Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Words inside a copy of Gilead

Ages ago I bought a copy of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead from Savers. Yesterday, after a period of just utter disgust with novels, all novels, the idea of reading any novel, I picked it up — my friend Richard's been talking about it, and the first page made it look appealing, like something I wouldn't mind spending some small part of my life with — and started reading. So far it hasn't made me regret the decision to return to novels, or at least to come to this one; we'll see if it stays that way.
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this — it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then — I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

In the book, presumably left over from whoever owned it before me, was a bookmark — which I'm now using to mark my place as I read. "CIRCLE OF LIFE", it says at the top, then blank cream-colored paper until, about two thirds of the way down its bookmark-standard length, "See Reverse Side". Then more blank until the bottom, where there's an incomprehensible brand logo (I can make out the words "collector series" but no more) and "Gainesville, Tx". On the reverse side "CIRCLE OF LIFE" is repeated at the top, now with a smaller "BOOKMARK" underneath it, and then this text (all [sic]):
The Circle of Life represents life's pathways and the influence of nature in its various forms: the wind, clouds, moon and earth. The separated spaces in the middle circle represent the four natural directions. The East is associated with births and new beginnings because it is where each new day dawns. The South is where one learns to grow. The West, as daylight fades to dusk, is where one comes to the Autumn of their life. And the North is the place of the hereafter life.

The ascending stairs represents the wind and clouds, while the maze represents the Earth where we dwell.

So begins ones journey in the Circle of Life.

Then more blank cream-color. Any actual image there once was of the circle of life must have been printed in less durable ink than the text. Over the (however many) years it has faded completely: no trace of it remains to "represent" anything. At the bottom of this side of the bookmark, in small but all-capital letters, are the words: "NOT INDIAN PRODUCED OR INDIAN PRODUCT".

Monday, June 22, 2015

The cases for and against The Case Against Tomorrow

Frederik Pohl's The Case Against Tomorrow makes no such case and is not nearly as good as its title. These six stories work hard at giving the appearance of satire without ever being funny, the appearance of being "political" without ever having a single political thing to say beyond what any "apolitical" work does. In their perspectivelessness they scream "status quo" all the more loudly for the fact that they say it sarcastically. (Witness the fact that they can shift the locus of their elementary "if this goes on..." reasoning from consumer capitalism to prisons to baseball without any corresponding shift in register or urgency.) Sometimes they feel like the spectacle of a liberal fully understanding the absurd monstrosity that is liberalism without understanding that there exists any alternative; sometimes — and this is probably more biographically accurate — they seem like that of a never-fully-committed socialist collapsing, at last, with an embarrassed, awkward giggle, into the relative ease and comfort of liberalism. (The final story, "My Lady Greensleeves" — the whole thing, but particularly the fate of Lafon's head and the uses of the joke at the end — should be studied closely by anyone interested in the role of race in mainline white liberal sf, assuming they can stomach the story's more violent moments and, probably more unstomachable, the writing's blithe, bland unawareness of just how violent it is.)

Despite this the stories always seem excruciatingly certain of themselves: in the way they carry themselves, in the way there is never any imaginable alternative to what they recount, and even less to their perspective on it. Strangely, this might be the strongest thing in their favor — the mind that seems reflected in this writing feels as though it is teetering on the edge of an abyss, liable at any moment to collapse and fall into nothingness, into a full awareness of the irremediable contradictions it requires to go on being what it is (though we know, biographically, that it never did) — but there is something in the way that the stories perch themselves precisely at this moment, almost never stepping even slightly to one direction or the other, almost never even fidgeting, that is — what? Banally moving? Movingly banal? In part?

There is often a metaphorical conflation of the states "nakedness" and "honesty" but here I want to distinguish between them and say that maybe what I like about these stories, even though I hate them, is that while they're never honest — they are in fact vehemently dishonest — they're always naked. They're terrible, embarrassing, philistine, ideological nightmares, but somehow, paradoxically, by so being they lay bare aspects of writing and being that most other writing, even putatively truth-telling writing, tends to work so hard to conceal. (And yet this is not a recommendation — I don't recommend this book — it is nothing more than a fumbling attempt at explaining, if only to myself, why I don't regret having read it.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - May 2015

[Click here to skip the damn commentary and go straight to the recommendations.]

I no longer feel a need to write introductions to these posts, except of course that here's me, writing an introduction to this post.. A large portion of the less-than-monthly magazines didn't publish this month, which means the pool of stories was blessedly smaller than usual, which in turn means I guess it's impressive that I'm recommending as many as I am (though most of these recommendations come with reservations, not that that's unusual).

One thing I feel duty-bound to mention, much as it pains me, is that both Jonathan McCalmont and I seem to have been wrong about Terraform, which despite its unsavory attachments and practices has turned out to be more worth reading than I had expected (and I would have to assume less worth reading for him than he expected, because it's only occasionally anything like he described it after its first month). To my intense horror I'm recommending three stories they published this month. I'm only unreservedly enthusiastic about one — the Brissett — and other things they've done this month make me gag at best, and even though I'm recommending his story, advisedly, with a de-monetized archive link, I really wish they wouldn't have paid Tao Lin money. But there you have it. I tend to think that Terraform's relatively strong showing says more about the rest of the field than about Terraform itself: any field that can be improved by the arrival of capitalist resource-extractors is in a dire state.

Anyway, on to the now-traditional lists. As always, if a magazine you think I should be looking at is conspicuously absent from them, let me know; same goes for one-off sf issues of or individual sf stories in non-sf magazines, etc. Note that I'm not only looking at sf-exclusive magazines but any that publish sf often enough to make it worthwhile to check them out regularly.

[Click here to skip the damn lists and go straight to the recommendations.]

The changes from last month: Fiction Vortex has ceased publishing and so has been dropped. The first issue of Truancy made it clear that its interests are not mine, so I've dropped it too and wish it well. And I've added Escape Pod, which I hadn't included before because I'd been under the impression that they only had audio — which I can't do — for their stories, but it turns out they have text as well. As of now I have no plans to make any changes for next month.

The full list of magazines I consult regularly for these posts, all free online except for the ones marked with an asterisk: 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, 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, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, STRAEON*, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, tor.com, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review, Words Without Borders.

Of these, no new fiction appeared in May in Abyss & Apex, Betwixt, Cosmos, Expanded Horizons, Fantasy Scroll, Farrago's Wainscot, The Future Fire, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone (i.e., I haven't read the fiction in the May-June issue yet), Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, New Haven Review, Omenana, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, STRAEON, Strange Constellations, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, or Unlikely Story. I at least attempted to read every story published in the remaining magazines.

Now, arbitrarily in alphabetical order by story title disregarding "a" and "the", the recommendations!

"Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B by Kathrin Köhler (The Book Smugglers)
More and more I'm wary of stories that dispense with the usual form of stories...only to replace that form with another pre-made, readily recognizable one (in this case, an institutional questionnaire); it's a move that seems to have become, in its less-prevelant way, almost as obligatory as those spoon-feeding one-line opening and/or closing paragraphs, and the impulses behind it often — as here, to a degree — strike me as being those not of writing — of feeling that the usual forms are inadequate in themselves — so much as of novelty-seeking. That said, though I don't think much of the form when considering this as a story, it does have good things to say, and says them all the better by not saying them but asking us to think about how, and whether, to say them. (Though, as an aside, I have to wonder how much thought Köhler gave to the world that produced this questionnaire; among other things, I don't say they couldn't but how do such institutions — and their language — survive if they are willing to ask such questions?) And I wonder too if sf as a field might be improved if its writers would begin setting themselves these questions before beginning, or continuing, to write.

"Dancing in the Right of Way" by Cyn C. Bermudez (Perihelion)
I'm recommending this story not because I think it's great — to be frank it's not, really — but because I sense something submerged in it that I hope, someday, could emerge. The "before they came" flashback scenes try much too hard to force a largely prefab emotion, and especially the military language of the "after" scenes is just trying (though I liked the quiet revelation that it's all a fake, an imitation, especially in the face of the suggestion that the aliens our characters are fighting are here as part of their own, unrelated-to-us war). But the sense of confusion and loss is real, and the mingling of transcendence and destruction in the last paragraph — which feels almost unattached to the rest of the story not in an incompetent way but in the best kind of jarring disjuncture that sf has long sought after — pushes the first person to the breaking point and is awful in many senses of the word.

"Esterhazy's Cadence" by Guy T. Martland (Perihelion)
The extremely rare exception where I'd argue for reading a work of sf metaphorically rather than literally. Taken literally, this story — with its music-that-can-kill-you, its religious riots over a sustained B-flat, and so on — is more than a little silly (and really no reading will fully rescue it from silliness, though it's a kind of silliness I at least enjoy). But metaphorically it feels to me as though it is asking the question of whether it is possible to return to (or arrive at) a way of being in which art once more is capable of founding a world, a fundamental part of life rather than a cordoned-off entertainment we always feel secretly guilty about not attending to properly. I'm also a sucker for space elevator imagery — which is my secretly guilty way of saying I find such imagery extremely moving and important without trying to explain why I feel this way — and its brief invocations here are surprisingly beautiful, given the story's more frequent flatness of feeling.

"God's Dog" by S.E. Gale (Unsung Stories)
I find myself with little to say about it (did I just hear a hallelujah chorus break out somewhere?), but this bit of angelic and/or demonic and/or alien weirdness is intriguing, even occasionally wondrous.

"In Memoriam" by Rachel Reddick (Diabolical Plots)
This tiny thing can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be overwrought or unassuming (and though I don't disapprove of the former this material demands the latter), but it allows for a wonderful sort of hinge moment toward the end, where the focus of the narrator's meditations shifts from the absence of the future to the absence of the past, almost as if these absences are one in the face of the isolation of the current moment.

"The Judge" by Sulagna Misra (Terraform)
The audacity of the writing here means my reaction varied between wild applause and god that's hokey from sentence to sentence. (And sometimes I felt both ways simultaneously, as with the aggressively, hilariously infelicitous opening sentences: "You'd think a time traveler would be on time, grumbles Jay. Jay T'Sevn, or J87, is a robot.") On balance I can only approve of that. (And then there's the differently audacious "Like most humans, her eyes, hair, and skin are all different shades of brown" — standing ovation.) Two stories compete for the approval of a Judge whose criteria we never learn but seem roughly to match the current standard, as far as we can see at least; both stories are about communication, about telling, though not precisely about storytelling. The first, told by the human, seems equally uncomfortable with all this writing communicating telling we do ("They wrote all the time, forever explaining themselves, forever waiting for answers") and with what might happen if we found a way to stop. In the second, told by the robot, an AI built by an alien society to explore what is to them alien finds that, in trying to explain the alien, it ends up having more in common with it than with those who built it — an inevitability perhaps only available to an intermediary.

"No Alphabet Can Spell It" by Emily C. Skaftun (Buzzy Mag)
The narrator of We Who Are About To probably wouldn't approve — and maybe Russ herself wouldn't, either — but for me at least this perfectly ordinary sf story did the extremely welcome work of reminding me that in a perfectly ordinary sf story nothing is perfectly ordinary. Skaftun is willing to get a little batty here, and God bless.

"Science Fiction Ideas" by Tao Lin (Terraform)
As "A Tao Lin Story" I don't think I would recommend this; it has its moments but more often feels weighted down, with none of the lightness of Taipei. At times it almost feels more like someone's inane parody of him than Lin himself. But my god, a science fiction story with some thoughts in its head about what science fiction is — as signaled by the title, it wonders what exactly we mean when we talk about "ideas," but also why we might turn them into stories, and what on earth a "story" is — published in a science fiction magazine? This is practically unheard of — and as it does have its moments, and as those moments are wrapped up precisely in its science-fictionality, I have to at least point it out as something worth a look. Too bad you have to be an established asshole publishing in www dot venture capital dot com to actually be allowed to try something like this. (And on that note, if you do read this on my recommendation, please use the link above; it will contribute no page views to the story.)

"A Song for You" by Jennifer Marie Brissett (Terraform)
The writer of Elysium turns her attention to the Orpheus legend. And just as that novel treated the love of Hadrian and Antinous as not so much a rigid model to follow as an ever-changing-ever-the-same shape into which to mold and remold itself, so we find here as the shape of Orpheus and Eurydice moves through a far-future world of interplanetary war, colonization, forgetting, and music. We are just astonishingly lucky to exist in a world that has Brissett's writing in it.

"Strings" by Kelly Haworth (Daily Science Fiction)
Though it succumbs to much of the patness, the canned "poetic" language, and other pitfalls of the contemporary short sf scene, "Strings" sets itself a promising project. The many allegorical reductions we may be tempted to make of it (This Is A Story About Abusive Relationships, This Is A Story About Cultural Colonialism, etc) butt up against one another uncomfortably — not erasing one another, not tearing one another down, but saying what they have to say while reminding us of the violence such reduction can do to the richness — much of it ugly, some of it not — of the world.