Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Pillow-Talk of the Late Oneirocalypse" by Vajra Chandrasekera

To begin a story with "—not how it started nor how it ended," and then to go on from there, is perhaps to acknowledge that by beginning to write one begins to carve the world into pieces, the ones that will be written and the ones that will not — an acknowledgment without which writing is much more likely to work to make us forget that such carving has taken place. The last Chandrasekera story I wrote about, the superb "Stick a Pin in Me", also concerned itself greatly with what will and will not be spoken, and who wants it that way and why; also like that other story "Pillow-Talk" takes the form of a rambling monologue — or, rather, a dialogue of which we only see one part, the interlocutor's contributions having been carved away. There is a joy to seeing a writer find a form perfectly suited to what they need to say, and watching these two remarkably different stories unfold is one such. (Which is not, of course, to say that Chandrasekera should only ever write carved-out monologues!)

A major difference here is that where the narrator of "Pin" was desperate, dying, to hold on, the narrator here is much more willing to let go of what they themself call "basal reality" — ambivalent, but willing. If the narrator is to be trusted, it is only one subjective year (it's different for everyone) after they reluctantly, or accidentally, followed most (or all?) of humanity through "the door in [their] dreams". If they are to be trusted, they feel pain at having been separated from their loved ones, from their context. If they are to be trusted, they are just as disoriented by the rapidly receding memory of a basal reality "which is actually quite an unfashionable thing to believe in now" as anyone else is. (I think, perhaps, we should trust them every bit as much as we should not; every word they say contradicts another, but all, somehow, are true to the same degree. This might mean that I believe the narrator is both what they say they are and the "evolved oneiric life-form" they describe as being a hypothetical other.) But despite, or at any rate in addition to, or maybe instead of, this inexperience, pain, and disorientation, they have reached an accommodation with mortdieu, the death of the "gods of order"; with an Earth that "moves so easily now, people are always breaking worlds in their enthusiasm"; with a self even less stable than our theoretically waking selves. It may be the only kind of accommodation possible — or, and, or, to make it seem so may be nothing more than brutal self-justification.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"I Am Winter" by Robin Wyatt Dunn

I don't know if they have this effect on everyone, but I have a great deal of difficulty resolving Dunn's stories into a sense of what-happened, of who-did-what-why. I don't say this to complain; some of the writing that's mattered most to me — And Chaos Died, say, or The Passion Artist — presents me with similar difficulty. Which is not to say that I think Dunn is on the level of a Russ or a Hawkes, but it might be to say that I only think he's not yet. I very much hope to see him keep writing.

In this particular story my difficulty has a great deal to do with the reticence of the narrator, who is perfectly willing to share intimate details of his life if they cross his fictional mind but who stays almost wholly silent about his reasons, or justifications, for the decisions he makes during the story. The same goes, in fact, on what I'd call a metatextual level if the word weren't so laden with obnoxious usage, for Dunn: take for example the narrator's self-chosen name, which is Zarathustra ("but you can call me Zee; if you will call me anything") — signaling, no doubt, any number of references that go over my head (I haven't read Nietzsche, though, unlike many grown adults on "the left" [or whatever], I'd like to) — "but it is only a word I picked out of an old book, because I liked the sound." Especially in combination with the earlier reference to "what little reading I've done" (you've only done a little reading and one of the books you read was Thus Spake Zarathustra?) I'm choosing to interpret this as a joke of sorts, though whether on Zee's part or only on Dunn's I can't say.

In the absence of explanation even antecedents become difficult to trace ("I remember the last time I tried this," Zee says, and I'm not completely sure what "this" is, even though I am witness to what he is doing). The clarity and simple motivations that a typically plot-based reading would ask us to look for — primarily: when, how, why, and to what extent do Zee's intentions toward the young thief he's hunting change (for that matter, what were they to begin with, exactly) — aren't here, to my reading (in writing this I keep having the nervous feeling that maybe the story is completely obvious and I'm just being dense), and in their absence the reader is free, not to come up with their own (though there is evidence that could be mustered, and I do have my own favored ideas) but to recognize that the whole literary construct of "motivation" is just that, a construct, seldom bearing much relation to the lives we live.

And it all takes place against a half-glimpsed context, the conquest (by unclear methods) of earth by alien "Benefactors" who have (for unclear reasons) removed the planet from its orbit, sending it on a journey (to unclear destinations, if any) during which it grows ever colder as the sun grows more distant, its atmosphere bleeding away, its population dwindling (though some "grow new 'lungs'" and make other adaptations — by what means and to whose ends is left ambiguous). The elucidation of all this could easily have been "the story" but it is not; and when the story ends, suddenly, with an almost van Vogtian shift in scale, it manages somehow to be both vertiginously irresolvable and cathartic in the least complacent sense of the term.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Books read 2015

The third annual look at what I read in the past year. First a list — with links if I've written about the book, whether here, on my tumblr (if I wrote at least a little more than just "good!" or "terrible!"), or as part of the Strange Horizons book club — and afterward some commentary.

1. Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire (re-read)
2. Rachel Pollack, Temporary Agency (re-read)
3. L. Timmel Duchamp, Alanya to Alanya (Marq'ssan cycle 1)
4. Anne Carson, Red Doc>
5. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, issue 31
6. Clare Winger Harris, Away from the Here and Now: Stories in Pseudo-Science
7. Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods
8. Interzone 255 (November-December 2014)
9. Asimov's Science Fiction (February 2015)
10. Galaxy Science Fiction (October 1950)
11. Marcel Proust, The Fugitive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
12. Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays
13. Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium Or, The World After
14. Stanisław Lem, Microworlds (ed. Franz Rottensteiner, trans. various)
15. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane
16. Ellen Cushman, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People's Perseverance
17. Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks (trans. Christina MacSweeney)
18. Octavia E. Butler, Patternmaster
19. Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution
20. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
21. Alan Garner, Red Shift
22. Alan Garner, The Owl Service
23. Nisi Shawl, Filter House
24. Asimov's Science Fiction (March 2015)
25. Interzone 256 (January-February 2015)
26. Marcel Proust, Time Regained (trans. Andreas Mayor, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
27. Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation (re-read)
28. Nina Allan, Spin
29. Nina Allan, The Race (re-read)
30. Soviet Science Fiction (ed. uncredited, trans. Violet L. Dutt)
31. Hilton Als, White Girls
32. Plato, Parmenides (trans. Benjamin Jowett)
33. Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1950)
34. Doris Vallejo, The Boy Who Saved the Stars (illustrated by Boris Vallejo)
35. R.K. Narayan's rendering of The Ramayana
36. Dung Kai-cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (trans. Dung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall)
37. Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (re-read)
38. Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, Rama II
39. Genesis (KJV)
40. Interzone 257 (March-April 2015)
41. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery
42. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. - A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Ned Katz
43. Rachel Pollack and David Vine, Tyrant Oidipous: A New Translation of Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus
44. Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History
45. Asimov's Science Fiction (April/May 2015)
46. Kuzhali Manickavel, Things We Found During the Autopsy
47. Frederik Pohl, The Case Against Tomorrow
48. Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
49. Asimov's Science Fiction (June 2015)
50. Craig Strete, The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories
51. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
52. Andrea Hairston, Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays
53. Georges Bataille, Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or The Birth of Art (trans. Austryn Wainhouse)
54. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett)
55. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
56. Asimov's Science Fiction (July 2015)
57. Interzone 258 (May-June 2015)
58. Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
59. Octavia E. Butler, Mind of My Mind
60. Fantasy & Science Fiction (July-August 2015)
61. Exodus (KJV)
62. Asimov's Science Fiction (August 2015)
63. Miguel de Beistegui, Proust as Philosopher: The Art of Metaphor (trans. Dorothée Bonnigal Katz, with Simon Sparks and Beistegui)
64. Samuel Beckett, Molloy (trans. Patrick Bowles and Beckett)
65. Samuel R. Delany, Equinox
66. Asimov's Science Fiction (September 2015)
67. Galaxy Science Fiction (December 1950)
68. Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories
69. Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient (re-read)
70. Nancy Jane Moore, The Weave
71. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn) (re-read)
72. Leviticus (KJV)
73. Interzone 259 (July-August 2015)
74. Fantasy & Science Fiction (September-October 2015)
75. Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (trans. Beckett)
76. Gabriel Josipovici, Hotel Andromeda (re-read)
77. Octavia E. Butler, Survivor
78. Fantasy & Science Fiction (November-December 2015)
79. Asimov's Science Fiction (October-November 2015)

And commentary.

From the perspective of today at least, I want to say it felt like a scattered, vague, often routine year of reading. I suspect this has a lot to do with the massive quantities of new short science fiction I was reading, only a fraction of which shows up on this list because I arbitrarily and somewhat old-fashionedly only included the paper magazines I read as "books" here. (On the other hand it's not like I'm going to call an issue of, say, GigaNotoSaurus — i.e., one story, most of the time not one I read all the way through — "a book.") I plan to say more about My Year Of At Least Trying To Read All The Damn Stories in a forthcoming post (after I manage to write about the one 2015 story I have left to write about, which is beautiful and wonderful and hard to write about), but for now I'll just say that by the end of the year it was exhausting and felt obligatory and mechanical and awful, the occasional good (and much rarer great) story notwithstanding. In fact by the end of the year I was kind of feeling like reading itself was obligatory and mechanical, just something I did because what else was I going to do and at the same time something I had to force myself to do rather than the much more appealing options of sitting vacantly in front of the television or the computer. All those damn stories — and even just looking at this list, my god I read so many magazines — took their toll, I guess. Part of the end of the year too was taken up with reading for pre-arranged critical projects, one in particular (tba) deeply unpleasant; I don't want to stop participating in criticism beyond the self-directed, typically serendipitous rather than planned, bounds of this blog, but I think I need to reorient my approach to it.

Despite all that this list is full of books that moved and changed me. I finished Proust's great novel, delighted among other things to find that its final volume is full of pre-emptive demolitions of superficial takes on Proust, then later read Miguel de Beistegui's extraordinary (albeit poorly translated) book about it — though calling it "a book about Proust" is misleading, especially in a climate which tends to think of literary criticism as secondary to the "real" work. Beistegui's book is a thrilling work of philosophy in its own right: it is both, as Steve Mitchelmore once put it, "a stunning study of what fiction might be other than representational" and an attack-from-within on Western concepts of rationality and linear time that have reigned supreme since at least Kant. Reading it was one of those wonderful experiences where you recognize, intimately, what you've felt all along without being able to articulate (or sometimes just plain without knowing it) while simultaneously being forced to reconsider everything you thought you knew, everything you thought you thought. A year that had Proust and Beistegui in it and nothing else would be a great year.

And Beckett! My god!

And Helen DeWitt!

I've begun reading the Bible, slooooowly, in the King James Version; I will admit I sometimes (often) find myself glazing over, but at other times it's a remarkable experience — the sort of expanding narrative of the books of the Torah, or the Pentateuch if you prefer (I have neither a traditional allegiance nor a firm knowledge) — the way it practically gallops through these grand events, slowly beginning to look more and more closely until we reach what strikes me as the central event, the giving of the law (which is still narrative: it is not merely a list of laws, it is the narration of the event that is God giving the law to Moses and through him the people), which takes up as much or more space than everything that has come before it combined — it's like nothing else I've read, though at times I find myself thinking of Beckett, or Bernhard ("And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee," he said, I thought).

As with Beistegui, it was a post of Steve's that brought me, unexpected, to Georges Bataille's "highbrow coffee table book" on the paintings at Lascaux, which, shaped though it often is by his more, uh, questionable tendencies, is nonetheless beautiful and provocative, with a great deal to say about art, time, and wonder (and the photographs are why words like "exquisite" exist). Valeria Luiselli and Hilton Als, vastly different as they are, both demonstrate, in their affinity with and vast distance from the typical New Yorker-style, MFA-taught, read-aloud-on-NPR kind of "personal writing," what such writing could be if freed from these institutional requirements (and, admittedly, if written by people as brilliant as Als and Luiselli). As for Marilynne Robinson, after having read Gilead with a deep sense of gratitude, Absence of Mind was fascinating and troubling for the way its subtle and often necessary attack on scientism and related sins was yoked to, again, the politically and artistically compromised MFA world that she is, after all, as an instructor at Iowa, at the heart of; her horrifying two-part interview with Obama (the second part of which I managed to restrain myself from reading) was almost like the punchline to the joke that was my strange relationship with her work last year. For all that, though, I'm still glad of Gilead more than not, and am undecided whether I wish to explore further.

Politics! If I thought my departure from and disgust with liberalism was complete and total before I read Losurdo's book on the subject, well, it's damn well complete and total now. Speaking of that monstrous ideology, I read a pair of important books on its close relative (Losurdo calls it a "twin birth"), slavery: Eric Williams' study of Capitalism and Slavery, whose often dry (though just as often cutting) take on the subject is nonetheless vital in showing how slavery shaped just about every aspect of the world that we live in to this very day — which is also a focus of Edward E. Baptist's much more....intimate? (sometimes in my opinion irresponsibly so) book, intertwining as it does a visceral accounting of the experience of slavery (so often missing from our received histories — one hears so often of things like "slave auctions" in contexts which encourage us not to think about what this might entail) with an in-depth economic analysis of just how it all worked, how it developed (and how very modern and dynamic it was, putting the lie to the "antiquated institution on its way out anyway" notion), and how it created, well, the modern world.

In science fiction (aside from all the new stories) I started but never returned to L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle, which I would like to get back to soon if I can; I began Octavia E. Butler's Patternist series, which so far I have vaguely mixed feelings about but am excited to continue; Jennifer Marie Brissett enraptured me with her richly disjunctive book; I renewed my love affair with Rachel Pollack; Nina Allan impressed me with her elusive, fragmentary glimpses of not-quite-future, not-quite-alternate worlds; I returned with joy and gratitude to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps the single most important novel in my life, lurking behind everything I ever write in any capacity (and discussing it with a group of brilliant people at Strange Horizons was sheer pleasure); and in their extremely different ways Clare Winger Harris, Craig Strete, Nisi Shawl, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and the wonderful old 1950's issues of Galaxy available at the Internet Archive all reminded me of why I'd wanted to be reading short science fiction in the first place.

Hopes for the year to come? As ever I'd like to read more poetry (Rankine, Rilke, and Ashbery come to mind as people I'm interested in exploring, and I've recently picked up the new Pasolini collection). I want to continue with Beckett. I'm tempted to re-read Proust already. More perversely, I'm also tempted to try to reacquire my Italian (never fluent to begin with, and never faced with dense intellectual work) with Losurdo's as yet untranslated (into English, that is) book on Stalin. More non-fiction: criticism, philosophy, politics, science, history, maybe even "theory". I'd like to give less of a shit about science fiction, though that's probably a vain hope, dammit. If I must keep up with "new" writing I want to read the books that don't get corporate attention; Jamie Berrout, for one, looks exciting, and I have some Metropolarity books to finish and begin. Older works — I've heard a rumor that people have been writing for millennia — and more in translation. Fewer books, proportionally, by damned white people (by the most generous possible accounting a little less than a third of the books I read in 2015 that can be so counted were by writers of color, which when you factor back in the unbearable whiteness of contemporary short science fiction makes for an even sorrier state of affairs). And only, only things I fucking care about.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

"The City of Your Soul" by Robert Reed

The usual Robert Reed questions apply. Is the writing style provocative or precious? (Answer: yes.) Is this misogyny or just heterosexuality? (Answer: yes.) Has something occurred or has one posture merely followed another? (Answer: ...yes?) A city disappears, but then the disappearance disappears. Like the fake fakes that obsessed Philip K. Dick when he wasn't too busy being a shithead (he talked about sneaking in to Disneyland at night and swapping out the mechanical birds for real ones), a disappearing disappearance is a negation, a self-canceling-out, but at the same time not: it's a presence, a persistence, of a kind with no more than an infrathin separation from that of any other thing-that-exists. Questions of truth and mattering (as in, what matters? what does not?) take on more and more importance as they become more and more unanswerable, unless they're not important at all. People discuss it fruitlessly on the internet.