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.