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.