Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The sfnal impulse and literary form, through time

Recently I happened to read, in a row, L. Timmel Duchamp's essay "For a Genealogy of Feminist SF: Reflections on Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction, 1818-1960" (available in The Grand Conversation and, under a different title, online) and Algis Budrys's essay "Paradise Charted" (available in Outposts: Literatures of Milieux). In their juxtaposition, a tangential notion that occurred to me while reading Duchamp's essay was reinforced in reading Budrys's. None of this is new, particularly, but after happening to read these two essays back to back it struck me with a renewed urgency:

That all the so-called "literary" features and structures, which should more properly be called novelistic, those forms of plot (rising action, climax, etc.) and character (interiority, psychological verisimilitude or whatever the given time period's equivalent, etc.) that lying English teachers and faux literary critics and crappy "how-to-write" manuals proclaim "universals" (typically with the claim that "Homer used them," which then just makes people hate Homer, trying as they do to read him for something that just isn't there), all these things are historically speaking peripheral to sf's nature.

This is true whether you subscribe to Budrys's narrative of (mostly male) sf's history or Duchamp's narrative of what she calls (feminist and other women's) sf's "genealogy." (I find both to be in their way essential; whether they need to be held simultaneously but separately in the mind in tension with one another or somehow synthesized I am not yet sure--I take the latter to be Duchamp's position, though I could be mistaking her.) I'll start with Budrys.

As he would have it, the thing we call sf (which he quaintly calls "stef"), though prefigured in the work of the usual 19th century suspects (Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne), really takes off with Hugo Gernsback and (eventually) Amazing Stories. This is a common enough story, but what distinguishes Budrys's telling of it is that he emphasizes the primacy of current technological fact to Gernsback's enterprise. Gernsback's publications started out as magazines of technological fact, articles about electrical engineering and so forth; he only started putting "fiction" in mostly as filler--which ended up being so popular as to spawn its own magazines. But even as it achieved primacy the point of the fiction was still to expound technological fact.

Budrys points out that this early Gernsbackian form of sf ("scientifiction," Gernsback's first attempt at a name) is

dependent for its attractions on a very short-lived condition--the eye blink in which technologies have been discovered but have not yet been institutionalized. Further, in order for scientifiction to offer any diversity at all, there is a requirement that several varying technologies arrive at this stage simultaneously.
That is to say, scientifiction writers turned for inspiration to technologies that dedicated technologists like themselves were aware of as cutting-edge, and extrapolated slightly to envision them as societally pervasive wonders--which many of them, according the fundamental needs of capitalist expansion (though Budrys does not mention capitalism), soon would become. As this "eye blink" does not leave much room for exploration, scientifiction quickly reached a crisis.

In the face of this crisis, it was for writers like E.E. Smith* and after him John W. Campbell to develop something new: "superscience fiction." As Budrys has it, they did this through two major changes to the "scientifiction" form: first, they expanded the range of technological speculation far beyond what was currently possible (envisioning travel to distant galaxies and so forth), and second, they grafted the story structures--the plots--of the pulp magazines onto what had previously been "stories" constructed out of individual explorations of a single technological conceit at a time, strung together "like beads, to the number desired." Budrys describes what Smith (and some lady), Campbell, and their followers did as not just an evolution or a tweak but a "radically new form"--after all, speculating that someday soon people might have this new television thing in their homes is one thing, while proposing that someday one might spend the afternoon in the Andromeda galaxy is a wholly other, not just larger, thing; and a pulp storyline in which one event is causally linked to the one before and after it is not an "improvement" on the sequence of discrete marvels but something else altogether.

*Who, Budrys says, "had rewritten a manuscript by a lady acquaintance and hit upon a new style." Budrys feels no need to go into any detail about this lady acquaintance or what her contribution to the Skylark series may have been. John Clute's entry on Smith in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia names her as "Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby," and sardonically describes her as "a neighbor seconded to help with feminine matters such as dialogue" before never mentioning her again. No doubt fandom's historians know more about this than I do, but it's interesting how contradictory these two accounts of Garby's contributions manage to be in such little space. Make note of these passing, "insignificant" details.

Obviously these "innovations" were, like most, both for the better and for the worse; in the latter column, Budrys mentions the white supremacy, colonialism, and genocidal urges standard to this new form, as well as the naked flattering of the egos of underemployed engineers inherent to it; while in the former he makes the sweeping, but somewhat compelling, claim that the form opened up the field to the potential, if not immediately the achievement, of capital-a Art. But regardless of the pros and cons, something new had been born, and it is difficult to argue that much of what we have now is radically different from it. The speculation may (at times) have become better, more subtle, more interesting; the racial and (ahem) gender politics may (at times) have become less wholly distasteful; the population in need of ego stroking may have changed and (at times) become open to criticism; Art, whatever it is, may (at times) have been better achieved; and influences more "respectable" than the pulps may (frequently) have been brought to bear. But for the most part the form itself remains intact. This, again, is both for the better and for the worse; I would argue that somehow, however unlikely, through a combination of skill and lack of it, awareness and lack of it, choice and accident, art and economics, these early superscience writers (and their immediate followers, when Campbell became an editor and refined things enormously--say it again, for better and for worse) created a form with potential just as enormous as its limitations, and if the limitations have been struck up against far more often than the potential fruitfully explored, well, that's pretty much just life.

But the point is that, when Gernsbackian scientifiction reached a point of crisis, artists responded, for reasons at least as much historically and economically contingent as artistically, by grafting on aspects of pulp fiction's previously alien aesthetics.* And though the consequences of this historical moment are still with us, there was nothing inevitable or necessary to sf about the specifics of the changes (interestingly, Budrys tells us that during Campbell's years as an editor he "explicitly stated that producing stories was just one of the things you could do with [sfnal] ideas," though as an editor he of course focused on story-production). Indeed, I am quite certain that others, people whose names we will never know as we know Campbell's and Smith's (, responded to scientifiction's crisis in their own, wholly different ways--ways that may have been no less artistically essential, but which did not suit the exigencies of the market, the audience, the time, or even just the particular editors, and therefore never saw publication.** The nature of these responses will most likely be forever unknown. But their existence strikes me as being just as inarguable as the existence of life on planets in other solar systems, life that we are even less likely ever to become aware of but which nevertheless must exist.

*In talking about Gernsback's earliest magazines, Budrys goes so far as to say they were "mistaken" for pulps.
**Signs of a similar invisible revolution can be seen at the turn of the 50s in the immediacy with which the new magazines
Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy were able to fill their pages with a kind of sf that Campbell would never have published, at least not in quantity, but which people clearly must have been writing anyway.

The aptness of the segue may be illusory, but this seems a good time to switch gears and discuss Duchamp's essay, which deals heavily in literatures almost as invisible as my hypothetical alternate scientifictional revolution: I refer, of course, to feminist and other women's writing--their speculative writing in particular.

Duchamp's fundamental argument is that the history of women's science fiction has been marginalized and decontextualized by, respectively, "malestream" sf histories (such as Budrys's, though she does not refer to him) that relegate women's contributions to "one chapter or one section of a chapter" (or indeed a footnote!), and feminist critics who discuss women's sf in the context of other women's literatures but not in the context of the field in which it was produced, "with the effect of denying the particular terms and context of their production." "I find it telling," she writes,

that both malestream sf critics and feminist critics have been steadily creating--albeit for probably different reasons--what might be called a gynohistory for sf.... The effects of this approach have been, in the instance of the male critics, to restrict women to the status of token, honorary members of the clubhouse, and, in the instance of the feminist critics, to imply that the end products--the texts--have nothing to do with the clubhouse or their authors'--and often readers'--relations to the clubhouse.
This simple observation leads in the essay to an exceptionally subtle analysis, one which essentially tears down to rebuild our reasons for doing literary history, questioning all the assumptions that essays like Budrys's, fascinating and frequently revelatory as they can be, never even realize they are making. The implications are enormous, and the challenge to critics of both persuasions is intense.* If all goes well I plan soon to write in greater detail about the essay in a post I've long been wanting to write on the histories and pre-histories of sf and what they can say to us. For the moment, though, I want to refer to it for one specific point, one which Duchamp is not enormously interested in exploring in her essay but which intrigues me. Bear with me a moment while I get there.

*She names Justine Larbalestier as a critic who has managed to reach a "more interesting construction of the history of women in sf...which I would describe as an integrated approach that looks for women's presence in the clubhouse and the impact that presence has had in the clubhouse's history." Larbalestier: added to the reading list.

One of the central points in Duchamp's essay is that where standard literary historians speak of "influence" and "predecessors" and, indeed, "history," she finds it more useful and relevant to speak of "genealogies"* and a "conversation." In this context, she considers feminist sf in part as the most recent interlocutor in a "long, often disjunct conversation" that includes any number of works predating the emergence of what we now think of as sf, works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which, refreshingly contra the delightfully unnamed Brian Aldiss, she explicitly says she has no interest in nominating the "first" sf novel), Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, and an isolated scene of markedly speculative conversation between women characters in Menie Muriel Dowie's decidedly non-sf novel Gallia. (This insistence on extra- and pre-sfnal dialogue may seem to contradict the above summarized observations about feminist sf's place in the field, but it actually sits quite comfortably alongside it in her analysis.)

*"Genealogy, in the sense that thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze use the word, is not interested in striking definitions or discovering origins but in retracing a way through discontinuities that convention--viz., whatever current story most people are repeating about the past in question--would see as set in stone."

As these examples indicate, her primary focus is on the 19th century, which we normally think of as a period of novelistic ossification; indeed, those of us who are for one reason or another skeptical of "the novel" as a form often speak witheringly of "the traditional 19th century novel." Duchamp argues persuasively against the received notion of the century in both literary and social terms, describing it as a "hotbed of revolutionary ideas and movements." I think both Duchamp's perspective and the one she's arguing against have their merits, but regardless, what struck me about the examples she gave was how very non-novelistic they are, despite their position in a supposedly naïvely novelistic era. Herland is of course a utopia, a genre decidedly different from the novel no matter how much we may speak of "the utopian novel," and while Frankenstein and Gallia are both novels, the aspects of them that Duchamp singles out as sfnal are precisely those that fundamentally trouble their status as novels: in Gallia it is a non-event, an unplotty pause in which characters speculate ("in a drawing room staring out the window watching the boys go by," a setpiece which I can only imagine has won the scene zero admirers among standard male critics) about possibilities wholly outside of the milieu in which the novel has placed itself, and in Frankenstein it is those elements which critics, even feminist critics, who insist on reading the book as "a Gothic novel" miss (or consider a muddled distraction): its didactic presentation of "a passionate argument pitting two approaches to science against one another--virtually the same argument one still encounters in the pages of academic feminist journals."

As I've said, Duchamp's focus is on the 19th century, but she does significantly mention one very much older work: Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, a prose work predating the emergence of the novel form by a couple of centuries. It is interesting to me that she mentions it (in the context of non-existent communities that women who have felt isolated in patriarchal society have "invented...inside their own heads--or on the page" before, sometimes, managing to bring them into actual existence), because when I read it recently I was struck by a very sfnal feel to it, a sense that it was laboriously pulling the past into the future through the bottleneck of the present, that it was so interested in the past and its constructed metaphorical "city" (which as Duchamp indicates can be read as a utopia) because of the way these constructs make it impossible to accept the things of the present as givens. As I read I was unsure if I was feeling this way because it is a feminist work--for feminism is always speculative to some degree by its nature as a deeply radical stance--or because it is a medieval work, as I recalled Joanna Russ's and Darko Suvin's comments to the effect that sf is closer to medieval literatures than to any contemporary one (I am not nearly familiar enough with medieval literature to judge this for myself).

One thing that Duchamp's integration of Christine de Pisan and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (along with other feminist writers of utopias) into the genealogy of feminist sf does is to assert the relevance of the utopian tradition, or parts of it at any rate, to contemporary sf in a way that for me overcomes Samuel R. Delany's otherwise very damning objections to it. Or perhaps that's not quite right--because I do think Delany's objections still by and large stand: the traditional utopia is, compared to sf at the heights of its potential, a fundamentally limited form, and not one fruitfully to be compared with sf. The difference, though, is that I do not think he takes into account the complexity and sophistication of specifically feminist utopias, which are very different, on the most basic level, from men's utopias in that women as a class have never, at least in literate societies, been able to write with the position of assumed authority required to present the different but static societies typically presented by utopian literature.

Men who write about "ideal" societies can be written off as dreamers, as fascists, what have you, but it will always be a rejection of the content of the writing, not its existence. But women who do the same--indeed, women who write at all--have to justify themselves from the very beginning--and there is simply no way to avoid the fundamental objection that most men will have to their very participation in the exchange of ideas. As Miriam frustratedly observes (just before switching from Mendelssohn's pleasing Songs Without Words to a Beethoven sonata that will force her into gratifyingly "inelegant" positions at the piano) in The Tunnel, the fourth novel in Dorothy Miller Richardson's Pilgrimage, men

had each a set of notions and fought with each other about them, whenever they were together and not eating or drinking. If a woman opposed them they went mad. He would like one or two more Mendelssohns and then supper. And if she kept out of the conversation and listened and smiled a little, he would go away adoring.
Fighting with one another over their (our) sets of notions is something men expect of one another; but from women it is only to be Mendelssohns and supper and listening and smiling. For a woman to do anything else requires either a promise to be wholly unthreatening (which returns her to the world of listening and smiling) or a vehement assertion, from the very beginning, of her authority. This assertion takes many different forms: for example, I suspect that this is one reason for Shelley's constant citations to Milton, Dante, her male contemporaries, and especially the Greeks (whose language she had to teach herself) in Frankenstein and even more markedly in the astonishing Mathilda.

This altogether more precarious sense of one's own authority, one's own position in one's society, I would argue is one factor that contributes to a much more complex utopian tradition than the "malestream" one, as women's utopias simply have to be more complex to survive the onslaught (not to mention, of course, that women's position in society tends to give many a more nuanced understanding of that society's function than is given to men). Duchamp discusses a work of 1870 by Annie Denton Cridge, called "Men's Rights; or, How Would You Like It?", which she describes as "a depiction of a sex-role-reversal society," but one which "mixes utopian conventions with the sort of detail one expects to find in science fiction." To me the most intriguing of these details is that Cridge's utopia is dynamic, that is to say, it changes--in some ways comes to be--in the course of its description:

Her first view of the sex-role-reversal society shows men as downtrodden household drudgers...but the scene soon changes, with technological advances and social restructuring lifting the heaviest of the men's burdens, reflecting Cridge's conviction that technology could make a fundamental contribution to women's emancipation.
Skeptical of this conviction as one might be, there is no doubt that such a dynamic utopia is in marked contrast to the traditional male utopia, one of whose primary hallmarks is precisely that it is static. And it is easy to see the links between this kind of dynamism and what we now tend to think of as feminist sf, that literature that emerged in the late 1960s into the 1970s, much of which was, as Duchamp points out, "all about creating communities."

What is my point? Specifically, it is that despite all their manifold differences in subject matter, social and ethical awareness, literary quality, and so on, there is an important structural similarity between these dynamic feminist utopias and Gernsbackian scientifiction: both are non-novelistic, not concerned with rising action and climaxes or probing the psychologically "accurate" depths of an individual human being; or in those cases where they are, they are free to be so concerned without the constraints of the novel, without its mystification, its pretenses and assumptions about the way life is that, when we manage to be aware of it, run counter to our experience of life. To be sure, both run the risk of replacing these mystifications with their own, but the point is that the novel's way of doing things is, as I said at the beginning, peripheral to these "predecessors" of sf, or earlier participants in the conversation which has recently become a part of sf.

It has long been my feeling that "sf," in any sense beyond its use as a marketing term, is...well, something else entirely. That it is not "another kind of novel" or "another kind of short story." The sf novel is rather the work of sf grafted to the novel; the sf short story is the work of sf grafted to the short story; and the sf poem, the work of sf grafted to the poem. Most of the time things are much more complex than this; one could say that, for example, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is the combination of the work of sf, the novel, the utopia, and the clinical study--with, of course, an infusion of new things which Piercy needed in order to say what she had to say. But however complex, however sui generis, it is difficult to imagine a work of sf that does not partake also in some other form*; even Stanislaw Lem, in A Perfect Vacuum and other books, and Clifford D. Simak, in the marvelous interstitial material in City, just grafted sf to the critical essay.

*I haven't read Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity or the preparatory worldbuilding notes that were published alongside it on its original appearance in Astounding but I wonder if those notes might approach a state of "pure" sf--which is not to be taken as a qualitative term. Anyway even here I tend to doubt it.

I don't mean to suggest that all this grafting is some sort of ad hoc hackwork mess, though frequently it is (not, to be clear, in any of the works just named). Nor am I proposing that there is some kind of Platonic idea, "the work of sf," floating around somewhere. Instead, I just mean to say that sf is...or, rather, that one way of looking at sf is as an impulse in the writer that seeks a form for its expression. Typically the form this takes is novelistic, because the novel is the predominant form of literature today, and because, as I examined in the first part of this essay, historically and economically contingent forces rewarded the early grafting of the pulp fiction form--easily transmuted into the novel for greater "respectability" later on--onto the sfnal enterprise. And there is nothing wrong with the sf novel as a form, or at least nothing more wrong with it than there is with the novel in general (and theoretically at least more room to evade these novelistic problems). But there is no reason beyond habit and, potentially, a sort of philistinism to expect it to take this form rather than another. And to read sf always as though it must have novelistic concern for plot and character and verisimilitude and so forth is very frequently to misread it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Noted: Algis Budrys on sfnal "ideas"

I have many strong disagreements with Budrys on fundamental assumptions and premises even in this brief passage, but his central observation here on the nature of sfnal ideas is highly provocative. From the long, fascinating historical essay "Paradise Charted," as collected in Outposts: Literatures of Milieux.

A note on terms: Budrys uses stef the way I use sf, as a general term for all science fiction; Modern Science Fiction designates the form developed during John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding; superscience, the earlier pulp form credited to Campbell and E.E. "Doc" Smith in the early 1930s; and scientifiction, the parade-of-technological-marvels form predating both, as ushered in by Hugo Gernsback in the 1910s and 20s.

For instance, in Campbell's "Brain Stealers of Mars," Penton and Blake--two very well-received series characters--are sent into the "funny animal" subgenre founded by Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" in the late 1930s. Martian flora prove to be telempathic and mimetic; perfect vegetable duplicates of Penton and Blake begin clumping around, conversing with them in their voices, but exhibiting nasty intentions. Campbell explained this capacity in biotech terms, and the problem was solved. But it came up again in Campbell's much later "Who Goes There?" commonly considered the best stef-suspense novella ever written, in which the ability is displayed by an extraterrestrial being found by an Antarctic expedition.

What's interesting to note is that Campbell didn't really favor any one particular "scientific" rationale for the mimesis; it was the mimesis itself, and its effect on his protagonists' equanimity, that returned him to the theme. One can readily see why, by examining what one knows of Campbell's childhood--but one can see it too readily. Campbell did not actually originate the idea, even if he played on it best. It involves all the common human apprehensions evoked by the classic doppelgänger theme in literature, which turns up repeatedly in "stories of identity" by such littérateurs as Kafka and Muriel Spark, as well as franker variations by newsstand stef writers before and since Campbell. The point is that in newsstand stef it is established as one of the master ideas, and the game is to find new enabling devices through which to exploit it.

If that were not the game, how could Campbell feel safe in giving the same "idea" to several different writers? So is it the tech furniture or the "idea" which is paramount, and is the "idea" technological or an expression of common human psychology? Is the "story" in how Penton and Blake dispose of the brain stealers? Or is it in how Penton and Blake, two friends bonded by many shared triumphant gambles on their mental and physical alertness, must cope with the sudden apprehension and suspicion that arise catastrophically when their social ability to rely on each other is destroyed? Is "Brain Stealers" about brain stealing or about one of the fundamental props of human social interaction? Which of those levels, do you suppose, is of greater interest to the reader, who is located about 60,000,000 miles from Mars but has to function in society every minute of his [sic] life?...

Modern Science Fiction established a catalogue of such "master ideas," drawing on superscience, and beyond it to scientificition and classical sources for prototypes. It funneled them through Campbell, and the inner cadres which responded most readily to Campbell, and then dispersed them irrevocably into all subsequent stef, in all its subgeneric forms, and also into modes commercially identified as fantasy and its subgenres.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

By way of a review of Kenneth Schneyer's "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter"

Pardon my negligence--I've been reminded that it's considerate to include a BIG HUGE SPOILER WARNING. If you don't want to know details from the latter parts of the story, don't read this.

I've been pretty insulated from contemporary science fiction for quite a number of years now--by both inclination and circumstance.

By "inclination" I mean that for a long time whenever I would pick up whatever book I would see the sfnal masses raving about I would get a few chapters in and give up, finding the book weighted down by frustrating post-cyberpunk tendencies (chief among them a smugly hip postmodern glibness), the worse than frustrating new scientific misogyny, the wholesale and unquestioning importing of the worst aspects of "mainstream literature" into sf--or all three. Above all a bland sameness seemed to pervade everything. I knew that there must be good work being done somewhere in sf, but as my interests lay for a time in exploring deeply other areas--poetry, "the classics," feminist and other radical theory and history, modernism--I never got around to looking beyond this unpleasant surface. And so while I've never stopped reading sf, I've read very little of what's been written in the past, say, ten years or more. Even those few "new" writers I've stumbled across and been excited about--e.g., Candas Jane Dorsey, Kim Stanley Robinson, Kij Johnson, Rachel Pollack--have mostly been publishing literally since before I was born (Johnson, the only exception on that list, published her first story when I was six)--and mostly write more fantasy than sf, dammit.

By "circumstance" I mean, especially in the past few years, my limited internet access. Because it appears that the best work in sf--at least in the short story--is being done almost exclusively online now. And even that good work which actually appears on pieces of paper is difficult to hear of anymore without the internet. I wish this weren't the case for a number of reasons--accessibility and permanence being the two major ones--but I understand and am forced to accept the economic rationale behind it (the enthusiastically chosen embrace of the politically and ecologically unstable technology at the expense of print, on the other hand, though perhaps to be expected from sf people, I do not accept).

But now I'm slowly beginning to explore what's going on in the field today. A year ago a friend subscribed me to Fantasy and Science Fiction, which in that time has published a small handful of good stories--and one or two excellent ones--and a whole lot of unreadables. I've picked up a few recent Nebula Award anthologies, which I've found to be about 50/50, again with a small number of really excellent stories. I've just bought Athena Andreadis's The Other Half of the Sky, which a few stories in I'm finding touch and go (as is to be expected with all-original anthologies) but frequently marvellous (Nisi Shawl has become a priority). And though my internet access is still quite limited, I've just begun regularly reading Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons, both of which I've peeked at before and been impressed with, but only with the latest issue of each* have I started reading them thoroughly.

*As I write, anyway. By the time I'll get to publish this there will have been at least one new issue of Strange Horizons.

Which, finally, brings me to the concerns which prompted this post. It is easy in criticism to come off much more negative and harsh than one means to, so I want to make explicit before I begin that these issues of these two fine magazines are quite good. When I talk in the rest of this post about my "concerns" and "nagging senses" and so forth, I mean by these words just what they say, no more; and I discuss these feelings not because the stories are bad but, quite the contrary, because they're good--which is precisely why my concerns are concerns. I also want to make clear at the start that even though I ascribe particular problems to particular stories, what I'm really talking about is not really a problem of the stories themselves, rather of a larger trend of which I see these stories being a part.* On their own, independent of this worrisome trend, I suspect I would have found no problem with these stories, or at least not this problem.

*I could be wrong about this!--which is exactly why I started this review with a lengthy explanation of my lack of deep reading in contemporary sf. If I'm wrong, if this isn't a trend, I will be delighted to learn it.

First I read James Patrick Kelly's "Soulcatcher" from Clarkesworld, a solid story dealing with interesting concepts, though with perhaps a bit too much focus on MFA-style "fine writing" for my taste (I am not firmly opposed to this type of writing, though I am suspicious of it). Nagging at me throughout, though, was the sense that the whole story would be greatly improved, the interesting concepts better dealt with, if the story had been...well, if it had been about anything else other than what it was about: revenge, murder, violence. I do not say that stories cannot be about these things, but...well, I'll get back to that "but" later.

The second story I read was Andy Dudak's "Tachy Psyche", also from Clarkesworld, which I found to be just as solid (and impressively concise considering the broadness of its world) and conceptually even more interesting, though undercut in both by its frankly obnoxious semi-surprise ending.* But once more, the thought nagged at me that these fascinating (if not necessarily "new") notions, this play with time and consciousness, could be much better explored if the story had been about anything other than what it was about: political intrigue, murder (except at the end maybe not!), violence.

*I could write a whole post about the poverty of surprise endings, but I think I would just get depressed. Suffices to say for now that in sf I tend to find that surprise endings are where the story should have started.

Then, the vicissitudes of timing and attention led me to read third Kenneth Schneyer's "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter" from Strange Horizons. This is probably the best story out of the three*--and yet guess how I felt about it? On the sentence level Schneyer's writing is a nice combination of sf's traditional clarity with a sort of dreaminess (the attempt at which leaves much other contemporary sf feeling simply leaden). The interweaving explorations of communication and complexly ambivalent emotional attachment between parent and child on the one hand and human and alien on the other are intriguing and superb. And yet: war, murder, violence.

*Though not the best out of the two issues entire, that being E. Catherine Tobler's lovely "(R + D) / I = M"--a story which would require far more re-reading and re-thinking before I at least would be able to write about it.

Now, these tendencies are far from universal; Tobler's story, for example, could in some ways be said to be "about" violence, but in a very different, and individual, way, one that reflects a much more nuanced understanding of what violence consists of, one that seems to grow organically out of the needs of the story and of the writer. And this last point brings me to the center of my concern, which is that this focus on violence feels obligatory to me in much the same way that (as I argued in my review of 2312) the mystery structure has become obligatory. It has become so reflexive that it becomes the center of stories it seems alien to; one often gets the sense that the writer has not even considered whether the flashy spectacle of shooting and stabbing and blood is approriate to their enterprise, nor that they feel any responsibility towards this violence they have conjured into the world.

As someone who writes tries to write sf, I know it can be very difficult to figure out how to display one's sfnal ideas, through what lens to examine them; and just as the mystery story seems to offer up a helpful structure within which to lay out these ideas, "Oh I guess they'll try to kill each other" seems to provide a quick, convenient--and familiar--"plot" on which to hang them. But responsible writers should be more patient with their ideas, should not go for the quick, the convenient, the familiar, but the necessary.

And I'm not saying that violence is never necessary. Obviously violence in all its forms is something that can, and sometimes should, be written about; it is a thing in the world that demands attention, and to ignore it entirely is just as irresponsible as its lazy use. In "Hear the Enemy" in particular it does seem much more integral to what Schneyer is fundamentally trying to say than it is in the Dudak and Kelly stories--which is probably in large part why I think it's the most successful of the three. Even still, though, one frequently feels that he is just going through the motions, making gestures towards "genre tropes" that perhaps he feels he needs to hit. When I finished the story, I felt to some extent that I had been enlarged by it, which is always a wonderful gift for which I am grateful. But I felt in other ways that I had grown small.

I've never read anything else by Kenneth Schneyer; I don't know him; I don't know what his feelings and needs are, but as a reader the "war story" aspects of "Hear the Enemy" do not strike me as a felt need. This feeling is all the more apparent because much in the story does; it would be one thing if the whole story were just sleepwalking, one could simply write it off, but this story is not: it is much better than that. This passage, which I will quote at length, in which the narrator, Halima, speaks about her complicated estrangements from her young daughter immediately after she, in the previous scene, has described the earliest stages of an attempt to understand an alien biology, language, and social structure (including parent/child relationships), is a good example of the kind of thing I mean:

Kesi's use of language misleads me into thinking she has a mind like mine. She uses a subject, verb, and object in ways I understand, and so I imagine that she means by it the same thing I would mean. But a four-year-old, in some ways, is as different from an adult as a chimpanzee.

Last month she cut into small pieces Jabari's decoration for valor, which I stupidly left sitting on a low table after I had shown it to her the day before. I had not guessed that she was able to use her little scissors so well, nor that they would cut something that seemed so durable. When I saw the scattering of silk ribbon and golden twine on the table and floor, I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It was just a thing, it was not Jabari, but it was one more bit of him that I will never have again.

I asked Kesi what she had done. She saw the tears in my eyes and knew that something was wrong.

So she said, "Nothing."

I said, "But Baba's ribbon is all cut to bits."

She looked right at it and said, "No, it isn't."

It wasn't a lie, not in the sense that you would mean it. Kesi has learned enough about words to know that they have power. She knows that adults speak of things that are not present in the room, and that these things turn out to be true. It is logical, from her perspective, to think that the words make them true. She wished that the ribbon were all in one piece, so she told me, with conviction, that it was. I do not think she expected magic, but rather that the world would conform itself to her words, as (from where she stands) it seems to conform itself to mine.

But at the moment she said it, a miserable voice in my head screamed, liar! In that instant I judged her, found her untrustworthy, unloving, selfish. I hated her, and not for the first time.

Then I returned to myself and saw a scared, sad little girl who had not understood what she had done. I took her into my arms and we cried into each other's shoulders.

And I wondered whether someday I will misplace the reason to forgive her--whether there will come an instant of hatred that does not fade.

I find fascinating here the interplay of Halima's three narratives of Kesi's internal life ("It wasn't a lie," "liar!," "a scared, sad little girl") with one another and with the knowledge we have as readers that neither she nor we can be sure if any of them are "right." All she, and we through her, have is a set of observable behaviors, to which we must try to attach meaning. The parallels between this and the situation Halima faces with the captured Sheshash are perhaps obvious, a bit on the nose, but nevertheless sensitively and intelligently explored, revealing areas of experience that might otherwise have remained obscured. My favorite of the ways in which Schneyer achieves this is the moment when the captured Sheshash escape from their cell, in which he removes even the observable behavior:
How Ishish and Ashashi escaped is not important to relate. Our technology perplexes the Sheshash as theirs perplexes us. It may simply have taken Ishish this long to realize that what we thought was an impregnable chamber was as easy to violate as air.
I'm not sure how I feel about the word choices at the end there--impregnable/violate--but apart from that this is a really intriguing little uncertain pause in what might otherwise be a straight "action" sequence.

Now compare with this telegraphic paragraph that comes very nearly at the end of the story:

I fired my weapon. The baby popped like a balloon.
We are worlds away from the previous passages, and not in the good sfnal sense of "worlds away." This type of thing, particularly coming as it does at the end of a section, indeed the penultimate section of the story, its "climax," casts us into the worst aspects of sf's pulp roots.* To me it reads like a line from some rushed novelization of Paul Verhoeven's film of Starship Troopers written by someone too overworked to notice the irony in the movie.

*Which still also have many good lingering effects, mind you.

Again, I don't want to be harsh. The reason I complain so hard about these negative aspects of Schneyer's story is that I can feel a powerful urge in the story to be better, a desire which it very nearly fulfills. But to place this kind of by-the-numbers sensationalistic writing about by-the-numbers sensational plot elements at the very crux of the story--this is the specific moment around which everything Halima has told us revolves, her guilt about it the whole reason for her telling--is to undercut it all. Not fatally, but very nearly.

I said before that the violence in this story feels integral to it in a way that it doesn't in the other stories I've mentioned, and this is true. Indeed, in fine sfnal tradition the extreme violence of the war between the humans and the Sheshash literalizes the metaphorical violence of the parent/child relationship (in a way that is far less hokey than that sounds). And yet, and yet. I keep coming back to three concerns, separate but related; much like Halima with Kesi, I cannot say which--if any--of these three is genuinely at play here or in any of the other stories, but I worry that some combination of them is at play in a much higher proportion of sf than one might wish:

First, I worry that impatient--or, worse, lazy--writers are going to spectacular violence because it is readily available in the "genre toolkit" and provides a way to explore their ideas without having to fully engage with them. I do not think Schneyer is guilty of this, at least not very much, but I do feel that if Kelly and Dudak had had the patience to live with their ideas a bit longer they might have found better things to do with them.

Second, I worry that this ease, what I described earlier as familiarity, is a part of a much larger system that discourages us, as readers, as writers, and as humans, from thinking or caring about the consequences of violence, even in fictional terms. I am not being a moral scold here about "desensitizing" or what have you; cause and effect is not that simple. But I submit that even in a story which revolves entirely around guilt over violence, the creeping presence of glibly formulaic language like "The baby popped like a balloon" is indicative of a cultural--that is to say not arising from the individual--inability to deal with the reality of violence, the equivalent of a looking away even as it pretends to unrelenting attention.

And third, I worry that even in those stories where the violence is integral--as it is in the Schneyer--the reflexive turn to violence as subject matter is silently steering the kind of ideas that sf is willing to explore. To put it in heavily simplified terms, I worry that the thought process starts, most likely unconsciously, with "my story must include violence in order to belong to sf" and only then goes to "what kind of story can I tell?" If this is true of Schneyer, it makes the story he's written out of this thought process all the more impressive...but it is also a little depressing to think of a writer capable of what he is manifestly capable of being limited in this of all ways, by sf of all fields.


UPDATE: On twitter, after pointing out that he doesn't "acquire or edit the magazine's fiction" himself, Niall Harrison comments: "My argument...would be that the story is in part about the tension between simplistic, war, 'friend/enemy' understandings and complex, multivalent person-to-person understandings, and that therefore the crudeness of 'popped' is apt: it indicates the narrator failing. Making a choice to fail, in fact." I find myself in absolute agreement with his assessment of the story's themes, but hadn't thought to apply them to the language of "The baby popped." Now I am. The suggestion that this language might be "a choice to fail" in particular is fascinating to me, and I'm thinking I'll need to re-read the story with this notion in mind.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Science fiction is in a unique--note I do not say superior--position to respond to the disenchantment of the world because it is the only literature that has taken as necessarily its central concern the very worldview that, to put it in perhaps overly schematic terms, leads to/results from this disenchantment. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, I urge you to read the linked posts, and ideally the book they're reviewing, carefully.)

That much sf has been and continues to be unskeptical boosterism is indisputable, but also irrelevant in terms of this unique position--that is to say, in terms of a potential which has been realized or not to various degrees in different works. At any rate, a great deal of sf is much more nuanced as regards the disenchantment than popular opinion might suggest, even where its writers might disagree (or claim to); and even that sf which is not anything more than unskeptical boosterism still often--though far from always!--has much to say to us.

The other areas of writing most often discussed alongside sf, in terms of either similarities or differences, are the mainstream, realism, postmodernism, and genre fiction (all of which really should have quotation marks around them, because a quartet of more tendentious terms can hardly be imagined). The first and last are certainly relevant--in discussions of economics. It is my belief, though, that beyond this these four (overlapping) areas of writing have essentially nothing to say to sf, and vice versa.

For the reasons above, however, it is my belief that modernism and sf, though rarely if ever discussed together, do have very much to say to one another. Some disclaiming may be necessary: for example, it is important not to erase the very real differences between modernism and sf; and the meanings and uses of both terms (as well as the one I used above in only its most general sense: literature) must be strongly and frequently interrogated. But disclaimers aside, the statement still stands.

I had all this written out much better on a sticky note, but I lost it on the bus.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On still being unable to write about Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died

I've read three of Joanna Russ's novels, each of them now at least twice. My first was The Female Man, five or six years ago, which I first saw mentioned on a (short) list, somewhere or other, of "classic feminist sf novels." I liked the title, I thought, "Hey, I'm a feminist, I like sf," and I read it--and it taught me (though it would take some time to sink in) that I was not a feminist, that I did not understand what feminism was,* and that while, yeah, I did like sf, I maybe wasn't entirely sure what that was, either. All immensely valuable lessons, which have contoured my reading and my thinking ever since. But beyond that, I didn't get much out of The Female Man, as a novel, the first time through. I didn't even like it, really. But I knew it was important. I knew I had to re-read it, sometime, when I might be more ready, and that I had to read more Russ.

*I'm not comfortable calling myself a feminist now, either, partly because I'm not generally comfortable calling myself an anythingist, but mostly because it feels so very presumptuous--as in, what the hell have I done for feminism? Back then, though, I wasn't a feminist, despite glibly assuming I was, because I had no fucking clue what I was talking about and thought "yaa, women are all right, right?" was enough. The Female Man was the beginning of my education that the experience(s) of being a woman is wholly different than I had thought, for wholly different reasons. Perhaps the most startling thing to me about that first encounter with it was the glimpse, and the beginnings of an understanding, of the everyday assault on their humanity that women must live with--and the everyday anger--the righteous, utterly justified, powerful, horrible anger--many must carry as a result. I had simply had no idea.

Some time after that I saw We Who Are About To... described, somewhere or other, as a feminist response to the conventional sf story in which a band of men and one woman crash on a planet and for some so-obvious-it-need-not-be-stated reason need to "populate" it, the woman's desires left firmly out of it.* This (the Russ, not the conventional story) sounded great! I read it, expecting much pleasure in the demolition of this obviously misogynist trope--and, unwittingly condescendingly, not much else. And while the novel is in part what I was told it was going to be, imagine my surprise when I found that it went much deeper than that: that, yes, it is "a response" to various sfnal tropes, but not just the most plainly misogynist ones, and not a tidy response, and, behold the possibility, much more than just a response--that it is a novel about life, and about death; an sf novel best read in the context of other sf, but only a novel "about" sf to the extent that sf has often told lies about life and death. It kept refusing to do what I expected, wanted, needed it to do. It misbehaved in my hands and under my eyes, refusing constantly to be the novel I was trying to make it be (perhaps one of the most feminist things about it, and all Russ's writing). I didn't like it. But I knew I had to re-read it, sometime, and I knew that I had to read more Russ.

*Stories following this precise outline are likely rare if they exist at all, but stories using elements of it or essentially identical to it in the general gist are omnipresent in sf's classical era.

As I do far, far too often, I then went on to neglect her until I heard the news of her death. Considering my small and basically antagonistic experience with her to that point, it's amazing how hard it hit me. The details are irrelevant, but it's actually one of those "flashbulb" memories for me--I remember exactly what I was doing that morning when I saw the first "Joanna Russ 1937-2011" headline, and I can't think of her death without calling to mind the clothes I was wearing, the room I was in, the cast of the light. (No doubt a sign of my awareness even then, on some level, of what she did, and would come to, mean to me.) From various places around the internet I had vaguely gathered that she had been unwell (how little I knew!), but from those same places I had also heard rumors that she was feeling a bit better than she had been, that she was, after much time away, beginning slowly to write again, and I had wondered if there would eventually be some new, late Joanna Russ appearing. But then came the headlines.

I slowly pulled myself into further exploration, still ongoing today (and indeed it's only been two years--almost exactly--though it feels so very much longer). I re-read The Female Man, understanding it a bit better, as sf and as itself, getting a feel for what it had to say not just with its words and scenes but in the very strange way in which those words and scenes were strung together. I read some of her criticism and other non-fiction, How to Suppress Women's Writing and the essays collected in To Write Like a Woman, both of which immediately became essential, both of which I have now re-read several times, as well as, later, the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, a peculiar collection which I don't think I grasped well at all, to which I need to return, of which nevertheless I can say without exaggeration that it changed my life. I read many of her short stories, those collected in The Zanzibar Cat, The Hidden Side of the Moon, and Extra(ordinary) People,* some of it (in particular "When It Changed," "Existence," "Bodies," and "Souls") hitting right off, most of it even more opaque than the novels had been (and in an unexpectedly, misbehavingly, completely different way), even the second time through.

*The availability of most all of her work is in a shameful state, but the short fiction is especially in disarray. Too bad nobody's bothered to put together a complete stories OH WAIT. Grr. How I would love to learn there'd been some movement on that.

I re-read and re-read and re-read We Who Are About To..., perhaps ten times now, each time finding greater and greater depth in it. I have an attachment (for reasons I hope to explore soon) to the notion that Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is the finest of all sf novels, but in the face of this, one of the very greatest of all novels, period, I sometimes am convinced to let it go. I keep returning to the desire to write an opera of it. I can't write opera! I wouldn't even be able to write an etude. But the finale! The narrator (alto) alone, hallucinating, her ability to narrate (and hence the music itself) breaking down, the alien sky and landscape (chorus) singing fragments of Handel at her...that last line...but enough of that.

I read And Chaos Died.

And about a month ago, I re-read And Chaos Died.

It was...I suppose the word is "easier": it was easier the second time. The first time left almost no residue in my mind, save for a striking image here and there (the opening pages in particular, Jai Vedh on the spaceship before it explodes, feeling the vacuum, feeling, as Samuel R. Delany puts it, "a nearly psychotic desire to merge with the universe") surrounded by a pervading, well, distaste. I was told (again by Delany) that it "puts the reader through the experience" of "psi-phenomena" (from his back cover blurb, at least in the Ace edition with the marvelous Leo & Diane Dillon cover illustration), and I believed it, though I hadn't felt it; I was told (by Delany and everyone else) that it was problematic on homosexuality, and I believed it, though I hadn't noticed it. I was told, somewhere, that it was one of her lesser works, and I clung to that.

I'm not so sure of any of that anymore.

After I finished the novel this second time, closed it, sat, got up to return it to the shelf, sat again, and then eventually came out of whatever state I was in, my first thought was "This is an Important Novel." It cemented for me the notion that Russ was one of the very small handful of the most important English-language writers of the twentieth century. I thought, "I need to write about this book." But what on earth to say? How to talk about what this novel is, what it does?

The title of this post is no lie. I am not about to whip out some surprise gem of literary analysis--or even a plot summary. I am still unable to write about And Chaos Died. Some things I can say--that I think it is a terrible mistake to view the pastoral culture Jai Vedh encounters on the planet as a "utopia"; that the mistake of considering what its people do to him a "cure" is just as terrible (they think it's a cure, or say they do, but the novel suggests otherwise); that some of Delany's complaints about the novel's now-and-then thinness (particularly his observation, of the nightmarish orgiastic episode, that "it is difficult to imagine what the participants were doing the day before or what the survivors might be doing the day afterward") are absolutely true; that despite this occasional thinness, and as evidenced by the two easy-to-make mistakes I just mentioned, this is a terribly complex novel operating on a level very few care to. This complexity is often unpleasant, often difficult to read (as Richard describes) to the point where one justifiably questions the validity of the whole enterprise. And yet, and yet...

Beyond that...? Delany's essay on Russ in Starboard Wine (to which I keep returning because, though I tend to find his discussions of Russ surprisingly off the mark and this is no exception, he is the only person I have seen attempt seriously to engage with this particular novel*) is about her writing in general, but it revolves almost entirely around And Chaos Died; his introduction to the Wesleyan University Press reissue of We Who Are About To... very nearly does, too--and this strategy is, perhaps, not inappropriate.** It may not be her "best" novel, it may not be her most representative (whatever that would mean with a writer as varied as her), but what it certainly is not is peripheral, or minor.

*Pending my hopefully imminent reading of the too-few books I know of on Russ: those by Brit Mandelo, Farah Mendlesohn, and Jeanne Cortiel.
**Meanwhile, it strikes me that here I've done precisely the opposite.

Perhaps the next time I re-read it I'll be at the point, both in my own development and in my familiarity with the novel, where I will be able finally to read it, and to report on that reading. For now, though, all I can give is this appreciation--or rather this blank space, this placeholder, this arrow pointing in the direction of...something...astonishing.


It occurs to me, much too late to work into the body of this essay, that one thing I'm trying to get at especially in the early sections is that where, with many "difficult" writers, experience with one or more of their works will in some way "prepare" one for an encounter with another, this is not the case with Russ. No matter how much of her work one has read, one goes into any as-yet-unread fictional work of hers wholly unprepared.