Thursday, January 22, 2015

reading Russ: "Nor Custom Stale" (1959)

reading Russ table of contents
     It was the night after Harry's retirement party that something first went wrong. They had all been talking about something scientific that Freda did not understand, with Wilberforce from Harry's job insisting that life meant risk and Harry insisting no, and then Harry saying that the life-lengthening properties of Houses were due to the fact that they never changed.
     "Why," he was saying, "change a person's life and right away they have to change. They have to make decisions. They have to age. Thing to do is not change, not a particle, not a molecule." And Wilberforce (whom Freda had always thought far too rugged) had gotten angry and shouted that Monotony is Death and Harry had shouted Monotony is Life, so the end of it was they got very angry and Wilberforce said he hoped Harry would have a real dose of Monotony soon to make him see how fast he'd age. The guests had been getting into their cars at the extra Car Port in the basement, when Freda noticed what was wrong and came over to her husband, down the basement stairs.
     "Harold," she said, "there's something wrong with the House." But Harold was busy telling Wilberforce that Change was Death and the highest human wisdom was to find the perfect moment and live it over and over.
Faced with a passage such as this one, which comes early on in Russ's first "professional" science fiction story (Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1959), most readers, trying quickly to assimilate the story to what they know about writing, would probably reach either for the category "satire" or for the category "metaphor," or for both. Certainly most science fiction critics would. The story, they'd tell themselves (and then they'd tell us), satirizes, and/or is a metaphor for, midcentury middle-cass suburban life, with its middlebrow intellectualism, its monotony (or Monotony), its trivialization and imprisonment of women. The metaphorical reading can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the story, like most sf of its era (and that of any era up until the past decade or two), simply is not metaphorical; it presents us not with a metaphor for suburban life but with suburban life itself, albeit displaced quite a large number of centuries. All right, then, satire. This would seem to be a safer bet; after all, much of the story is clearly humorous, and clearly targeted at something its writer had A Problem with. Having categorized the story, we can finish reading it, laughing and nodding if and when we agree that Russ's targets deserve targeting and that she has aimed well, shaking our heads and muttering if and when we disagree, and move on. That's taken care of.

Except I don't think so. Kingsley Amis's drivel notwithstanding, I think satire, much like metaphor, is seldom a fruitful way to read sf, and that sf is often poor sf to the extent that it can be reduced to mere satire (or, again, mere metaphor). Which is not to say that sf never satirizes; clearly the story at hand does. But isn't there anything more that can be said about it? Is the experience that is "Nor Custom Stale" dispatched so easily?

In The American Shore, Delany asserts — repeatedly — that science fiction "can only give us apotheosis, not history." Let me say right off that I'm not entirely sure I understand what he means. Delany is steeped in modes of thought (critical theory, structuralism and everything that has come in its wake, etc) that I'm simply not well versed in (and am often somewhat suspicious of); in any formal sense I'm a theory nincompoop. There are probably shades of meaning behind his use of "apotheosis" and "history" (and, hell, all of his other words, as well) that go zooming right over my head. Even beyond that, Delany's criticism always fills me with a multitude of conflicting feelings; at times I'll find it revelatory, at times gratifying confirmation of what I'd suspected, at times incomprehensible, at times nonsense, at times desperately wrong. The American Shore is his most complex, sustained work of criticism. I've only read it once. I don't even begin to know how to feel about it, let alone what it "means."

But to whatever extent I could be said to understand what Delany means, I find the assertion suggestive, and I wonder if it might be a better lens through which to look at "Nor Custom Stale," indeed at much of sf. Rather than metaphorically "standing for," rather than (or in addition to) satirizing the banal monotony of suburban life, Russ, it might be possible to say, is presenting us with its apotheosis. Now a lot of the elements of the story that had to be ignored in order to sustain a satirical reading can come back into play. The "immortality for Houses," which strikes me as at best irrelevant to satire (and which another common model for reading sf, that of extrapolation or prediction, would force one to dismiss as "inaccurate" — failing as it does to foresee planned obsolescence), now makes much more sense. More specifically, a satirical reading of "Nor Custom Stale" would have to work very hard not to notice that, in the passage I quoted above, Wilberforce is in fact wrong, Harry in fact right — and indeed this same reading would not, could not realize that the millions of years that Freda and Harry live their monotonous, repetitive, day-in-day-out lives, are literal millions of years.

Most importantly, the story's awe-inspiring ending, with its startling motion that I can only begin to describe by calling it the inverse of bathos (though this is terribly incomplete, because even this anti-bathos contains its own...batheticization?...within itself), is revealed in its full science-fictionality, in its necessity. Without an understanding of science fiction in its specificity — this mode of writing that is so tied to the literal, to the prosaic (more on that link and how I'm willfully misusing it hopefully to come, soonish) while simultaneously reaching for the mystical and the transcendent — one might misread this ending as merely ironic, a sort of reductio of the motionlessness of suburbia into the heat death.*

*In this case not quite literally.

It is this. But it is more: because at the same time as the reductio is reducing, the apotheosis is...apotheosizing. To read the ending of this story as science fiction — sf that is commentary, to be sure — rather than as commentary that "uses" the "tropes" of science fiction is to feel what sf readers and critics once felt less embarrassed referring to as "the sense of wonder," a feeling that has come in for a great deal of (at times justified) criticism in recent decades — it is juvenile, it is simplistic, it is irresponsible — but which I think is widely misunderstood (including by many of its proponents) and long overdue for a re-evaluation. In the sense of wonder as I understand it, one is in a state of profound awareness of conflict, of the irreconcilable and the irreducible: the universality of transcendence and the specificity of that which is — of life and the body — try, and fail, to coexist.

Russ, here, is not merely satirizing a mode of life. She is exploring it as a mode of life: criticizing it, yes, of course, and urgently so (Russ was always a propagandist, always a skilled one, almost always using her skills for The Forces Of Good), but criticizing it not as if it were an object that simply exists, a thing you can pick up and look at from all sides and then put down again, but as life, as part of the world, part of the universe. Suburban life, and everything that goes with it and everything else Russ so ably targets, is banal, does reduce those who live through it to triviality, but it is also a part of something larger, simply because everything is. On the page I quoted him from before, Delany continues: "The reason," he says, that sf gives us apotheosis in place of history, "is that apotheosis is, indeed, the case. What science fiction can do, however, is analyze the workings of that case with an extreme precision." To a large extent I don't understand what he's talking about. But to the extent that I do, this is what Russ has done. And as she does so, her story — like all good science fiction stories — invents science fiction anew.

     The window cleared. Freda began to tremble.
     She found herself looking at a wall of snow. Perpendicular, straight as steel, it towered above the house and way above it, way past the very top of the window, were stars in a nighttime sky. The sky was so very black and the stars so very bright that they lanced through Freda's eyes and made her lower her gaze to the wall of snow again.
     Even without the light from the House she could have seen the snow, for the light of the stars seemed as intense as moonlight, and it spilled down the sides of the wall of snow. The wall was some twenty feet from the side of the House; it stood impenetrable, terrifyingly solid, but there at the edge of the wall where the heat from the House had cleared a space around it, a very strange thing was happening. The snow melted but it did not melt; it exhaled, it breathed white vapor, it boiled, it whirled and writhed upward in a hundred fantastic shapes, hurrying swiftly into the black night sky above. On the top of the wall (barely seen from the House) were shining, sparkling pools of liquid, pools that moved sluggishly this way and that.
     Behind Freda the House spread its usual rosy warmth, noon in the kitchen, afternoon in the living room, twilight in the dining room, but here spring, summer, fall and even winter had died. For this immortal cold was a sun away from winter. ...
     Harry came out of the bedroom, yawning as he always did at the time he always came out every morning, and as he looked and saw, Freda turned. The Panel near the window glowed with its five ruby eyes. Five? No, six. Twelve. Twenty. Then more and more until the whole panel glowed red as a cluster of cherries. In case of failure of Air, she thought, throw open the door and admit Natural Air into the House. "Oh Harry, what shall we do?" she said, but there was no particular need to answer; the cherries dimmed, darkened, and then became green, green as beech leaves, green as the young green on hedges.
     Freda had time only to say, "Oh, Harry!" and he, "Freda, what—" when the house gave a little tentative shake and then another and then shivered into a hundred — no a million — no many, many more atoms, atoms that threw the airy snow up in a great billowing rise. ... But not into the air, rather into the space above the air, and then it settled down on the frozen air, on to the sluggishly living pools of liquid hydrogen, bounced a little, billowed a little, and finally lay quietly, invisibly, over a radius of some hundred miles.

No comments: