Monday, September 21, 2015

"Tender" by Sofia Samatar

If — if — Samatar's work has a fatal flaw, it is that her metaphorical systems sometimes have a tendency to be just that — systems, worked out, everything corresponding so neatly and perfectly to everything else as to prohibit as full a sense of the discordance of (what I hesitantly call) reality as they seem to seek to convey. On a first reading "Tender" seemed to me to be such a story, brilliant but undermined by perfection, and I'm still tempted to say that it is, somewhat. But what interested me the second time through was to realize that these metaphors don't just line up — they all point inwards, referring deeper and deeper to themselves, to one another, a sought out claustrophobia that is deeply in resonance not only with the narrator's (chosen and inevitable) situation but also with a good deal of what I, at least (and alas), experience as life.

(There is a moment in A Leg to Stand On by the late Oliver Sacks where he describes emerging for the first time from his hospital room and realizing that long confinement has distorted his sense of perspective: everything further than where the walls had been looks "flat as a pancake, and seemed to lie like a giant Kodachrome in the air, exquisitely colored and detailed, but perfectly flat. [...] I was still enclosed, visually, in a transparent box, about nine by seven by six feet, the precise size of the 'cell' I had occupied for twenty days. [...] I could observe, even measure, the parallactic displacements which are normally seen as 'depth,' but noting this, knowing this, did not restore depth.")

Thus, as just one example, the vocationally radiation-obsessed narrator tells us about the "lovely green glass colored with uranium" that was so cheap in the 1930s that "they handed it out free at the movies"; then about her "hurt friend" who, in the hospital, looks "like a broken, greenish piece of glass" (no way to miss this one); then later, taking advantage of a readymade double meaning, points out that this glass is called "Depression glass." On top of this, the mention of Depression-era radioactive products branches off to the "Radium Girls," poisoned to death by their work (and by their at-work recreation); the color green points back to the meaningless "environmentally friendly" stickers; the glass, to the glass the narrator works behind. Even when the story reaches out and down into the earth itself it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between the narrator's cyborg implants and the earth's mineral composition; even when it reaches out and out and out to the sun it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between solar radiation and industrial radiation.

I no longer feel, or even comprehend, the desire for another world, that passion which produces both marvels and monsters, both poisons and cures. Like the woman in this story, I understand that there is no other world. There is only the one we have made.
A significant portion of Samatar's work seems to involve this sort of feeling: the need to come to terms with the way things are: to weep, and accept. And it seems to me that one of the questions she, and we, are struggling with in this work is how to do that without complicity, how to do it on the way to resistance. The last paragraph of "Tender" exits the claustrophobic metaphor system and just presents a past — but one that cannot be reclaimed, cannot be a source of hope or joy (which the narrator has just a moment ago associated with her beloved poison — beloved in the sense of φιλία, "nearness and dearness" in John Jones's rendering). It's cut off not only from the story's inward-facing metaphor system (which it replaces with another) but from the outward-facing metaphor that is reality. But what the narrator cannot do is not, or does not have to be, what we cannot do. It was fascinating to re-read this story while immersed in the rhetoric emerging from the astonishing Ferguson Is The Future symposium — in which Samatar participated —, so much of which revolved precisely around the necessity of imagining, desiring other worlds. To see this story as a contradiction of that would be to misunderstand art, of course; better to see it as — I'd rather not say "cautionary" — perhaps: complementary.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World" by Caroline M. Yoachim

What a strange experience! On a sentence-by-sentence level this is very much of the blandly well-written norm of the contemporary short sf field (particularly at the Lightspeed et al level), and I will confess I almost stopped reading before I had time to realize how deeply unhinged the story is, in very much the way that Sandra Newman wished for (in the solitary worthwhile entry in the Guardian's ongoing series of columns published with the intent to outrage gullible sf twitter into days of unpaid promotional work). The moment that convinced me to stick with it was when, early on, Mei's ruminations on the impracticability of her desired human colonization of the universe are interrupted by the sudden appearance of a disembodied, timeless voice speaking to her from nowhere and nowhen — and technically Mei may blink, but the story displays so little concern with placing her reaction in the "emotionally plausible" or "psychologically realistic" way that the field typically concerns itself with so fussily that I found myself needing to read on. Soon enough it's millions of years later and (sort of) formerly human spaceship (sort of) AIs are playing games with evolution from orbit — and things have just barely begun.

The story allows itself a lot of things that could be interpreted as massive failings — all this vastness, these disjunctive elements, all are shoehorned in together "awkwardly", but it is precisely the way that their coexistence and progression is not smoothed over (in the way that the basic language suggests they would be, and the way I normally expect this field, alas, to require at this point) that is so important. As just one example, the moment in which Mei's mind is transferred into the "black cube" of a computer and suddenly finds that, with this increased processing speed, mere seconds stretch out boundlessly, is followed almost immediately by the moment in which she and another AI casually engage in recreational activities that last millennia as part of a much longer strategy, as if the time were inconsequential, just a brief moment in the vast span of their lives. The story says nothing in words about this contradiction, but the unspoken juxtaposition speaks loud and clear — and what it speaks so clearly of is, specifically, the unspeakable.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"In the Garden with the Little Eaters" by L. Chan

My impression is that gray goo stories are passé at the moment, which means that the only people who would write them are either people who want to be fashionable but haven't caught up, or people who insist on following the sfnal impulse, the work, wherever it takes them, regardless.* To judge from the story before us (which technically — and specifically — is about blue sand rather than gray goo), Chan is the latter. The easy comparison is with Simak, and often in the story's first half I almost felt myself in his presence, the quiet, the contemplation, the loss, the painful disconnect from the past ("The Maker Machine could assemble books, but severed from the sea of information that existed before the fall, the pages were blank"), the melancholy grandeur that not only is not embarrassed to use superficially overwrought phrases like "Now, in the twilight of all things..." but also somehow knows instinctively that such phrases are precisely what is called for. But though there are appealing similarities, the sensibility here is all Chan's, not Simak's, and particularly as the story moves into its second, more eventful (though never action-packed) half, it becomes clear, if not easily articulable, what this means.

In the end this is a rare case of a wonderful, beautiful story that leaves me, not with nothing to say (all sorts of theorizing and investigation and explanation of Significance could be done here — around the garden, the bells, the music, the blue, the sand, the sleepers, the machine, the knife, the food, the memories, the birds in the distance, the collapsing buildings, the forest...) but with the desire to say little. The story exists, I have read it, and I will read it again; I want to be content with that.

*I could go off on a tangent speculating about the difference, which I'm increasingly convinced is enormous, between what I call the sfnal impulse and sfnal "ideas", but that might be better for another time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Haunting the pursuit

Lately I've been wrestling with Stephen Mitchelmore's beautiful and difficult post reviewing Jeff Fort's The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett. (I say "lately"; I'm always wrestling with Mitchelmore's thought.) When I first read the post it filled me with what I can only call a sense of wonder; my struggle to "understand" was always leavened (if such a struggle needs leavening) by moments in which something I've always felt but only in recent years have begun to allow myself to take seriously seemed to rise to the surface with startling clarity, a feeling quite different from that of comprehension.
All three writers trail in the wake of the Kantian revolution in which reason replaced divine authority, disabling in its wake the religious function of art. In what Fort calls a cruel compulsion, but might also be called a categorical imperative, the artist, philosopher or scientist is nevertheless left with reason's immanent drive to colonise what is beyond its limits, what we might call the ideal or the sublime. In doing so the imagination substitutes an image for the departed authority (hence words like 'ideal' and 'sublime'). In art this appears to have no more than a decorative function, while in more rational discourse it is a means of dismissing what cannot be contained. Resisting both, Fort argues the specific condition – the imperative to write – is the echo of the sublime behind the attractive images, which makes the impulse to write fiction significant. The echo is heard in the uncanny space of Kafka's castle village, Beckett's 'timeless void' and Blanchot's 'literary space'; images haunting the pursuit of the ideal into the fictional void...
My (over-)emphasis. I could have chosen any of a number of such passages. As I read this, I thought of something Gabriel Josipovici said in an interview given on the occasion of his great novel Infinity, when the interviewer asked him about learning from other writers: "I'm not sure one learns anything from other writers, except the confidence to go at things in one's own way." I would put the similar feeling I have in terms of permission: for in a general climate that disdains and ridicules such feelings as the "specific condition" Fort and Mitchelmore are writing about, I for one needed — and in many ways continue to need — to feel that I'd been granted permission to take such feelings in myself seriously, to attempt to bring them out and indeed, as Mitchelmore had put it earlier, to find a way to write by "subjecting the writing to the condition." Which is not to say that I've as yet been successful in this art of failure. But simply knowing that it is possible, that these inchoate things I've felt as long as I've known that Writing Is A Thing I Should Do matter, is the only thing that has made writing — which was quite literally impossible in the hellish experience of an MFA writing program, and in the devastation that followed for years afterwards — possible.

I'm writing this half out of gratitude — to Steve, to Josipovici, to Richard who was the first to grant me this permission and started me on this path; to the other writers the path has led me to, including the ones Fort writes about and others; to those whose perspectives (or attempts to hold onto and/or form perspectives) outside of "the Kantian revolution", or outside of colonizing Western thought, help keep me aware that there could exist something else, even if it's too late for me — and half out of anger at all those who make it so difficult to grant oneself this permission by noisily insisting that such feelings do not exist, that reason is sufficient, that adding more writing to a clogged and indifferent market is the whole of a life's work. This is why, for example, Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy made me so upset even as I liked it, and why I was so grateful for Agota Kristof's trilogy which I read at about the same time. (It's also why VanderMeer's more recent attempt to seize Clarice Lispector for genre and assimilate her to a pile of "similar writers" — as "the weird" tries to do to so many — bothered me far beyond the eye-rollingly overheated prose.)

For years I would start writing stories much like any other, stories whose disembodied narrators had unproblematic access to The Truth Of What Happened, stories that sought to ignore the nagging feeling in me that I was doing something terribly wrong, being untrue to myself and the world, and to no justifiable purpose. When I never finished them, when they screamed at my neglect for months and months until I destroyed them unwritten, I castigated myself for my laziness, not yet knowing that it was possible to let myself feel these other buried impulses, and to come to the work through them, rather than using glib writing to paper over them. Laziness is real, and at this point I have to admit to myself that it will always be with me, but simply knowing that something else was going on, and that I had permission to care about it, is the one thing that has made my writing, such as it is, possible — my work on this blog as much as the fiction that (with one uncharacteristic exception) has not yet been exposed to The Public, both of which are aspects of this same impulse.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"A Young Thug Confronts His Own Future" by Ras Mashramani

The story is what its title says it is: an eleven year old boy tells us, with as much certainty and uncertainty as if recollecting the past (and often sliding without break from the future tense to the present to the past), what his life will be. No explanation is given or needed for how he can know this; as another part of the zine the story originally appeared in says, "the future is now and always has been." At times, too, some strange retrospective elements enter — like when he steals a Walkman from Circuit City (which feels odd to read now regardless of when the story is "set") — and as we read we find ourselves experiencing as one what we're more used to think of as different perspectives on time, different relationships with our place in it.

As in the accompanying illustration by @RecTheDirector, what stretches out in front of him — a life he's constantly trying to reclaim from the shape given it by poverty, the police, death, the whims of white people — seems to constrict and constrict, with maybe a way out — but to where? — in the distance. At the end of the story, he's fishing on a river, giving a sense of openness and freedom, but he's doing it "on my day off from the group home." The phone call that connects him with his sister and with her apocalyptic reminder, "You were a life" (that verb tense resonating off in thousands of directions) connects him also with his own mortality (and the quickness with which the structures surrounding him are willing to dismiss the significance of that mortality) as well as the other, entirely ordinary, apocalypse that's going on on her end of the line and, by the time he wakes up (will wake up) the next morning, at his end of it as well. And there are a million other significances I'm sure I'm missing.

But it's not a hopeless story, not a defeatist story, instead a realistic one — and this, not whatever nonsense Kim Stanley Robinson wants to babble about, is the sense in which science fiction can be uniquely realistic — and realism has to include the reality of alternatives, of possibilities. By telling this story, by imagining the ability to tell it at all, the narrator is resisting, refusing to become the "ideal blackbody" the oppressive world around him wants him to be; and the story itself, Ras Mashramani's story — the story she imagines, the work she lives, the other life she writes — though it is only words on a screen or in a zine, is the presence of possibility in a world that needs it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Johnny Rev" by Rachel Pollack

One of Rachel Pollack's recurring fixations seems to be the creation of worlds that are in most respects not unlike ours, but in which everything, even the most quotidian of acts or details, nevertheless needs to be explained to her readers. This goes a long way toward explaining why I love her work so much, I think; often it fixates — again I think the word is accurate — specifically on the question, what makes this work different from any other? what makes it "fantasy" (or, more rarely with her, "science fiction") rather than otherwise? and answers: one is allowed neither the luxury nor the irresponsibility of taking anything for granted. The language of exposition is central to this, to her, project, and she makes no effort to hide it. What might be superficially misinterpreted as a flatness of tone for me serves to emphasize this: when so much of the dialogue, so much of the plot-oriented narration is so resolutely banal, to encounter these expository intrusions of wonder over and over and over again becomes a kind of extraordinary experience that it simply could not be in surroundings that reached for more stylistic "poetry."

That's her work in general. (Or at least one corner of it; her work is vast.) This story specifically? There is a glorious moment as it nears its climactically anticlimactic climax in which Jack Shade, in order to prevent himself from being annihilated by an incomplete duplicate of himself that wants nothing more than to take on Jack's full existence for himself, must write down as full a record of experience — his specific experience — as possible. To do so he uses a special kind of magical pen, possessing

the ability to write very, very small, in words that couldn't fade or be erased. Everything Jack saw he wrote, and still it all took up less than two sheets of paper. [...]

Painstaking as it was, the physical part was easy. The memories, however... Someone once said that to set down all your experiences would take longer than it did to live them. But neither could you consciously decide on the important ones. You had to allow them to come to you. So Jack closed his eyes, let out a breath, and invited his life to parade before him.

In order, then, to remain himself, Jack must write his life, must make sense of his life in writing — and he can neither record a fully accurate accounting of that life nor be paralyzed by mistrust in his ability to select details. He has to give himself over to writing, to trust its ability to do something he knows it cannot do in order to invest it with precisely that ability.

For this moment I am eternally grateful, but in other ways I have to say that the Jack Shade stories (of which this is, I believe, the third, and the second I've read) feel like something of a misstep to me. This story, like the earlier "Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls" (I haven't read "The Queen of Eyes"), seems overlong, heavy, often plodding aimlessly from event to event, one thing after another, in a way even Pollack's explicitly arbitrary stories seldom do. And though the world is quite different, the particular ways in which the wondrous and the mundane are mixed feel a bit like a retread of material that worked better in Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency (and if, as Kip Manley has suggested, "fantasy, to do what it does, must" appropriate, that appropriation is — for better and/or/but worse — much more on the surface here than it was there, and it was on the surface there, too). Combined into a novel, as they seem destined eventually to be, these stories might read better by virtue of the disjunctures such combination would create (the ol' van Vogt effect, and god bless). In the meantime, I will try to remember that what seem to be an artist's missteps may always be revealed as necessary, may not in fact be missteps.