Thursday, June 16, 2016

reading Russ: "Come Closer" (1965)

reading Russ series table of contents

"Come Closer" (The Magazine of Horror, 1965), though I'm sure many people would disagree and be perfectly right for themselves, is for me not much more than a good, solid triviality of a ghost story. It gives the ordinary uncomfortable pleasures of the typical ghost story; it emerges out of the kind of repressed social realities that ghost stories typically emerge out of (here, the silence and misdirected blame surrounding the oppression of children); in the usual ghost-story way it fails (or is not interested or refuses) to resolve or even say much about this reality beyond (and this is not nothing, it is far from nothing) insisting that it exists. Those for whom ghost stories are more central to life than they are for me will no doubt have stances on the import and ethics of all this; I am unresolved and am OK with remaining that way. What interests me enough to write about it — and gives me the ability to write about it (as I was not similarly interested and/or able to write about the four variously decent-to-excellent stories between it and the last one I wrote about, wow, almost a year and a half ago) — is a very small thing in the story's opening sentence.

By coincidence, immediately before reading "Come Closer" I had read Dambudzo Marechera's short story "Burning in the Rain" (in the collection The House of Hunger). Marechera's story is written in what I'm coming (in this early stage of my acquaintance with his work) to recognize as his characteristically horrifying language, adjectives clashing violently with their nouns, similes leading the mind so far astray that it is only with wrenching effort that it can find its way back to what is putatively being narrated — and having done so find it, and the act of telling it, dramatically transformed. Apart from this (if there can be said to be an "apart from this") it is, or would be, a fairly typical story, if atypical in its perspective, of individual mental/emotional states, to which the third-person narrator has fantastical and somehow uncontroversial access — a completely ordinary tactic in contemporary fiction, but one which I increasingly find difficult to submit myself to, increasingly find ethically questionable (or maybe better to say, I'm increasingly giving myself permission to acknowledge to myself that I feel this way and to take the feeling seriously).

But the first sentence of Marechera's story is: "The mirror, I suppose, was at the heart of it." In addition to promising an "it" that the story will be about and a "heart of it" that the story will attempt to get at (promises that will not be broken) this sentence also gives us an "I" — a perspective, a vantage point, an origin (albeit one that explains nothing, a point of instability itself in seek of an origin) — an I that, unlike the mirror and the heart of it, will never return. But this is no mere throat-clearing, no mere covering-of-the-bases hoping to excuse coming misbehavior but having no effect on it. This opening I and its act of supposing cast themselves over the entire rest of the story; every time it tells us that he or she did or felt or thought this or that in this language and structure that impart meaning and lead us to interpretation, we remember, or sense, that it is all the action of an I that is supposing. Which is not to say that the story then melts into subjective nothingness: rather that it does not let us forget that is not the revealed transcendental truth but rather a truth of experience and life, and the story is all the more urgent and necessary for it.

The grammar of Russ's story is almost the inverse of Marechera's. Here it is at the surface of the events more than in the revealing language used to describe them that there is violent juxtaposition; here an I gives us only what it (she) saw and thought, only its limited perspective, and any suppositions it makes are those of the familiar processes of inductive and deductive reasoning in the face of information and event. And here the opening sentence gives us an it — very much the same kind of it that we saw in the opening of "Burning in the Rain" — an it and its action that, unlike Marechera's it and like his I, never return: "Well, I'll tell you, it began the day I was out on the Jewett Ridge looking for Sarah Howe's little boy that had got lost."

It began — began, indeed, on the very day that we are about to hear about. But this is doubly false, or at least doubly perplexing. The first reason is inherent in the fact that this is, after all, a ghost story, hence by its nature about the ongoing presence of the past: of course "it began" earlier than at the beginning. And the second is that a beginning implies a continuation, and not only does our narrator here (one Mrs. Mill) give us no real clue as to what "it" is that she thinks "began" on that day, she also gives us no way of knowing in what sense it then went on. Does she mean the destruction of the house, which she tells us she thinks is necessary (or rather, tells us that she said it was necessary)? Does she mean her efforts to convince people that this is necessary (which she gives us one example of, on the same day that she says it began, and no indication of whether or not such efforts were in fact ongoing)? Were there further incidents like the one of Sarah Howe's little boy (the nature of which she heavily implies but never actually tells*)?

*Unless you take the final sentence, five words forming their own isolated paragraph, as this telling. For me they are unnecessary, a drawing-back from the nature of the story that had preceded them in much the same way as the final sentence/paragraph of "Nor Custom Stale" — which I see looking back that I refrained, perhaps disingenuously, from quoting in my post about it.

This misleading or perplexing opening — which for its narrator if not for the story we read is a throat-clearing, an ordinary way of beginning an anecdote — echoes through the whole story, unseating the authority of what the (in general a bit oblivious) narrator tells us, leading us to anticipate a something that never comes; the way it emphasizes the beginning-ness of the story as a whole (i.e., emphasizing the absence of ongoingness in what we're told) may even suggest that at this early date Russ is already wondering why it is that her beloved horror stories tend only to suggest politics rather than possessing and acting on them. At the same time it brings us back to many of those interrelated matters which, as I've been circling around in this series of posts, run through almost all of her work: the gathering up of past and future into the present (or rearrange that as appropriate); the refusal of fraudulent certainties without abandoning — indeed in order to allow — material action against oppression; and with that "I'll tell you, it began" — so similar to and so different from the "I suppose" of Marechera — the foregrounding of the acts of telling and creating, and of the responsibilities that come with them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

terse rim

then comes out, steps eyes in color -
is - what's unfilled -
some line from culture -

in the boundary of the field -
am and are and is - are -
is taken - is told -

—Providence/East Greenwich/Providence
February/May 2016

behind Celan, Dickinson, Pasolini

Monday, May 2, 2016

yet we are dogs nevertheless

Kafka did not write science fiction. He did not write speculative fiction. He did not write fantastic fiction, nor did he write fantasy, certainly not in the sense that people tend to mean these days. He did not write weird fiction, what he wrote is not The Weird. People — terrible, bad people — sometimes try to lump Kafka in with science fiction or speculative fiction or fantastic fiction or fantasy or weird fiction or The Weird. This is of course because terrible, bad people are often terribly, badly wrong.

It is in "Investigations of a Dog", I think, that Kafka, though he did not write science fiction, comes closest to writing science fiction. A-ha, you say, it's because here he writes about dogs who think and talk like humans do — an sfnal concept — and so surely by that logic a story about a man who wakes up one day transformed into an insect, or a story about a castle that does not exist in reality, or a story about a horse who becomes a lawyer: all of these are also sf! But no — I suggest that "Investigations of a Dog" is the closest Kafka — who did not write sf — comes to writing sf not because of the dogs in the story, but because of the dogs out of it. Kafka, who did not write science fiction, makes his closest approach to something recognizable as science fiction in five words in this story, five words that appear in the middle of a sentence in the middle of one of his famously long paragraphs. He writes:

They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me...
(Or at least, this is how the Muirs translate him.)

Dogs like you and me — this invocation and fictionalization of the reader — accusing the reader of being something they are not, something they cannot be, something closer to the work than is possible, in more ways than one — but at the same time it's true, it's correct, it is neither a lie nor, for the moment at least, a metaphor. If Kafka has anything in common with sf — which is not to say that he is sf — it's not that he calls the narrator a dog, it's that he calls the reader a dog.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

This / narrow sign between walls

I don't have any German, but I do have a bilingual edition of Paul Celan's selected poetry checked out from the library, and just now when I read, in "Anabasis", the lines that Michael Hamburger renders as
re-
leased, re-
deemed, ours.
my curious eye traveled across to the facing page and read, in whatever sense one can read a language one knows roughly how to pronounce but not how to decipher, the corresponding lines
aus-
gelöst, ein-
gelöst, unser.
and while I'm not saying anything new by saying that translation is a very peculiar thing, it's just a very peculiar thing that the way Hamburger renders the lines has the effect of making me feel the reness of these words, and of making me think about why it is that to re-lease means to release, why to re-deem means to redeem, where Celan's lines — presumably — would have the effect of making one feel the gelöstness of the words (neither of which (google suggests) possesses any reness)... which, intriguingly, I suspect also would make one feel the changing prefixes with a similar kind of newness and focus as Hamburger's version lends to the unchanging prefixes. (I would bet the German emphasizes the past tense of these verbs more as well, but I feel on even shakier ground there.)

These are, then, of course, as we all know already, different poems. The one in English strikes me as very fine, though (and as) it largely escapes me; I can't speak for the one in German.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

precisely in the way it manages such rivalry

As I write this I've just started reading Claudia Rankine's very popular Citizen: An American Lyric, a few days after re-reading her Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, powerful poetry about death and its effects on life, that earlier one. I'm on page 9 of Citizen: An American Lyric (though by the time I post this, if I post this, I will have read to the end), and already I love it (if that's a word for it), already I've typed up two passages to hold on to, already I feel like I'm starting to get a sense of what it's doing (among other things, treating the mental correlation that causes "you" to understand that these things (mainly white) people say and do are instances of everyday casual racism — that they are A Type Of Thing — that they are directly connected to both the grinding and the more spectacular and devastating violences of white supremacist racism — treating this correlation as being in itself poetic), already I'm thinking about passages like
An unsettled feeling keeps the body front and center. The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse, a dampness drawing your stomach in toward your rib cage. When you look around only you remain. Your own disgust at what you smell, what you feel, doesn't bring you to your feet, not right away, because gathering energy has become its own task, needing its own argument. You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences constructed implicitly with "yes, and" rather than "yes, but." You and your friend decided that "yes, and" attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes: you pull yourself to standing, soon enough the blouse is rinsed, it's another week, the blouse is beneath your sweater, against your skin, and you smell good.
(where just a page or two earlier "you smell good" was part of a recollection (narration?) from childhood of something casually racist a schoolmate had said) and
The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it's raining. Each moment is like this -- before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.
which take up two adjacent pages, in part via this note Anne Carson appends to her translation of Sappho's fragment 96, which I conveniently happen to have read and typed up yesterday:
"rosyfingered": an adjective used habitually by Homer to designate the red look of Dawn. I think Sappho means to be startling, but I don't know how startling, when she moves the epithet to a nocturnal sky. Also startling is the fecundity of sea, field and memory which appears to flow from this uncanny moon and fill the nightworld of the poem -- swung from a thread of "as sometimes" in verse 7. Homer too liked to extend a simile this way, creating a parallel surface of such tangibility it rivals the main story for a minute. Homer is more concerned than Sappho to keep the borders of the two surfaces intact; epic arguably differs from lyric precisely in the way it manages such rivalry.
which is not any kind of analysis (and certainly the remaining pages may make a fool of me), just a record of these early thoughts and this coincidence, the type of thing that maybe doesn't get recorded very often.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

One Way Out

Two hours on the bus took Hodos to work, where as usual he would remain for ten hours, nine and three-quarters of them paid. He depressed many keys that day, an untallied number but one no doubt approximately equaling that of any other day. We cannot know what was in his thoughts, but let us speculate: that he was aware, with that awareness which had been acute when he had first started the job but had dimmed progressively with each day he worked, that every key he depressed affected in some small way the movement of objects scattered throughout the world, throughout the solar system, and in some rare cases even elsewhere, further still. During his training, as he learned about the relevance of the speed of light to the keys he must depress, he had tried to engage his supervisor in a kind of low-level philosophical talk about other implications of that universal constant, but the supervisor had been uninterested or uncomprehending — at any rate had not responded in kind. Before long, it appears, Hodos himself grew similarly uninterested. Certain types of substances moved away from the Earth; certain others moved toward the Earth; both types, and others, moved between other locations without reference to the Earth, with the financially significant exception that their movement was governed, to some extent, by the Earth-bound keys Hodos and his coworkers depressed. Perhaps he wondered, less and less each day, what would happen if he refused to depress the keys, or even just one of them. But surely he knew even from the beginning that it would make little difference except, perhaps, to him, and this only negatively, as most likely he would simply be fired and replaced. We feel that we can report these thoughts with some degree of certainty, as there is nothing at all out of the ordinary about them. We must however recall that this report is sure to be incomplete, not least because of the change in his behavior that would be seen the following day, after the preparations of this evening. We begin with this day and not the evening, during which the first out-of-the-ordinary actions took place, in order to establish, however quickly and roughly, the norm from which the subsequent action departs.

Though there are many things we may feel are lacking in our lives, chief among the things we truly lack is necessity. The various having-tos with which we are meant to be satisfied in its place are, of course, simply not the same thing. Hodos took his lunch break and ate. After lunch he resumed depressing keys until it was time to leave; he then caught the bus. His lover was not to be at home that night or for the next several. We feel there is nothing to suggest that this had any psychological impact on what was to follow, and put forward instead the hypothesis that the forthcoming actions' coinciding with the temporary absence is nothing more than a matter of opportunity; after all it is easier to lay the ground for one's own death in solitude than in company, if at any rate that death is self-selected. On the way home Hodos got off the bus at a different stop than usual, as one result of which the bus missed a momentary clearing in the traffic. All the other passengers would have to wait; whether they were resigned to the fact was something only each one of them, individually, could know. Hodos, for his part, took advantage of the vehicles' paralysis to run across the street to his goal, a BigBox. Sliding doors open at mere presence, independent and certainly unaware of intention to enter, but it is their opening that makes entrance possible. After pacing the aisles for half an hour in what a perspicacious eyewitness might have described as a frustrated agitation caused perhaps by an inability to find what he was looking for mingled with an unwillingness or indeed an inability to ask for assistance, Hodos located and purchased two items that under ordinary circumstances would have been, considering his income, unimaginable extravagances. We shall see later on that an unusual freedom from the restraint imposed by limited resources will recur: a characteristic aspect of Hodos's final actions. On leaving the store he removed one of his purchases, an automatic, from its package and strapped the other, a robot still in its package, to it. This accomplished, he stepped into the automatic and programmed it with his home address; and as it must it lifted and carried him through the streets, weaving between the cars when possible, stopping and waiting when not. In summer the last of the day's sunlight is never so harsh and intrusive as it is in winter. Hodos did not exit the automatic until it stopped just outside of his home, whereupon he stepped out of it, opened the front door to the house, and allowed the automatic to float inside ahead of him. Inside, he unstrapped the robot, removed it from its packaging, and began depressing the keys that would accomplish the elaborate reprogramming required. He did not at any point consult the manual, which suggests that his preparations began some time before we have been able to establish: for there is nothing known in his history that would account for an expertise in unorthodox robot programming. No doubt some of the keys he had depressed during previous work days had called relevant information onto his screen, but the records of this, if they exist, have not been made available to us. All told the task took many hours, most of this time spent running simulations: it had, of course, to be right; and far into the night, finally it was. He had consequently little time for sleep. He ate a small breakfast and wrote a long note which we of course have not read — for some things should remain private; and he allowed the automatic to carry him back to work, the robot left behind, plugged in, charging. During the paid hours of his last day at work he depressed many keys, keys that, this time, mattered. His awareness, which would normally have been diffuse, of the consequences of these keys' depression, today was surely focused. One presumes that he found himself thinking of time, and of work. Though he might never have articulated it, perhaps his attitude toward the work day had always been that it may be a lot of time, but that it is only time — that all time passes and all things, even the work day, end. That, although the well-known phenomena associated with subjective experience might have caused the time at work to seem always to pass more slowly than time spent, for example, in solitude, or with his lover inside of him, nevertheless the time at work was less real, mattered less. This less-real time, however, would seem also more obviously spatial, physical; we propose that he felt himself always to be stepping through it, or perhaps up it, not climbing exactly, and not struggling precisely, but ascending as though on a flight of stairs, the resistance of gravity an unremarked obstacle, tiring but ordinary. Though little of this would have risen to the level of consciousness, at some points during that day he may have become aware that the passage of time felt no different than it did on any other day; if so, he must have wondered why this was. From time to time someone he worked with made a comment; he smiled or nodded or made a comment in return as appropriate. He ate on his lunch break and depressed more keys afterwards, keys determined now not by the needs of the company or the whim of his supervisor but by his own needs. These keys, when depressed in these particular combinations, communicated with relays in far-off places, places far-off enough that the communications, though composed of a frequency of light and traveling therefore at light's usual speed, nevertheless took humanly significant amounts of time to reach them, a result also of the multiple relays through which he had sent them bouncing. And though the messages never stopped moving at their enormous velocity we can without too much inaccuracy picture them as frozen, or trapped, awaiting the preordained moment at which they would be released to do their work. His preparations complete shortly before the ten hours were up, Hodos passed the remainder depressing keys that would from his employer's perspective seem more appropriate; then, at the usual time, he left.

The automatic, obeying the exigencies of its programming, flew, Hodos inside, only one moment of decision remaining to him, the rest belonging to languages more determinant than Sapir or Whorf ever dreamed and after that to nothing but natural law. The windows of automatics are set to opacity by default, and this Hodos never changed, though whether this was according to preference or indifference we cannot know. We do propose that he felt neither fear nor (conversely) happiness as he made the last of his decisions and opened the door to his house. In the end he had not trusted himself to do it and so the robot, following its programming, killed him as he stepped inside. We need not divert ourselves with macabre description of methods. It will suffice for our purposes to say that, once it confirmed that Hodos was indeed dead beyond the reach of any hypothetical medical attention, the robot lifted the body, the weight of which was well within its tolerances, and placed it back inside the automatic. The robot then climbed inside as well and depressed a number of keys, in response to which the automatic lifted and began to fly, maneuvering down the roads connecting the house with the main road, at which it stopped and waited for traffic to pass. The wait was not too long, as by now a fair amount of time had passed (how much we need not divert ourselves calculating) and the worst of the traffic had subsided. Individual trees exhibit a remarkable ability to grow seemingly healthy in the inclement environment provided by mere breaks in the pavement of cities, though no doubt the epoch in which such apparent health is possible is coming swiftly to an end. The automatic, true to its name, needed no further guidance, and the robot entered sleep mode, awaiting the moment when the irrevocable instructions it carried within would goad it back into wakefulness. By plotting its course against a zoning map we can determine that the automatic passed by buildings intended for both commercial and residential purposes, including many which had been constructed for the one purpose and later converted to the other. The motion described in the present paragraph continued for several hours, during which time the frequency with which the automatic encountered other vehicles decreased markedly. When the buildings grew sparse enough that the automatic's algorithms determined that to leave the road and approach its destination in a straight line, with some deviations, would not be inappropriate and would indeed be preferable in terms of the efficient uses of time and energy (the latter of which, though it had not any longer concerned Hodos, was a default consideration in the automatic's programming which he had had no reason to alter), the automatic left the road and flew its cargo through the abandoned wreck of the countryside, heading toward an airport serving not the city in which Hodos had lived and worked, but rather a different, neighboring city.

By now the light from the origin city had dimmed enough, and that of the destination city had not yet increased enough, that the sun's reflected light began to filter down from space to such an extent that the moon could have been observed by any system possessing both a visual apparatus roughly equivalent to the human average and an interest in making such observations. Were such a system present (and we cannot be certain that one was not, though neither the body, nor the robot, nor the automatic, were one such at that time, and while once animals capable of observing the moon had lived in that area, it is fruitless to speculate what they might have thought of it, for by this time they had all been dead many long years), it would have detected what Hodos, for example, would no doubt have called a full moon. Had the robot been active and recording impressions, it would have been more precise: for there exists, overlaid over the older everyday meaning of the phrase, an exact, scientific sense in which the moon is full only for that fraction of a second during which its waxing has completely ceased and its waning has yet to begin (indeed some would insist, with perhaps even greater exactitude, that one should not speak of the moon's phases at all, the concept being an essentially meaningless byproduct of the limited viewpoint from which humanity has historically observed the moon). There are many such relatively recent scientific senses of older, traditionally less precisely deployed words and phrases, and the overlaying of these meanings, sometimes to the point of their total replacement, is ever an ongoing process — one of many by which languages change over time. In such fashion did the "foot," once a rough but usually sufficient unit of measure varying from person to person, come to coexist and eventually be superseded by the "foot," whose dogmatic definition of "just this long and never any longer or shorter" was enforced by systematic structures to which adherence was not elective; that more recent invention, the meter, is generally thought of as meaning "the length of a meter stick" though a specialist will insist that its more accurate and therefore truer meaning is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one 299,792,458th of a second, and though we may scoff at the apparent arbitrariness of this figure surely we have no right to do so at the authority of the specialist. The opposite trajectory, from more to less precise, also occurs, as exemplified by the many meanings of the word "aspiration," trace evidences of a time in which the metaphorical association of breathing with hoping was clearer — and consequently less metaphorical — to the ordinary user of language than it is to us today, an association which in turn once brought explicitly to light the connections, now all but inaccessible to us, between breath, life, the present moment, and that elusive conceptual construct called "the future." Research suggests that, although at that moment the moon would have been visible had anyone capable been looking for it, the stars by and large would not, which was of course a normative situation. Hodos, in fact, never saw the stars during his life. Once, long ago, the stars were the only objects seen regularly which exhibited repetitive circular motion, the cyclical paths they drew across the sky contrasting markedly with, for example, the generally linear, haphazard, and/or pumping movements of animal life. In the span of human existence this has changed drastically, first with the celebrated invention of the wheel, whose first spinnings must have wreaked inconceivable changes upon the minds of its earliest witnesses, who would surely have connected this motion with the slower and more inexorable spinning of the heavens above them; then much later with the aforementioned light pollution, which ultimately severed the experiential link between the two rotations. It was only after the inability regularly to see the stars became a quotidian, if not yet all-pervasive, aspect of human life that humanity began to launch objects, and sometimes itself, into space, in which all motion is parabolic or elliptical — conic sections aspiring to the cyclical. From this the notion suggests itself that the source of humanity's relatively new urge to travel to the stars may be not, as is often assumed, the merely practical fact of the technological ability to do so, but rather this severing of the visual link connecting humans to the experience of this sort of motion, and perhaps too the absence of the simple daily fact of the stars themselves. Such speculation, however, is irresponsible. The automatic that Hodos had purchased when still living obeyed his programming and conveyed his body, already beginning to be overtaken by the fungal and bacterial populations which once had lived mostly in harmony with those cells we are more comfortable thinking of as his, through the night air. Of this much we can be certain. The automatic encountered no other mechanical devices and no living creatures during this part of its voyage. This is not surprising; indeed, as it was traveling through that region still referred to as "the countryside," though the associations called up by the term have changed radically in recent decades, it would have been more surprising had the automatic encountered any activity whatsoever. To attempt to draw some picture-in-words of the silent progress of the automatic through the moon-lit ruin that had once been an ecosystem, a way of life for countless members of countless species, is tempting; but such would be pathos. The reader who so desires is welcome to it, but we, on whom the facts press, shall note only that what had been Hodos, though we are accustomed to think of it as dead flesh, was itself more thriving an ecosystem than the dead countryside through which it was carried. To conceive this as irony is to remain locked to the anthropocentric perspective; to avoid such conceptions, we shall carry on. The conveyance flew on; and though we too must carry on there is scarcely a thing to do now that is not some form of looking away. Were Hodos still alive, we could perhaps occupy ourselves with reconstructions of his thoughts and feelings; but he was not alive; even had we had some fantastical access to his consciousness when he was alive, he was no longer, and so if we are to busy ourselves with anyone's thoughts, they can only be our own. But we have had too much of them already. We ourselves are not experiencing this flight; as such we have the luxury to say "several hours later..." should we give in to such temptation. Feeling, however, that this is an irresponsible distortion, we have tried thus far to stay with the automatic through the duration of its flight. Such a thing is of course impossible, as evidenced by our many divergences into equally irresponsible speculation and pontification: these, too, a looking away. There is no way for anyone who was not there, ourselves included and consequently our readers as well, to know truly what this journey was. Indeed even for someone who was there — had anyone been there — such direct knowledge would only be available at the moment itself, and even then only in limited form. At any experiential spacetime coordinate off of the journey itself, knowledge of the journey is indirect at best. And who can say, too, what experience, what knowledge is, to an automatic?

The automatic, with its cargo of robot and body, flew on through a land in which nothing of any consequence could live. Struggling enclaves of plant life began to crop up, one here, one there, painstakingly maintained, through robotic intervention, by scientists whose methods, it is safe to say, will have only temporary success. The automatic came upon a road, the use of which its algorithms judged desirable. The road soon became a canyon passing between buildings: first shallow and spaced out, then taller and closer, then taller still: the automatic had entered the next city. Other vehicles began to be present on the roadways. The buildings, like those in the previous city, crowded in so close that there was no horizon to speak of; it would therefore be inappropriate to refer to sunrise, but the ambient light, scattered by molecule after molecule, began to increase and change in quality in ways not attributable solely to the artificial lighting of the city (more than capable of drowning out any other star, but not our own). It was still too early for the first major rush hour and so the other vehicles, though numerous, were at first only minor obstacles in the automatic's course; equally it was only a minor obstacle in the other vehicles' various courses, which we have not had occasion to research. The average height of the buildings peaked, plateaued, and began to decline again, as the airport, like most such, was located not in the heart of the city but some distance outside of it. In the course of a single sentence, perhaps, the automatic traversed this distance. It approached one of the commercial gates to the airport, presented its credentials to the sensor, and, once the latter raised the barrier, entered the airport grounds. It took its place at the rear — soon to become the middle — of a queue of various automatic conveyances awaiting a spot on the next ascending car. The robot within, in accordance with its programming, resumed functioning. The line, being wholly automated, moved at a rate describable for our purposes as quick, and soon the automatic arrived at the elevator door. The robot took the body into its grasp. The doors to the automatic and to the elevator both opened and the robot exited the former, traversed the distance between, and entered the latter. The now-cargoless automatic departed, to be found somewhere else entirely, much later, quite by accident.

Meanwhile the elevator car began its long ascent, and here we really must apologize, for at this point both the time and the space traversed by our narrative begin to expand exponentially, to a degree which we simply cannot recreate in the form of our story. The problem, as we shall see, will quickly become wholly insurmountable. The time spanned by the just over thirty-five hundred words which precede those which, we presume, you are now reading, is approximately fifty hours; the space, perhaps five hundred kilometers. The elevator car in which the robot and the body now rose would continue rising, first in a greatly inclined manner taking it also roughly southward and then, when the tributary cable joined the so-called Quito Ascender (more accurately the ascender operated under the jurisdiction of the Quito Elevator Authority), very nearly straight up, for over a hundred times that distance before reaching its apex; the time, too, must be scaled upward in similar proportion. But as you will notice if you skip to the end of this narrative (as perhaps you have already), much less remains than has passed. Would the story be told, there seems no way around this distortion; by calling the reader's attention to it, we hope in some small way to correct for the fault. And indeed in this paragraph we have already given most of the significant events of this portion of the journey: the robot was once more deactivated; the body continued to decay, though slowly (for the elevator car, as Hodos had planned when alive, was refrigerated); and meanwhile up and over landmass, water, landmass, water they rose until, some perhaps ten days later, they paused momentarily high above Ecuador Territory, the elevator car awaiting its turn to attach itself to the cable tethered to Chimborazo's flattened peak so as to continue the ascent to the artificial satellite in geostationary orbit, nearly 37,000 kilometers above the mountaintop. An opening in the ascent schedules allowed the car to hook itself onto the ascender and, detaching itself from the tributary, it began the final, much longer leg of its climb into orbit. The air around it was distinctly thinner than it had been at the beginning of the journey, and colder — altogether inhospitable to human life, which surely could not have lasted long if exposed at that elevation. This is however irrelevant, for no living human was so exposed, and the only death we shall encounter within this narrative has already occurred. In fact, our even mentioning the possibility is a clear symptom of the sickness diagnosed earlier in this paragraph. For what remains to say of this portion of the journey? The car ascended. The body's decay, though greatly arrested and not effecting during this period any changes detectable by any but the most sensitive of instruments, continued nevertheless. The robot remained deactivated. Time and space passed, the former lending some of its irrevocability to the latter. Eventually (a word indicating not, as its construction might suggest and as it in fact did at an earlier point in its history, an action occurring in the manner of an event — a redundant, yet somehow curiously suggestive notion — but rather a failure, on the part of whoever may have resort to it, to face the reality of time as it passes) the car reached its destination: the anchor satellite, referred to by the serial number 983AEQ 55197-39. The car hooked itself to this 983AEQ 55197-39 and unhooked itself from the cable, then stowed itself in one of the satellite's bays, awaiting processing. Almost a day passed. The Earth indulged in nearly a full rotation on its axis; people lived and died; species continued along their paths to extinction; and the body, decay still slowed, and the robot, still deactivated, awaited, with neither patience nor impatience, their turn. Many sentences would have to fill this space, were we to be faithful to the event.

But we are very close now; and perhaps we are right after all to leave behind us the strictures of time as humans merely experience it — for what is human time to a celestial body? And so we shall attempt to convey in one final paragraph what happened to the matter that had been Hodos, and what, we suggest, Hodos himself had been up to in ensuring that it would in fact happen to him although — in some senses precisely because — he was no longer he. Divergences now are a luxury we cannot afford; and time: time has slipped, finally, out of our control. The vessel Hodos's final labors had conjured forth arrived and parked itself within the satellite, in the same bay in which the car awaited it; and the robot, as programmed, awoke. It took the body into its manipulators, approached the doors of the car, and opened them, revealing the vessel simultaneously opening its own doors. The moment the robot was fully out of the car the latter withdrew from the bay and joined a swiftly-moving queue with other cars waiting to be filled with various cargoes and begin the descent back to Earth; though what cargo and destination this particular car took on, we may never know, as record-keeping in this decadent age is unreliable at best. The robot conveyed the body to the vessel, a small one with just enough room for one human-sized body and a great deal of compressed fuel, then withdrew and deposited itself in one of 983AEQ 55197-39's waste-processing facilities, from which only a small portion of its data log would, some time later, be retrieved. In the meantime, the vessel positioned itself on one of the pads on the exterior of the satellite. What is still sometimes called the "vacuum" of space, we now know, is a frothing effervescence of subatomic particles continually passing from potentiality to actuality and back again. When the time came, the vessel released its docking clamps, fired maneuvering thrusters until it was far enough from the satellite to engage its primary engine, and then, at precisely the moment Hodos had calculated, added its full burn to the momentum its orbit around the Earth already imparted. The course and speed of most interplanetary voyages is plotted according to a complex cost/benefit analysis factoring in the locations and movements of the various bodies in the solar system, the cost of fuel, and the cost of time, among other considerations; but as we have already noted, the uniquely final nature of Hodos's journey allowed him to escape many of these merely practical concerns; and he had planned things so that this early, vulgar stage of the journey would be over as quickly as possible; in a word, he had ordained that the vessel burn all its considerable fuel resources immediately, at the highest possible rate, propelling itself and its cargo at what would not have interested him to learn was a record-breaking rate of acceleration. The vessel escaped the Earth's gravity well and continued adding energy to its own orbit so as to break from the path the Earth traces around the sun and enter into a new parabolic course. By the time it exhausted its fuel it was irrevocably set upon a new trajectory; and here we have reached what we believe to have been Hodos's goal. The vessel crossed the orbit of Mars, which was at that moment quite elsewhere; it passed through the asteroid belt, coming near no object of consequence. By now, what had been Hodos was under the sway of no influence other than that of gravity. In its vessel, it traveled in an unfathomably long curve across the orbit of Jupiter, which planet was in fact rather nearby, close enough that the curve along which the vessel traveled bent considerably, as had been Hodos's plan. The eternal storm bands slid across the visible surface of that vast globe, engaged in no one knows what business; there is no reason to suspect that whatever lives under the icy crust of its startlingly hospitable moon Europa was in any sense aware of the vessel's passage, or, if these inhabitants are capable of such observation, that they regarded it with any particular feeling. We have, with the assistance of several experts, projected the course the vessel will be traversing; barring any unforeseen encounter with some object not on our charts — which, extensive as they may be, can never be complete — it appears that Jupiter and its moons were the last objects it will come close to in any foreseeable amount of time or distance. And though the body that had been Hodos and the vessel that carries it are still, these years later, quite firmly within our solar system — the experts assure us that they have not yet crossed the orbit of Saturn, which planet they will miss by a large margin — it is nevertheless appropriate to call it an interstellar object, one subject no longer to the everyday requirements of life, business, personal whim, but only to the higher order of gravity and the pure necessity it enforces. For as the vessel travels through the universe, it will do so not in some Earthly straight line, nor in some distracted zig-zagging from point to point, but rather in a great parabola, most noble of figures, wending its way according to the dictates only of that force which has given structure to the universe itself, bending here under the influence of a distant star, there under that of some globular cluster, elsewhere, far later still, should it make it so far (and we believe that it will), perhaps answering, in its magisterial way, only to the call of distant galaxies. Considered thus, we find, contrary to prevailing opinion, that there is no mystery to Hodos's final actions; and we feel that even now, were he still able to regret, he surely would regret only that in order truly to submit to the call of necessity, to eliminate the arbitrary, his death was required so soon; that were he still able, he would regret only that he could not have delayed the time of this death even just a little, that he could not have allowed himself to experience this wonder, if only for an hour, a day, a month, a year!

—North Providence
December 2013 - March 2014

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):