Wednesday, May 20, 2015

After the way of his own kind

What happens at the end of Craig Kee Strete's short story "When They Find You" is difficult to articulate — particularly when under the sway of our usual ways of talking about writing. What has happened before is easier to describe. A thinly-veiled transformation of any number of real-life colonization events; a transformation that is both a metaphor and nothing but its own literal self, because this is how things happen: a man from Earth with a quiet role to play in the violent subjugation of the planet Kingane, having bought an indigenous woman as a wife, finds it difficult to reconcile his feelings of superiority to and connection with her, particularly in the face of her seemingly total impassivity and under the simultaneous pressures of their scientifically conceived child and the increasing presence of a disapproving population of colonists from Earth.

(Of course this "easy" description leaves much out, as for example the harvesting of nerve tissue from the stefel dogs, which though it serves a familiar purpose — improving the quality of life of the very rich — cannot be reduced to something already recognizable, and cannot be separated from the rest of the story. But then no story is actually reducible, and the easy description will do for now.)

But the ending...? It is tempting to say that Strete makes the reader feel the human as alien, but this is not correct — not here, probably not anywhere, because surely this is impossible. We are human, and no matter how much estrangement we may sometimes (or often, or always) feel from some (or many, or all) of our fellow humans, this estrangement is itself only and always human. (In a way this is emphasized by Strete's ability to understand his human character, who is after all — among other things — a stand-in for the white people who perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate, genocide on Strete's.) Perhaps — and this is only an attempt — it would be better to say that by describing the human in the language of the alien Strete brings the reader to feel this very impossibility — the impossibility of our seeing the human as alien — in all its necessity. And with this feeling, again perhaps, comes the knowledge that the equally limited perspective of the alien exists, also, and possesses its own necessity.

He got up from the table slowly, his food untouched, and he moved toward them. She knew what was to happen and in that unreadable face, he found the knowledge of what he was about to do. He lifted the boy away from the mat on the floor and cradling him against his chest, turned and walked back to the table. She sat motionlessly in the corner and in that moment he knew, he finally knew she was capable of emotion, that she had feelings of her own.
        He pulled a chair up beside his and sat the boy gently down upon the chair. He turned to her, and without a word she knew that the boy's place would hereafter be at the table, she knew it by the sad, unrelenting look on his face.
        He took a piece of bread and put it unwashed into the boy's mouth. And then he heard it, and turned to look at her. Her face was turned away, her shoulders motionless.
        But he heard it and this time knew what it was. That melodious, birdlike sound, the way the creatures of Kingane cried, the sound the creatures of Kingane made when they were dying.
        But he had his back hardened against it and would not relent, having made judgment for the boy. But after the way of his own kind, his shoulders shook and he made the harsh, broken rasping sound, the way the creatures of Earth cried, the sound the creatures of Earth made when they were dying.
"When They Find You" appears in Strete's marvelous collection The Bleeding Man. Thank you to Jennifer Marie Brissett, whose lovely review of the book made me aware of its existence, and thank you to Christoph Endres and Strete himself for making it, and the rest of Strete's writing, freely available online. It should be read.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Behind the scenes of Rama II

It is the late 1980s. NASA scientist Gentry Lee is worried. "I sure do have a lot of anxieties related to race and gender," he mutters to himself. "I should probably write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's classic science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama to work them out," he continues thoughtfully.

He furrows his brow. "But it should have whimsical Shakespeare robots too," he adds. Nervously, he asks his secretary to get Sri Lanka on the horn.

When the call comes in, Sir Arthur is busy snorkeling with a twink. "Hello, Gentry," he says. He notices the twink sighing slightly. Oh dear, thinks Sir Arthur, is he losing interest? He decides to finish the phone call as quickly as possible. "Sure, fine," he says. "Good enough. I have no real standards anyway."

He hangs up the phone and puts the snorkeling mask back on his face. "Have I mentioned that I basically invented telecommunications satellites?" he asks the twink. The twink rolls his eyes, but replaces his mask as well.

Later on Sir Arthur remembers that Rendezvous with Rama should never have had a sequel, but by now he's much too rich to care.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - April 2015

....and once again. My third monthly short fiction recommendations post, but the first that actually covers only one month. For whatever that's worth.

[Click here to skip the boring lists & things and go straight to the recommendations]

Once again I've come across some magazines I was previously unaware of; one new one has begun and at least one has ended. As I've done before I'll list all of the magazines (slash-websites-slash-whatever) I look at so that if anyone happens to see that something is conspicuously missing they can let me know about it. (Most are dedicated sf magazines; some are not but publish sf often enough to make it worth my while to look at them for these purposes. Apart from the three marked with asterisks, all the magazines I look at are free online; there are other pay magazines I'm aware of and would like to check out as finances allow — for example I plan to resubscribe to F&SF soon — but for the moment this is it. Nevertheless, if you know of a pay magazine I might not be aware of, please let me know.)

The magazines I consult, all fifty-three (!) of them, are: 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, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories, Fantasy Scroll, Farrago's Wainscot, Fiction Vortex, 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, The New Haven Review, Omenana, Perihelion, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, STRAEON*, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye,, Truancy, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review, and Words Without Borders.

Of these, no new fiction appeared in April in The Book Smugglers, Diabolical Plots, Expanded Horizons, The Future Fire, Galaxy's Edge, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, The New Haven Review, Omenana, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, SQ Mag, STRAEON, or Three-Lobed Burning Eye. The rest all did publish new fiction and I at least looked at all of it.

After this month I will be dropping Fiction Vortex (because it has ceased publication). Everything else survives in my reading for another month.

And now! Arbitrarily in alphabetical order by writer's given name, the recommendations!

Alastair Reynolds, "A Murmuration" (Interzone)
The "character-driven" story is inane and tiresome, and far too convinced of its own (nonexistent) cleverness. The writing is often spoonfeedingly insipid (the paragraphing, the fucking paragraphing), and as often just plain embarrassing ("I squeeze our data until it bleeds science"). The cruelty is wholly unjustified. But struggling out from under all the garbage are moments of fascination, with a focus on work and process that remind me of Josipovici's remarks on the second half of Exodus — only now this work and process, and the focus on them, are irremediably deranged.

Aliya Whiteley, "Blossoms Falling Down" (Interzone)
People searching for genuine experience, or trying to disappear into roles, or both, in a world that is paper-thin, in which cultures and traditions and histories are less than a costume, less than a tourist destination; a shipful of people traveling through space in hope of "finding a new place and not screwing it up this time," not knowing but almost feeling that they've already screwed it up, that their ship has managed to reproduce not even the problems of Earth, but a parody of them.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, "The Petals Abide" (Clarkesworld)
As I was reading this I kept thinking of a comment Samuel R. Delany makes about Hart Crane's use of apostrophe — a use which many find embarrassing but which for Delany is a main element of "a the process of animate object world, a world where meaning and mystery were one, indisseverable, and ubiquitous, but at the same time a world where everything spoke (or sang or whispered or shouted) to everything else." Sriduangkaew — who does not particularly use apostrophe and whose "object world" is often much more visibly animate even than ours, given the technologies its characters are surrounded by — is not much like Crane, but I think her language is up to something similar. The collision between this language and the tales of her Hegemony universe — all expansion and control, forgetting and re-membering and remaking — is something I haven't quite been able to articulate, but it is powerful. This may be my favorite of her stories I've yet read; though I still find Sriduangkaew's work somewhat fettered by the formulas of her field as she finds it (a field clinging with all it has to "genre" even as its own imperatives push it away from it), the series of dialogues here between captive and captor, two of the points of a strange and violent love triangle, emerge out of the living surround and take on a life of their own.

Emily Devenport, "Dr. Polingyouma's Machine" (Uncanny)
I don't know enough about Hopi practices (and preferences) to know how to feel about their invocation here — brief in explicit terms, looming implicitly over the entire story — but in general theory at least I find the overlapping of "non-rational" and "rational" methods suggestive. This overlapping, too, is distorted-mirrored by the narrator's focus (a distant, less pathological relation to that of Reynolds's narrator) on the repetitive, practical, procedural concerns of labor — cleaning floors, mainly — in the presence of an Event that puts the viability not only of an individual life but of reality itself into question. I was disappointed in the ending, which has the structure (though not the "content") of something like a superhero origin story and I think too much closes off the openness of what preceded it. (When will the science fiction reader stop having to try to disregard this kind of ending?) I suspect that if Devenport had taken longer with her thoughts and her work, and perhaps had existed in a critical climate that did not foster patness, this same basic material (including the "what-happens" of the ending, which in pretty much every respect I do not object to) could have given rise to something transcendent. Even as it is, though, the event (or Event) she has allowed to unfold demands to be experienced.

Jetse de Vries, "Echoes of Life (Kaleidotrope)
I'm not actually recommending this story. What I'm actually recommending is that its writer stop writing about human relationships until he learns something about them, and until he resolves not to tell lies about them. What I'm actually recommending is a hypothetical severely edited version of this story, maybe a third its current length, removing the sexist (and banal, and pointless) mom's-new-boyfriend storyline and the sudden, blindsiding appearance of racist Zwarte Piet halfway through, both of which de Vries should be embarrassed (at least) to have written and the Kaleidotrope staff should be embarrassed (at least) to have published, along with less abominable but very peculiar lapses like a team of scientists interfering with an unknown species' life cycle because individual members of that species are too pretty to die (scientists interfering in situations they don't understand? yes; like this? noooo), and the hilariously on-the-nose actual appearance of the phrases "conceptual breakthrough" and "sense of wonder" at the end of the story. What would then remain — the investigation of life on Europa; the hints of extreme technological transformation like the gengineered humans and the "Spikes of Jupiter"; the deft details about UV-spectrum decoration on the otherwise homogeneous buildings of the Europan settlement — would be a powerfully expository sf short story. If it catches you on a day when you're able to take the shit in stride — to roll your eyes and read past it — the rest may be worth checking out. Otherwise: avoid, avoid, avoid.

Joe M. McDermott, "Paul and His Son" (Asimov's)
I suppose one way to describe this story would be to say that it presents an act of desperation carried out in a world in which surveillance — from above and below — is so routine that all actions, including desperate ones, have become automatic, unreflective. But that's just one way and not quite right (the narrator is reflective, though in a peculiarly performative way); and really the story feels so...slight?, but in a good way?, that I wonder if it's best not to describe it at all — there's so little to describe; it just exists. The taut-but-bland, repetitive language is marvelously affecting, though I have my doubts as to whether McDermott has found quite the right "subject matter" for it. The introductory blurb says the story is taken from a yet-to-be-published novel, and I either very much want to read that novel or very much want to pretend it doesn't exist and this is all there is.

Kate Schapira, Alternate Histories (climateanxietycounseling)
Full disclosure, Schapira is a local friend of mine, but I really think this is some of the most exciting writing going on right now. She explains the project in the introductory post (which is what I've linked above; the stories follow on immediately in the next-post links at the bottom of each), but briefly: a while back she set up a "climate anxiety counseling" booth near the downtown bus hub, where she asked/let people talk out their worries about climate change, the future, and, in practice, just about anything. Now this past month she's written a very short story every day based on these conversations, trying to take them in warm, meaningful, useful directions. Fragmentary, ongoing, reticent but generous, utilitarian but open. Total fantasies except that there is no reason that they have to be fantasies; vigorous explorations of that illusory conceptual construct called "the future"; rigorous localism that refuses the "universal" without renouncing a broader relevance. Schapira's project cuts to the heart of writing, of science fiction, of the state of the world and our place and responsibilities in it. And then there's all the local bus route numbers, I have very strong and specific emotional attachments to all the bus routes around here.

Michael Cisco, "Excerpt from UNLANGUAGE" (Lackington's)
Another excerpt taken from an unpublished novel. On balance I don't think I "like" this (maybe better to say I don't think I'm sympathetic to it); I kept thinking as I read it that it felt like something a Lovecraft scholar might write after taking Paul Auster's City of Glass too much at face value — like I did when I first read it as a teenager, say. (And I admit I laughed a little when I got to the author bio at the end and discovered that Cisco — whose name I had heard before but about whom I knew nothing — actually is a Lovecraft scholar. Not a bad thing to be, don't get me wrong!, but still.) But this is probably the most uncharitable of all ways to describe my reaction to this fragment that does, after all, have its provocative moments (the part about parables...); and regardless I have to applaud Lackington's for publishing it, in the process taking an enormous step toward becoming the kind of space I had hoped it could be: one at least as welcoming to uncertain attempts as it, and the rest of the field, is to mere successes.

Robert Reed, "The Empress in Her Glory" (Clarkesworld)
Robert Reed, "What I Intend" (Asimov's)
I think what I like about Reed is the sense I get that if he is prolific — and he is, though not perhaps exceptionally so by sf's standards — it is because he's always thinking, and his thinking comes out in writing. (In an interview in Fantasy Scroll, which this month reprinted an older story of his, he says "My Eureka moments are constant. I endure them every day, sometimes several times a day" — which feels right for him.) His thinking isn't always perfect: both of these stories, characteristically intriguing-but-frustrating, are unintentionally silly at least as often as they are profound; "What I Intend" is too frequently glib and has a good deal of that relatively-mild-but-pervasive sexism that mars much of Reed's work; there is an authoritarianism in the telling of "The Empress" that aligns Reed uncomfortably (and not, I think, self-critically) not just with its heroine (which would be bad enough) but with the aliens who empowered her. So: far from perfect, but his thinking is always ongoing, which is refreshing and, as a project, occasionally exhilarating.

Sarah L. Johnson, "Loud as a Murder" (Crossed Genres)
A lightweight but often charming story of an autistic proofreader's love for the UPS guy who delivers him his manuscripts. What is often referred to as the "speculative element" deserves that isolating and trivializing name here: it feels mechanical and honestly a bit half-baked — and really is there any reason this had to be "speculative fiction"? — but overall I enjoyed myself.

Vandana Singh, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" (
Beginning and ending (roughly) with references to "negative space," "Ambiguity Machines" is itself a kind of glorious negative space defined by a very science fictional didacticism that does not actually exist in the story itself. Much more could be said; perhaps much less should: the story says what it needs to.

William Squirrell, "Götterdämmerung" (AE)
What interests me here is neither the setting (a perfunctory sort of post-singularity straggling-remnants-of-humanity thing) nor the "plot" (a just-as-perfunctory sort of male-coming-of-age-through-violence thing) nor the "ideas" (territory taken in more interesting directions by everything from Solaris to Star Trek: The Motion Picture) but the way in which the story, though it takes place over quite a number of years, consists essentially of one single action, brought to its conclusion. By placing this action in a recognizable sf context, though, with all of the object-focused discourse that comes with it, Squirrell brings to light the ways in which no action is self-contained and in which, indeed, "one single action" is not singular; the violent final encounter between Donald and Interface may bring both of them resolution of a kind, but it has no effect whatever on the context that caused that encounter to occur (and itself occurs for reasons basically irrelevant to Interface), which has its own business to attend to; and as the looking-back frame that begins the story indicates, life, and non-life, continues — not necessarily unaffected, but hardly brought to a stop.

Zen Cho, "Monkey King, Faerie Queen" (Kaleidotrope)
An entertaining, playfully told tale of a Chinese god in Britain's Faerie Court. I may not like that this is the kind of thing "SF/F" seems most interested in nowadays, but in isolation it's a fun little story.


Incidentally, as a corrective to the many things that bother even (or especially) me about this series of posts, I highly recommend Vajra Chandrasekera's beautiful post Atemporarility, on the subject of "keeping up" with short fiction, which I wholeheartedly endorse; I agree with every word. (With the exception of "professional," because surely not!)