Tuesday, February 23, 2016

a year of reading short science fiction

So, I spent 2015 reading all of the short science fiction. Well, "reading all" — I looked at all the stories published in all of the free magazines I was aware of (though I ended up cutting some magazines when it became apparent that there was no chance of anything decent appearing in them, and I didn't look at, e.g., Beneath Ceaseless Skies or Nightmare because it's extremely rare for the things categorized as "fantasy" and "horror" to be of any interest to me), as well as in the subscription-only magazines I subscribed to (Interzone for most of the year, F&SF for some of it, Asimov's for all of it [except that for some reason I never got the December issue, which I'm sure was no great loss]). I didn't actually finish reading the vast majority of them; indeed, I ended up writing about almost every story I managed to get to the end of, because my goal was to write at least something about every story I liked even a little bit.

Why did I do this? God only knows. Because of some sickness I care about science fiction, though the state of the contemporary field works very hard at finding a cure.

What did I find? The field is garbage, almost exclusively. It is also enormous, exhausting, pointless. With some extremely rare exceptions, every word, every paragraph break, every thought, is routine and formulaic. With some extremely rare exceptions, there are no politics other than liberalism and fascism — to the extent that the two can be distinguished. With some extremely rare exceptions, what is unique to science fiction is wholly absent, and what is potentially good about other literatures is as well. With some extremely rare exceptions, the field is white, white, white, white, white; black writers, specifically, are almost wholly absent — and with some extremely rare exceptions, no one non-black seems to notice or care.

I was just on twitter for a regrettable half-second, and — despite my aggressive pruning of my TL to keep it relatively free of sf nonsense — even in that brief time I saw reactions to the recently-released, entirely uninspiring Nebula nominations that suggested it was fundamentally illegitimate to react to the list with a "meh" (admittedly the utterer of the specific "meh" in question was someone already much-loathed, for intermittently reasonable reasons), and that it is — I quote — "weird" to object to bad literature being nominated for a literary award if the writer of the bad literature is from a marginalized population. OK. (Meanwhile the liberals will swear up and down that the "puppies" — because when fascists give themselves a diminishing name, good liberals go along with it — are wrong when they say the liberals only care about identity, not quality. A field in which the literal actual for real fascists are even slightly closer to honest and correct than the closest thing to a "left" alternative is not a healthy field.)

When I started this project, I think I had the vague thought that maybe by highlighting every story I thought had anything decent going on in it, and explaining what I found that decency to be and why while also saying what reservations I had, that maybe people would start to think about what this writing is and does, and what it could be and do. (The liberals, for some reason I haven't been able to figure out, love to call the field — and whatever else they feel like annexing and sticking their imperial flag into — by Heinlein's preferred and frankly terrible term, "speculative fiction", but beyond their ineffectual and damagingly-formulated calls for "diversity" they seem entirely unwilling to speculate on what the field could be other than what it already is.) Whether this thought would be along my own suggested lines or not, I hoped to be able to at least contribute something. Turns out, though, that (with, again, some extremely rare exceptions) there is no interest in thought, only a "praise/attack" binary (and that belovedly meaningless middle ground, "I don't agree with everything but it's interesting," with no follow-on discussion). (Of course, anyone who did start to write with some thought would then have to somehow sneak that work by the horrible editors in this godforsaken wasteland...)

So for the most part, I regret spending a year of my damn life doing this. Yes, I read some things I'm glad to have read, and a few things that will stick with me as important, but looking over what I wrote about....well, many of them are merely "ok" against a background of terrible; many, I regret calling even some little attention to.

But anyway. Here's the tag; as far as I know everything in it between the January/February recommendations post and the post about M. Téllez's (legitimately excellent and not-coincidentally self-published) "About a Kid and a Woman" was originally published in 2015, with two exceptions: Sofia Samatar's "A Brief History of Non-Duality Studies", originally published a few years back in Expanded Horizons, and Ras Mashramani's "A Young Thug Confronts His Own Future", originally published in a Metropolarity zine in, I think, 2014. If you care about the Hugo Awards and haven't submitted your ballot (or whatever it's called) yet, consider that tag (with those exceptions) my recommendations post. (It's a shame about the exceptions, because those two stories are easily among the handful of actually-important stories I read all year.) And if I may be forgiven some link-lists, both in alphabetical order by writer's name:

My favorite stories of 2015, with links to my posts:

And my favorite of my posts about the stories (excluding the ones linked above):

Monday, February 15, 2016

"About a Kid and a Woman" by M. Téllez (bka Eighteen)

There are any number of particularities I could, even desperately want to, discuss. The ongoing tension and balance between so-called "standard" and "non-standard" Englishes (Chrome wants to tell me that "Englishes" is not a word), not simply reveling in alternate ways to say the same thing but insisting on the fact that these different ways say different things, an unstated insistence that how they do it where they from matters. The portrayal of people who have been changed by the coming and sort-of going of civilization: these people aren't just living in the woods, they're living in woods that very recently were a city; their home is not only a home but bears living resonances and traces of what it used to be, a church; and their lives cannot be a "return to nature" any more than, as Stanisław Lem points out, a robot's could be ("Why, it would mean turning into deposits of iron ore!" Lem writes, in one of his criticism's very rare good moments). The emotional honesty of the love story, and its intricate interweaving with the situation the characters are in, culminating in that astonishing final paragraph. Much more.

But though this all plays in to the wonder that is this story, to talk about it all in the ways I as yet know how to risks too much suggesting that what is to be praised is the writer's mastery over their material, their artful arrangement of the elements into an attractively moving whole. And although the mastery on display is considerable, what really amazes me here is not mastery-over but vulnerability-to: much like its narrator every element in this story is in a precarious state, close to collapse or self-contradiction or suppression in the face of hegemonic certainties, always in danger of becoming disastrously unbalanced, always under threats both internal and external, intellectual and physical. But it does what it must: it remains aware, it balances, it finds strength — eventually — not in aggression and certainty but in openness (albeit an openness that knows it cannot be open to everything, that some things must be rejected, that it will often be difficult to figure out which things these are). And when it collapses — and collapse it does, collapse it must — it does so with a trust that does not cancel but coexists with, or incorporates, mistrust.

As must be apparent, I am not equal to the task of describing what it does: which is to be profoundly political while at the same time allowing itself merely to be: which is to be not the juxtaposition or the integration of opposites but the refusal of this kind of binary categorization in the first place, while at the same time presenting the struggle, the difficult and dangerous work, that this turn to a new kind of openness demands of those already damaged, already in pain, led by boundless knowledge to hopeful fear, fearful hope.