only in the form of these letters, or perhaps in a mix of letters and a more distant third person (maybe in the scenes back on earth). What we would have then would be the attempt by one person to articulate an experience, with varying and ultimately unknowable levels of honesty and success, rather than a series of statements: this is what Mai felt, this is what Mai thought, this is what happened to her mind when it became no longer hers. (One might object: but written that way the story wouldn't have been able to do this — that — the other — inarguably beautiful thing that it does now, to which I would say: yes, it couldn't have.)

As with the Kelly story, though, the tension between what the story seeks to be about and the way it goes about being about it, though it does subtract from its integrity and power, paradoxically also adds to it. There is especially that one letter toward the end of the story, after the parasites have "taken over" entirely, in which the former Mai writes to "her" mother about Mai in the third person, and — unlike the previous letters — it sounds precisely like a contemporary English-language short story written in the free indirect:

She remembers that after the mountain you both walked all the way to the gelato place that's practically on the beach, and she told you that she'd been accepted in the third wave of settlers. You began to cry. It was chilly, but she bought a raspberry sugar cone, and you kept sniffling, and she could only think about how awful your sniffles sounded, and how she wished you'd brought a hanky, which you hadn't, so in this imperious way she handed you a handful of napkins, and you sniffled into them, but you wouldn't talk because your voice tore, so it was better to be quiet.
And on. This event here, that of a story such as this encircling a moment of writing in which these "techniques" are justified and necessary — the person writing this letter is not Mai but possesses all of her memories and an awareness, if not always an understanding, of all of her emotional states — is beautiful and painful; whether aware or not it feels a confession of inadequacy (reminder to those unused to such terms: this is praise; if only everyone had it in them to make such confessions) every bit as powerful as Lorrie Moore's devastating "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk". It seems to be saying: I know the concept of "personhood" becomes more and more vague, more and more troubling, the closer one looks; I know the concept of "character" is misleading at best; but this is what we have, this is what I can do.

Important as all this is (to me and my own damn writing if not to anyone else) I'm almost sorry to have spent so long talking about it, because I've neglected so much else that this story brings us. The conflict between phenomenological and scientific accuracies ("It would have been easier to call it love, she told them, and they ignored her"), and the "self"-deceptions each can be a cover for, is treated with both sensitivity and a suggestive minimalism. The dual ruptures in Mai's life — first stasis (during which she ages even though it feels less like duration to her than even sleep does), then the parasite — are not reduced to metaphors for one another, instead being allowed their full disjunctive power. As I'm sure you can tell from what I've said and quoted already, the often fraught relationship between mother and daughter is portrayed movingly. Though I wish Campbell hadn't used the name "Shanti" for her planet and its parasite (for a number of reasons, not least because it's so on the nose), once it's there it is put to some fascinating use — as for example when the former Mai begins to see a color "outside the human spectrum for which there is no name. She calls it Shanti" — a woman who is by any measure become alien, experiencing the alien, searches for a word for it and calls it by a human name. There is much more.

Sort of like what I said about the Karen Myers story recently, I'm not sure quite where the line is that separates, for me, those works that seem especially "bad" because they display an awareness of why they should not be doing what they are doing, from those that seem "good" for the same reason. This one is almost entirely on the "good" side, and in so being it's one of the best experiences I've had reading recent sf.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Saltwater Railroad" by Andrea Hairston

Mine is not particularly the voice I want talking about this story. I can sense the rough outlines of what I'd ideally (perhaps dictatorially) like to read about it, though — a meditation somehow synthesizing at least:
  • the lessons of Black Quantum Futurism, especially as relates to the interpenetration of past, present, and future that yet does not erase the importance and contingency of the present moment;
  • a sensitive but adversarial critique of the way the story goes about (as Miz Delia probably would not say) being fiction, perhaps undertaken in part through Gabriel Josipovici and in part through articles like this one about the CIA's role in promoting MFA writing programs (and asking the question of whether and how that type of writing — which this story both is and is not — can resist serving those purposes);
  • a consideration also of the ways that the techniques that make Hairston's theatrical works so powerfully estranging do not necessarily function the same way when transferred to prose fiction;
  • an intimate knowledge of and relationship with the many obscure(d) corners of history the story draws on, including but not remotely limited to the (here pretty much literally) utopian mixed societies created by escapees from the colonial and then independent regimes in the Americas, the astonishing knowledge and beliefs of the Dogon people, and the long, disjunct tradition of women's radicalism and resistance;
  • and an investigation of the category "fantasy," into which the story's publishers resolutely slot it (according to their usual mechanical system), which to me at least seems tantamount to saying: I don't believe this, and I don't believe you. Because I, for one, believe this story.

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Oneness: A Triptych" by James Patrick Kelly

As the title indicates, this is a series of three scenes dealing with the fantasy (in the non-generic sense) of transcending the individually physical and really joining with another. The three are linked by a kind of symphonic progression rather than by "plot," and though some aspects of this progression — the transformations in the section titles (Trick-Tryst-Test) and character names (Carson-Ciran-Kheran/Beata-Barika-Beckah), for instance — are a bit on the nose, as a whole it is surprisingly powerful. The first section is the weakest; it feels very much like cissexual heterosexuality's attempt to imagine the "extreme" possibilities of gender and sexuality and falling, obviously, far short (and missing the fact that opening up possibilities entails a closing off of others, and comes with responsibilities), and features the kind of slightly embarrassing sex writing that usually comes with such attempts ("She'd prolong his delicious agony"). But while the following two sections don't exactly remedy these problems, they do — almost — make them irrelevant (and I enjoy the way they play on similar language in their different contexts — as in "Tryst", about consensual parasitism, when the acids in Ciran's stomach begin dissolving the larval Barika "into exquisite molecules") in their ongoing movement away from human sexuality per se into the alien and, finally, the religious — though I wouldn't want to imply that the sexual ever departs entirely; of course it can't (and, by a reverse movement, the religion of the final section reveals another weakness of the first, because of course some aspect of the religious should be felt there as well).

As usual, Kelly's prose is polished to an opaque, inert perfection; even in his best stories — of which this is one — I tend to wish he would leave the workshop behind and open himself up to something other than technical achievement: to ask himself, perhaps, what writing is rather than merely how best to do it (or to realize that these are not different questions). But in this case there is an interesting tension/overlap between this way of writing and the conceptual ground he seeks to explore. Because of course one reason this kind of writing — especially with its "psychic mind-tap of the lead character for some comforting intimacy", as Steve Mitchelmore put it (with a more direct meditation on the subject here) — is so addictively appealing to so many people is that it provides a temporary illusion of precisely the oneness, the merging of selves, that the story is trying to be about; it is also both the product of the same atomization that leads to such fantasies (or perhaps that makes them be fantasies) and one of the tools by which it is enforced. (I'd like to connect this to my problems with the first section, too, insofar as heterosexual cissexuality is, similarly, both a cause and an effect of this painful separation.) As such the story almost feels accompanied by running commentary on why it exists and what is wrong with its existence — which paradoxically both subtracts from and adds to its considerable power.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Acres of Perhaps" by Will Ludwigsen

I don't care for the 1950s just-folks tone; the narrator's nostalgia is one thing but the story's is...another; and the climactic spectacle of heterosexuality magnanimously forgiving homosexuality only barely avoids grotesquery by virtue of not lasting very long. But the bizarrery — genuine, however ambiguous — in this tale of a television writer who believes his compulsion to write, and to write deeply strange things, is the direct result of his having tumbled from one dimension to another through a rotten tree stump (and of the more ordinary writer who admires, resents, and remembers him), goes a long way towards redeeming the story. And its exploration of the tensions, and the never-ending shifts, between different relationships with writing itself — writing as job, as calling, as monstrosity — though it is often elementary, is just as often captivating, and throughout is refreshingly free of snobbery — in any direction.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"The Other Forty-Two" by Sean Williams

"Flash fiction," it seems to me, is usually used for trivial purposes: obnoxious little jokey clevernesses or underambitious purple masquerading as poetry, mostly. This glimpse of genuine grandeur and mystery justifies the form in a way these others never will. I have my usual objections — this onslaught of short paragraphs in a story that, with almost no sentence-by-sentence changes, should have been told in three, maybe four — but if one works to overlook them one might brush up against something real. The notion that Big Dumb Objects could be inexplicably common, and endlessly varied, combines with the peculiar non-physicality of our viewpoint (Heart thinks, examines, signals, moves, keeps her distance, but we get no hint of what bodily form carries this thinking moving acting eye, or what sort of vessel, or of what apparatus she has to perform any of these tasks with; all are simply assumed, and thus forever unknowable from our impossibly distant position) to create a sort of inconclusive dialogue about scale and physicality — object-ness — itself.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Magic is afoot

This post is by way of turning the radio transmissions of twitter into a recording. By no means should you expect a conclusive argument.

Put into vaguely reasonable prose-form and edited/expanded slightly, here are some things I said on twitter the other day:

Magic is a pervasive human experience; whether it's "real" in the terms that have had faddish currency in the past few centuries is irrelevant to this fact. I think this is one of my problems with "genre fantasy" (some related problems with which I've touched on before): it's written primarily by and for rational positivists who hold magic in disdain — the condescension to the "subject matter" is built in.

This is probably a large part of why Rachel Pollack is so exceptional to me. In a novel like Unquenchable Fire I doubt that she "believes in" the specifics of the magic she's writing about (which after all only exists in the way it does in the novel because something happened to the world that did not to ours), but magic itself is a living presence in her life. She doesn't assume she's above what she's writing — and you can feel it when you read.

And another thing (which I've also touched on from time to time: twice in this post, say) is that when there is a felt reality to the "fantasy" it feels insulting to call it fantasy — tantamount to saying, "we know better." I'm not steeped in the rhetoric of fantasy so this might be an outsider's ignorance; maybe there's nothing in calling a work "fantasy" that precludes belief, but this is the uncomfortable way it always strikes me.

(If you'd like to reconstruct it and the several discussions that branched off of it, good luck, but it begins here; a follow-up today begins here.)

One of the many interesting responses I got (see note below) was from David Hebblethwaite, who among other things said "Whenever I read a folk tale, I'm struck by how little resemblance genre fantasy bears to it" — an experience I share. Now, in some respects this is only to be expected, as the world that produced these folk tales has by and large departed, but in other respects it is a damning critique of a "genre" — and here I think that often ridiculous word applies — that wants to have it both ways, to claim a continuity with that world and to stand in a position of superiority over it: to colonize these abandoned landscapes at the same time as the positivism they share sets them on fire.

I suppose this argument might sound strange, coming from someone who has written so extensively about how important science fiction — in many ways the most positivist of all literatures — is to him. To me though it comes down, at least in part, to a question of belief: science fiction is written by people who do "believe in" science, while fantasy fiction is written mostly by people who so axiomatically disbelieve magic that they describe what they themselves are writing as fantasy! (Which, if we wanted to get etymological, could lead to interesting places, but current usage weighs heavily.) And beginning with that belief, science fiction is — sometimes — often accidentally — able to experience the kind of movement I talked about in my above-linked post about the differences between those notoriously and often delightfully intertwined fields, sf and fantasy.

[The words Buffy Sainte-Marie turned into the greatest of all songs, as they originally appeared in Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers.]

Too much of what is called "fantasy", it seems to me, seeks to speak the mountains' dancing while out of the other side of its mouth saying god (broadly speaking) is dead. And even those individual works that do not, it again seems to me, are made to do so every time they are described as fantasy. I suppose what seems needful is, to go to an example, the thought and work of writers (by which I do not mean only writers of fiction) able to think as deeply about the role magic and landscape and godness (among other things) play in human life as the brilliant musician Elysia Crampton does in this glorious interview — thought and work that understands what she says not merely as aesthetically pleasing but as literal, urgent truth in the fullest, newest, most ancient of senses.

Many strong men lied. They only passed through Magic and out the other side.

[Many thanks to David Hebblethwaite, Cecily Kane, Jo Lindsay-Walton, Kip Manley, Aishwarya Subramanian, Jonah Sutton-Morse, and everyone else who engaged with me on twitter and elsewhere about this. I don't necessarily incorporate any of their thoughts specifically in this post — which after all is little more than a gesture at the event of thought having occurred — but they are all on my mind, and without them the thought would likely have vanished entirely.]

UPDATE: Talking with Kip and Jonah (and reading some beautiful blog posts of Kip's, like this one and the ones linked to in it) has made me realize that I've been much too simplistic on the question of belief, which is not an either/or — I didn't leave enough room for the struggle with it. I stand by what I said about axiomatic disbelief, but doubt is another thing entirely and not to be diminished — as is desire (which I'm embarrassed to have missed, seeing as I have much more desire than belief myself).

Friday, August 7, 2015

"The Visitor" by Karen Myers

It's iffy enough when literature pretends to give us the inner workings of another human being's mind; it should be categorically unacceptable and ludicrous to do the same with the mind of a sentient creature from another world — one that lives a very different life cycle from ours, and under the water at that. And yet sf writers have been doing it (not necessarily with the underwater bit), with...mixed results, at least since A.E. van Vogt in the stories that would be shoved together to make The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Like the van Vogt stories it reminds me of (though there is refreshingly little antagonism or peril here), Myers's story dwells on the right side of the nebulous line separating the appropriate from the in- for me, in a way I can't quite figure out how to explain or defend (but maybe should try to) but which I feel strongly. Taken totally literally — which I'm always screaming sf should be — the very idea that we could "get inside" Felockati's head is ludicrous almost to the point of obscenity, but my countervailing tendency to give sf a lot of leeway in terms of "plausibility" somehow takes priority here. (Note to self: take the time to explore these contradictions at some point.) After all this I realize I've said next to nothing about the story itself; it lives in the realm of sensory and bodily specificity — and difference — that sf is so characteristically concerned with, and is thoughtful and deeply felt while it's at it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Dreamboat" by Robin Wyatt Dunn

It's hard to know what to say about this little sliver of incomprehensibility. Though it is nothing but itself, it should be spoken of in the same tones one uses to speak of Tiptree, or of Cordwainer Smith. I've read it six times now and though a sense of incident has emerged I'm not sure I begin to "understand" it — which is as it should be in this story of vastness and confusion (which also engages brilliantly with science fiction itself; then too there's that wonderfully startling moment where the narrator addresses himself by the writer's name). Easily one of the best sf stories I've read in this, or maybe any, year; if you must go around giving things awards, give one to this. (Those who appreciate a good set of parentheses — better than these — should be extra-sure to take a look; and, praise the lord, though Dunn makes much use of contemporary sf's pandemic one-line paragraphs, he actually uses them to create rhythm rather than to spoon-feed information.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

"Externus Incognita" by Ty Karnitz

Though they are very different in themselves, the way I feel about this story is similar to the way I feel about the Buckley story I wrote about recently. The primary Bad Ideology here — as you might guess from the title — is the intellectual legacy of imperialism more than misogyny specifically (which Karnitz, um, "avoids" by largely pretending women don't exist), and as far as I know Karnitz isn't running around trying to teach gigantic inhuman domination-machines to Dream Big With Technology (which gives him a big leg up over Buckley in any "being a decent human being" competition), but in similar fashion this story, refreshingly, has no interest in being smooth and reasonable — opting instead, as the living gold rains down from the god-comet, for the unhinged disjunctures that are such a large part of what draws me to sf in the first place.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"This Is the Humming Hour" by Kate Heartfield

There's much in the telling that bugs me, or leaves me cold at best. And if I wanted to make the argument that readers and writers, if not necessarily magazines and publishers, should consider fantasy and science fiction as more distinct (albeit enormously overlapping) entities than they tend to in the current environment this would be Exhibit A for fantasy — among other things it allows a purely metaphorical reading in a way that does not compromise it the way it would a science fiction story (though I continue to think that purely metaphorical readings are inherently compromised, to some degree). And fantasy qua fantasy, to be frank, tends to bug me too: as such the "speculative element" here, though ably portrayed, tends to underwhelm. However. I admire the way Heartfield evokes the sensory and experiential oddness of urban (or suburban) sleeplessness, and even more so I'm glad to see difficult nursing be considered as valid a subject for (as valid a call to) fiction as any other. And if the negative parts of this paragraph are much longer than the positive, that's only because I feel more of a need to explain and insert caveats with the former.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Prayer" by Mike Buckley

Buckley, his bio says, "is a practicing futurist who uses Science Fiction prototyping to inform corporate/governmental policy," and the extreme ideological stupidity and meanness that suggests combines in this story with an apparent desire to create something grim for grimness' sake (is "grimdark" a term exclusive to fantasy? if not, it's probably what this is) to create a good deal of tedious grotesquery; in particular, when a man writes a story with this much women-being-hurt (particularly by other women), you have to ask why: why violence, why this violence. But, as Sandra Newman once wrote (to widespread horror) of especially pre-1980 American science fiction, these questionable ideologies and ethics coexist, almost (but, let's not forget, not actually) as if the other side of the coin, with an extraordinarily bonkers conceptual anarchy that feels alive in a way so much recent sf does not. Continent spaceships with communal water holes; the uploaded minds of malevolent wealthy people dwelling in AIs occupying neural networks in nearby stars; hallucinations; quantum teleportation (?) on a mass scale; religious experience reduced to a human level, or maybe vice versa: it's not so much any one of these things but their uneasy coexistence in such a small space — and, importantly, the story's willingness to follow them into the language of exposition. Any "corporate/governmental policy" "informed" by this "prototyping" would be even more horrific than what already exists (either that or so incoherent it would fail immediately, which would be nice), but as sf it does things to my brain that only sf can do, and too little does.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thoughts on an alternate history

Yesterday Kate Schapira posted my contribution to her wonderful and essential Climate Anxiety Alternate Histories project (which you MAY RECALL I've written about briefly here). I'll link you to my story, but I once again highly recommend reading all of them, or at least a good solid chunk of them. They each rely on one another at least as much as on themselves. I'm so grateful to be able to be part of it.

I said I'd post some notes on the thoughts behind what I wrote, so here they are:

  • When I read my anxiety (I asked Kate to assign me one rather than letting me pick one) my first thought was that I would have to write about the person who lost the money, not just the person who found it. Whether you've only just won it gambling or you brought it with you (maybe even in the full expectation of losing it gambling), having $2700 disappear on you is probably a major life event.
  • The anxiety is about success, so the history tries to be about ways that (some kinds of) "failure" might be better than success, or at least maybe not so bad as we've been led to expect. C's efforts to free himself of obligation entangle him in a web of mutual dependence. He tries to retreat to the wilderness but only gets a little farther than someone's backyard (until the backyard goes away). The structures that supported the existence of suburbs break down, and the forest comes back. Efforts to contain an invasive species are unsuccessful, but one way or another life continues. The community starts with thirty-one people, and by the end of one lifetime only nineteen remain; whether the others died or left or both, it's clear they haven't founded a new way of life that will live on for eternity — and they certainly haven't saved the world — but what they've done is not nothing.
  • Also on that population drop: one of the things that inevitably happen when people come together is babies, and I wanted to gesture at that. But I didn't want to suggest that reproductive heterosexuality is The Way Forward, and even more I wanted to resist the instrumentalization that usually comes along with it: people have children, yes, but children aren't Our Future or even The Future. Children are people.
  • This is a story about the eternal Living Out In The Woods fantasy, written by (and about) someone who has no idea how to live out in the woods. Another kind of failure. Rather than try to cover it up or pretend it doesn't matter, I tried to make that part of the story. With any luck that helps to make the fantasy less naive and less banal than it might otherwise have been.
  • Navel gazing: This is the first time I've ever written a story on request, or with a specific project in mind. It's also my first story that anyone other than some family and friends (...and editors) will see. Turns out things work very differently under these conditions: I've never written a story quite like this before. I worried (I still worry) that it's too much a pastiche of the way Kate writes her alternate histories, though I'm coming to think that was inevitable and not such a bad thing. It was interesting to find myself writing with such assurance — not in terms of artistic process, but in terms of authority, the ability to make statements: C worried, H lost herself in awe. Normally I wouldn't allow myself to say such things (at least not left so uncontested), because how on earth do I know what these people are feeling? Who am I, even, to say that this thing that hasn't happened happened? Strange too that I was able to give myself such license when writing off of someone's real words, words that emerged from their real life. Someone I've probably never met! Beyond the strictly imitative level ("this is how Kate writes hers") I wonder if I was taking on the voice of The Project, allowing the power of Kate's work and its extrapersonal dimensions — the larger space of its sources and the larger space it has opened up — to temporarily infuse me with a greater authority. Put another way, I wonder if submission to something external to me made possible what might not otherwise have been. If so, I wonder what that means — if I should have resisted more or if I was right to welcome it.
These notes have been longer than the story. Hopefully everything else speaks for itself. Maybe all of that spoke for itself, anyway.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - June 2015

June was a relatively high-volume month in the short sf world — I looked at 168 stories from 34 magazines — but I'm only recommending eight stories (or, seven stories and a series of story-like works), four — half — of which come from outside of my usual list of sf venues. A bad month for the science fiction field proper, in other words.

Exciting new feature, though! If you want to make a link to what I said about any one specific story, add a # and the writer's full name without spaces, punctuation, or diacritics to the end of the URL. For example, to link to the E. Catherine Tobler story I'm recommending this month, add #ecatherinetobler to the URL for this post, for the Team IIT story add #teamiit, and so on. Are you thrilled? I'm thrilled.

[Click here to skip the boring lists and get to the recommendations]

As always, I give the full list of magazines I look at — most of them exclusively sf (or sf/f), some not but publishing sf often enough to make it worth looking at them, all of them except the ones marked with asterisks free online — and encourage you to let me know if there are any conspicuously missing. (Some of the obvious ones are missing because I haven't yet gotten around to subscribing — F&SF — or haven't been able to justify the expense to myself — Analog, IGMS — and some are missing because it feels like a safe assumption that they won't publish anything for me — Beneath Ceaseless Skies, say — but I still always welcome any recommendations, and if there's a specific story you think I should see in one of the ones I avoid by all means let me know.) So, the current full list:

Abyss & Apex, Acidic Fiction, AE, Apex, Asimov's*, Betwixt, The Book Smugglers, Buzzy Mag, Clarkesworld, The Colored Lens, Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Escape Pod, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories, Fantasy Scroll, Farrago's Wainscot, Fireside, The Future Fire, Galaxy's Edge, GigaNotoSaurus, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone*, Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Lakeside Circus, Lightspeed, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, New Haven Review, Omenana, Perihelion, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, STRAEON*, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye,, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review, Words Without Borders.

Of these, no new fiction appeared in June in Abyss & Apex, Betwixt, Buzzy Mag, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories, Farrago's Wainscot, Galaxy's Edge, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Lackington's, Lakeside Circus, New Haven Review, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, SQ Mag, STRAEON, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Unlikely Story, or Weird Fiction Review. Each of the remaining published at least one new story, and I at least looked at all of it.

I did not purchase, and therefore did not consider the stories exclusive to, the full so-called "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" issue of Lightspeed because, quite frankly, the free stories — not one of which was I able to force myself to finish — inspired no confidence whatsoever in the potential of the rest. Plus, I refuse to own an object featuring that hideous and offensive cover art. Considering that the Kickstarter campaign raised about a gazillion dollars in its first minute, I suspect that withholding my $17.99 (or $3.99, even) won't hurt them too bad.

The only new addition this month is Fireside — I'm not sure why I didn't have it on there before. The one deletion is Plasma Frequency, which has ceased publication. After this month I will be dropping Acidic Fiction, which is also ceasing publication (no great loss, frankly), and Liquid Imagination: they explicitly say their stories only exist to fill up your non-work time so you can go back to work and be productive, they have a regular column of writing tips from a life coach, they might as well rename themselves Corporate Imagination.

Two other notes: first of all, three of my recommendations this month come from Muse India, whose May/June edition had a huge special science fiction feature (scroll down). In addition to fiction, they published an enormous quantity of non-fiction, including among many other things an essay on climate change by Vandana Singh. Many thanks to Aishwarya Subramanian for alerting me to this issue's existence. Second, though I didn't much care for any of what I could see a way to calling science fiction in the latest issue of Interfictions, I want to point out at least Keguro Macharia's brilliant essay on Octavia E. Butler's disowned Patternist novel Survivor, which examines the novel's generic status much more interestingly and productively than most such genre-investigations can even imagine, and Richard Bowes' marvelous story "Fordham Court," which dispenses with (most of) his usual ambiguously sfnal flourishes without losing anything from his characteristically captivating efforts to reconstruct memories; and the way in which story interacts with story, document with document, is magical in itself.

And now, arbitrarily presented in reverse alphabetical order by writer's name, my short science fiction recommendations!

E. Catherine Tobler, "Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Third Sound Remix)" (Clarkesworld)
So "poetic" as frequently to be illegible, this story nevertheless maintains the contrasting capitalist-exploitative and transcendent aspects of space travel in delicate balance (in addition to, along another non-parallel axis, the beauty and insanity of transcendence), not using the one to excuse the other as sf has often done in one direction or another, but exploring the way they infect — and propel — one another, and the pain and confusion this might cause.

Team IIT, "Dashing Through the Door" (Muse India)
I have much the same formal reservations about this story as I did about the Köhler story last month, though "scientific paper as sf story" does have an appropriateness (and history) to it (and the fact that it seems to actually have been written by a team is interesting). Even aside from those reservations, the paper's exploration of the possibilities of quantum teleportation is...a bit elementary. There's a wryness to the tone that I enjoy, though, and I particularly like the way it makes clear the complicity — and the compartmentalization of that complicity in the minds of those who are complicit — of science with domination (a suggestion for how strict border controls could be imposed is followed almost immediately by "When it is just as easy to visit Africa, as it is to visit the corner grocery store, it will undoubtedly truly transform the world into a 'global village'", and then only two paragraphs later "This system provides a powerful protocol for military deployment") though it's not actually much clearer here than in any real paper and for all I know the writers are simply engaging in that complicity rather than critiquing it. Still.

Kate Schapira, "Alternate histories" (Climate Anxiety Counseling)
I wrote about these alternate histories in my April post, when Schapira started writing them; after a month's hiatus she resumed in June. I don't have all that much to add to what I said last time, but the work continues to be vital and I for one plan to follow it wherever it goes. (The link is to the tag, so depending on when you click it you'll see different things, but I urge you to explore.)

Priya Sarukkai Chabria, "dance? he asked" (Muse India)
"that's a pretty lonely thing to do: read." People well into their second century, living with their artificially-maintained and increasingly aged bodies kept mostly in isolation, engaged in fascinating but, one senses, largely unfulfilling — or maybe better unfulfilled — intellectual pursuits (one a sort of landscape holographer, the other a paleontologist), possessing and using a lively but almost entirely non-overlapping knowledge of a supposedly shared cultural history, meet through "4-D" avatars on "The Grid." Over the course of months they slowly reveal more and more of their "real" selves to each other, each giving the other ample time to revolt against the imperfections of physical bodies and cut contact. Real? In this (or any) context, what could the word possibly mean? "i never use the word real on myself." Everything is carefully managed, everything planned, strategized, but (it's supposedly less "painful" this way than any other alternative) attended with a constant fear of disappointment, mingled with hope for surprise. How much of what the other person does is just their strategy, and does that mean it's not real? What does any behavior, any sign of the other person, or of the world, mean? The story's leaps from perspective to perspective, far from providing any authoritative standpoint from which to answer this question objectively, reinforces its mystery, or maybe its meaninglessness. "nothing is certain from remaining evidence."

Ray Nayler, "Mutability" (Asimov's)
I've been thinking about immortality a lot lately, and I'm always consumed with questions of memory and loss (which of course are major aspects of my thoughts on immortality), so in a way this story is a shoe-in. Despite hitting all the marks on that checklist though it feels a bit slight, reaching for the wrong kind of significance (honestly, who likes this kind of language, and what could it mean to them?) and coming up short in an uninteresting way. (It'd be better without the Mysterious Woman and the State Department Russian Exoticism, too, but hey). I might not be recommending the story to readers so much as recommending further thought and more honesty to the writer.

Alan Garth, "World Away" (Perihelion)
The boilerplate "teen" "rebellion" story is largely irrelevant in the face of the wonder and terror of Tenni's experience outside of the generation ship — though the hints of her denial of, what's the phrase, reproductive futurity, are also a bit interesting.

Ruthanna Emrys, "The Deepest Rift" (
The delicate balancing act between patness and non-patness which the story had been maintaining most of its length collapses and falls into patness at the end, and in general Emrys and I have a lot of fundamental differences on questions of what writing is, much of which shows up here to, in my eyes, the story's detriment. But this sort of McIntyrean story (and those problems are reminiscent of some of McIntyre's work too, if I'm being honest — think of the ending of Dreamsnake, for example) of contact, embodiment, knowing, and communication has more than enough good to make up for any objections I might have.

Rimi Chatterjee, "The Cleanup" (Muse India)
This reminded me a bit of the stories in Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction (for which see Benjamin Gabriel's superb review), both in its "content" — two women laborers cleaning out the inside of a statue of, literally, The Man — and in the way it seems more like a small slice of non-story than a "story" proper and, like most of the stories in that anthology, is all the stronger for it. (Unlike those it doesn't have dozens of other non-stories with similar goals propping it up, but it works regardless.) Things occur, yes, but it's not so much a plot happening so much as an event taking place, and the event is the writing itself and what it allows to come forward. What exactly has caused the situation in the story (a massive drop-off in the male population resulting in a further disempowerment of women as the remaining men clutch their waning power to themselves ever more firmly) is not explored, and what interests me particularly is that the story withholds its explicit, infodumpy statement of this situation until the very end (after a peculiar drug experience and a heartbreaking moment of antilesbian panic) not because it's a "surprise" — it's not; we learn nothing we haven't learned already through incluing — but because this juxtaposition of expository techniques is what the event that is this telling requires.