Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

[Note: it takes me a while, but eventually I do discuss the book itself, I promise. Also there will be spoilers, etc. Oh, and since I'm disclaiming, I know that I get very repetitive at times with certain words. There seemed no way around it.]

My ambivalence towards Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves began with the title. It's probably unfair, but I have an automatic aversion to titles like these: clever appropriations of common expressions or phrases revealing, merely by their placement as title, hitherto, I guess, unimagined depths of potential meaning—Raymond Carver-tested, MFA workshop-approved kinds of titles. Such a title creates a particular expectation that the very tastefully clever jacket design reinforces, as does everything from the careful selection of blurbers to the tastefully enraptured jacket flap copy to the author bio that notes that all five of her previous novels have been New York Times Notable Books to, once we actually open up the book, the quietly confident typeface in which the novel is printed.

I bring all this up not out of pettiness (I hope) but for two reasons, both related to the fact that, though there is much that is wonderful in this novel, there is also much about which I have deep reservations. The first reason is that I suspect that this split in my reaction arises out of the duel between what seems to me to be, on the one hand, a desire on Fowler's part to live in and be accepted by the tastefully clever world projected by this title, this jacket, these blurbers, and on the other, an equally strong urge in her to fight against this world, to lay bare all that it covers up, excludes, looks down upon, misses. The second reason is that to some extent I'm not certain how much of my reservation is merely a hallucination brought on by all these accoutrements. Do I really have a problem with the book, or merely with—for example—the font? If I am to be honest, this type of question is often much harder for me to answer than I'd like; what follows is my attempt to figure it out.

L. Timmel Duchamp notes that, whether or not we feel that this novel is "science fiction," whatever that means, it is absolutely in dialogue with, part of the conversation created by, the tradition of feminist science fiction. She is of course absolutely right; the links between this novel and, for example, "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy (who Fowler thanks in her acknowledgments) or Fowler's own earlier "What I Didn't See" (and from there to Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See") are merely the most obvious, and familiarity with these works (and no doubt with countless others I am not familiar with) enriches the experience of Fowler's novel immensely.* But I think it important too to note that this novel, both in its presentation-as-marketable-object and in itself as a work, positions itself in a very different social space. According to the flap copy, Fowler's "progenitors could be said to be" not Murphy or Tiptree but "England's Angela Carter and Russia's Nikolai Gogol—writers who made old tales new again and who fearlessly incorporated demons and devils, madmen and holy fools, into their subversive fictions."

*I will not be talking much directly about the feminism of this novel in this essay, which should not be taken as meaning that the feminism is not there, or that it is not important; rather that a) others can write and have written about it much better than I, and b) I am here concerned primarily with my reservations about the novel, most of which are not located in the feminism per se.

I don't say they're wrong (I haven't yet read either Carter or Gogol, so really I wouldn't know), and I bring this up not to make some kind of genre-snot point, some kind of "if it's good it isn't sf" sarcasm. But I think the anonymous Marion Wood G. P. Putnam's Sons Random Penguin employee's decision to name these two writers out of all the others who "could be said to be" Fowler's "progenitors" is not without significance—nor is their decision to identify the countries of origin, simultaneously harking back oddly to a past era of artistic nationalism that seems a bit irresponsible to invoke now and attempting to establish an international pedigree for this very specifically American novel.* We are being encouraged to read Fowler in one context rather than another, and the problem is not that the one context is "better" than the other, or "more right," but that the action of the rather than is to restrict, diminish, domesticate. We are told by the authorities at Marion Wood G. P. Putnam's Sons Random Penguin that Carter and Gogol's "fictions"—and by extension Fowler's as well—are "subversive." But if this is the case, what could they be subverting but precisely (if metonymously) the authority and authoritativeness of Random Penguin itself?** I spot a problem.

*I may seem to be contradicting myself here but I don't think I am.
**I am also uncertain what is "fearless" about incorporating demons and devils etc. into fiction, and even more uncertain why such incorporation is relevant to the novel at hand, which does no such thing.

I would consider all of this merely unfortunate advertising, akin to the tv ads that made Eyes Wide Shut out to be some kind of sexy romp, did the novel itself not seem to wish so much to occupy precisely the position being carved out for it—despite its ambitions to deal with issues simply inaccessible from that position. It is these ambitions that make the novel very much worth our attention despite its problems; looked at another way, it is these ambitions that make it necessary to talk about the problems.

The novel takes the form of the reminiscences of Rosemary Cooke, our first-person narrator. From the very beginning we sense that she will be different from most such: things seem a little more out of her grasp, and she has none of the confidence of most first person narrators. The first page sees her referring to a home movie for evidence of what she was like as a child, rather than simply asserting that she was that way, and with no mention of whether she herself remembers being like the child portrayed in the movie. And as things go on, her uncertainty becomes more and more explicit, indeed becomes more and more one of the central issues in the novel. For this narrator asks herself—and us—questions that most first person narrators cannot afford to ask and avoid at all costs. These are very specifically writers' questions. They do not, of course, always come literally in the form of questions, but this passage in which they do might suffice to give some idea of what I'm talking about:

Still, there are reasons for suspicion. I was only five. How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word, the exact song on the radio, the particular clothes I was wearing? Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I'd climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family?
These questions do not come up in most novels, in which the narrator simply tells us: I said, she said, I did, she did, with a certainty that is quite alien to the way we actually live and remember our lives. For memory is not certain, nor is it always accessible. It comes at us in vague flashes, conflicting and contradictory, unreliable, unverifiable, easily altered. And the novel deals very heavily too in two particular ways in which memory can be distorted: first from too much reinforcement (at one point Rosemary repeats for us a story she has told so often that "I honestly don't know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it"), and second from no reinforcement at all in the face of repression, family silence, and denial ("So who knows what revelries, what romps my memories have taken with so little corroboration to restrain them?"). The book, then, is about elusiveness. And not just the elusiveness of memory, but also of language, of storytelling and of our reasons for engaging in it, of self, of other, of humanity—all of these elusivenesses, of course, being linked. In talking about elusiveness it is often wonderful—but there is a problem here: for though it is about elusiveness, the book itself is not elusive. It is often evasive, which is interesting in itself, but is not the same thing (more on this later). Let us take, for example, a passage about language. In what follows Russell is an older boy who had helped Rosemary's older brother break into the Cooke family's former home, and Fern is (we'll just say for now) the third Cooke sibling, who has been taken away from the family—a fact which the child Rosemary both knows and yet cannot quite comprehend.
          A few days later, the cops busted Russell. Grandma Donna told me that he'd thrown a Halloween party at the farmhouse. Every window in the place had been broken, she said, and an underage girl had spent a night in the hospital.
          Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. Here is what I heard: that maybe Fern had reached, like a poltergeist, across time and space and destroyed the home in which we'd all lived. A few broken windows might have signified a party to me. Fern and I had thrown a croquet ball through one once and had good fun doing it in spite of what came after. But every window in the place? That didn't sound larkish. That had the precision and persistence of fury.
          Here's what Grandma Donna thought she was telling me: that I was not too young to understand the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs. That she just hoped she'd never live to see the day I had to have my stomach pumped. That such a thing would break our mother's broken heart.
And so a chapter ends. Some of this, particularly in the second paragraph, is very fine. The line about language being "such an imprecise vehicle" is marvelous, and Rosemary's reconstruction of her childhood thought processes is evocative and, in its literalism and logic, devastatingly recognizable. But even in the first two paragraphs something feels off for me, something feels a little too straightforward, too easy—something reinforced by the wholly inappropriate third paragraph, in which we are given "what Grandma Donna thought she was telling me." Oh really? How does Rosemary know? For that matter, how does Fowler know? To be sure, we are free to think about and wonder why Rosemary thinks she knows this, and may even be encouraged to do so by what comes before it. But nothing in the novel requires us to do it, and her exegesis of what-Grandma-Donna-really-meant "seems right" to such an extent that it even runs counter to such questioning. This apparently self-evident correctness, presented with such quiet authority (strengthened by both the high emotional tone and the immediate chapter break), discourages us from asking of the novel the very questions Rosemary insists upon asking.

Much the same happens with memory. A few pages after the just-quoted passage, we read: "When I was about eight, I recovered what seemed to be a memory." This is interesting. The verb, "recovered," tells us that despite her equivocal "seemed to be" Rosemary on some fundamental level feels this as memory. And regardless of whether this recovered seeming memory is of something that "really happened" or not, we have entered in this sentence into the peculiar realm of recalling recollection; the adult Rosemary is remembering the experience of, long ago, remembering something that happened (or perhaps did not) longer ago still. "It came one piece at a time, like a puzzle I had to fit together." But again something seems amiss; in that blandly narratorial "When I was about eight" introducing a simple, past-tense, declarative statement, we have no sense of the recursiveness of remembering a memory; surely, we feel, the adult Rosemary's recollection of herself at eight should be, perhaps not as elusive as that child's memory of her earlier childhood, but more elusive than this? But in what follows the work of fitting the puzzle together has been done already, and instead of a memory of a memory of something that may not have happened, we get an anecdote. "We were on a narrow country road.... My father stopped for a cat...." To be sure, a phrase here and there periodically informs us that we are in memory rather than event ("I remembered my shock"), but though the memory of eight-year-old Rosemary is in question, the memory of adult Rosemary is not. That verb, "remembered," is always in the indicative.

We are thus again, as with the passage above about language, given Rosemary's uncertainty, rather than living through it with her—in much the same way that we are given the then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened of any ordinary novel.

I said before that the novel, though it is not elusive, is evasive. Normally I find evasiveness (as for example in its most egregious form, the "surprise ending") coy and annoying, feeling that what so much energy is being expended on evading is what should be the very substance of the work. But here things are different, as for Fowler the evasiveness itself is that substance, and here I find the book much more successful than in its dealings with elusiveness. Though at times there is a residual annoying coyness to the novel (though whether this residual resides primarily in the book or in me, I cannot say), on the whole Fowler transforms her evasions into something quite interesting.

Take for example the nature of Rosemary's sister, Fern. Throughout the first 70-odd pages, Rosemary talks about Fern as a sister no different from any other (except of course in the sense that she is one individual person, not any other), though hints creep in that something unusual is going on: references to places—a movie theater, say—that Fern cannot go, activities she cannot take part in; casual mentions of "the grad students" that were always around in their early childhood. These hints take almost the same form as those that lead up to a surprise ending (though perhaps a bit more obtrusive than those usually try to be), but fortunately Fowler has other, better concerns than merely surprising us.

Fern is a chimpanzee. Her species is revealed to us on page 77, almost exactly a quarter of the way through the novel—thus allowing the remaining three quarters to do what suprise-ending stories are too cowardly and lazy to do, namely to deal with the consequences of what is revealed—and in the passage following the revelation Rosemary makes clear her motives:

          Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern's essential simian-ness for so long.
          In my defense, I had my reasons. I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee. I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind. It's never going to be the first thing I share with someone.
          But much, much more important, I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren't thinking of her as my sister. You're thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet. After Fern left, Grandma Donna told Lowell and me that when our dog Tamara Press had died, our mother had been devastated—just the way she was now, being the implication. Lowell reported this to our father and we were all so offended Grandma Donna had to give it right up.
          Fern was not the family dog. She was Lowell's little sister, his shadow, his faithful sidekick.
I fell, to some extent into both the "some" and the "others" camps that Rosemary lays out in the first paragraph: I did figure it out (in large part thanks to the cover illustration, which depicts Fern hanging from a tree), and I did, as I've mentioned already, find the withholding irritatingly coy. But I was won over as Rosemary described her reasons. To begin with, the mere fact of any explanation at all is unusual, for a standard fictional "surprise", whether at the end or not, cannot afford to explain its reasons for being left a surprise any more than a standard first-person narrator can afford to ask herself how she remembers the dialogue so precisely.

And just as with those previously-discussed questions, Rosemary's reasons (possibly excluding the "never going to be the first thing I share" one) are, once again, writers' reasons. In this case, Rosemary (and Fowler) are struggling with one of the central problems facing a writer, namely how to convey accurately the "reality" one seeks to convey. To do so is of course impossible, and in explaining why she has held back the information that Fern is a chimpanzee this long Rosemary is in effect telling us which course to failure she ultimately decided was least untenable, and why. Her candidness is, in context, deeply moving, and when she goes on immediately to describe more fully than before her experience of having a chimpanzee as a sister, to a certain extent it does feel as though she's been successful; we begin to understand what this alien experience really was, truly to see Fern as "not the family dog", and so on; and though these passages can never really "take us there", their being ushered in by the acknowledgment of the impossibility gives them a power they could not have had otherwise, creating a shift in perspective even in those of us who did "figure it out" that is, again, deeply moving.

Similar clusters of reasoning and feeling surround other of the novel's evasivenesses, as for example regarding what Lowell, Rosemary's fugitive brother, did. This is all very powerful. But I wonder if Fowler has on some level confused the evasiveness, which she deals with remarkably, with the elusiveness that her material requires but is not a living presence in it. The two are not the same, but such is the power of the novel as a form (i.e., The Novel, the "genreless" genre), able to consume, digest, and incorporate anything that it encounters, that both are subsumed into one smoothed-out thing—with evasiveness, naturally the more graspable of the two, retaining much more of its own character than the elusiveness is able to. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this essay, I sense in Fowler a powerful urge to fight against her form, to fight against The Novel and its all-consuming appetite; but in this case at least I find that she has not fought hard enough, or that she has allowed a conflicting urge—to give in, both to her form and to the cultural position she finds herself in at this point in her career—to take over.

Intimately related to all of this is the question of this particular novel's sfness, the "Is it or isn't it?" question that, as a question, ultimately I am not interested even in asking, let alone answering. But sf or not, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is obviously relevant to the sf reader in a number of ways, from the fact that Fowler has written much before it that is "incontestably" sf, to the dialogue Duchamp identifies between it and previous works of feminist sf, to—my immediate interest—the formal issues within it. Specifically, I am referring to the way it deals with the tension I have identified as central (though not exclusive) to sf: that between explication and the inexplicable. For this is a novel that aims itself squarely at the heart of modern science's moral, philosophical, and indeed methodological failures.

Fowler here displays a typically sfnal interest in the forms of explication, the modes of language we use to convey information, to explain things; like all good sf, her novel implicitly understands that mixing these particular kinds of stories into what we're more used to thinking of as a story performs strange transformations on both, carrying the potential of tremendous power as these modes clash, cooperate, engage in dialogue with one another.

          Episodic memory has certain subjective features. It comes with something called "a feeling of pastness," and also a feeling of confidence, however misplaced, in the accuracy of recollection. These interiorities can never be observed in another species. Doesn't mean they aren't there. Doesn't mean they are.
          Other species do show evidence of functional episodic memory—the retention of the what, where, and when of individual experiences. The data has been particularly persuasive with regard to scrub jays.
          Humans are actually not so good at remembering the when. Extremely good at remembering the who, though. I would guess chimps, social as they are, might be the same.
          Does Fern remember us? Does she remember but not recognize us as the people she remembers? We certainly don't look the way we used to, and I don't know if Fern understands that children grow up, that humans grow old, same as chimps. I can find no studies that suggest what a chimp might remember over a period of twenty-two years.
          Still, I believe Fern knows who we are. The evidence is compelling, if not conclusive. Only the exacting ghost of my father keeps me from insisting on it.
This is, again, very fine. But I find, and here I have difficulty putting my finger on my objection, that something is off. Perhaps it is the very fineness of the writing. Perhaps it is the overly frequent and too-precise paragraph breaking—for me this passage, like many elsewhere in the novel, would gain much in power were it one single paragraph. Whatever the specific technical causes, what I feel here and in many similar passages is The Novel smoothing over the disjuncture between the "scientific" sentences ("The data has* been particularly persuasive...") and the "story" sentences ("...the exacting ghost of my father..."), in a way that the sf I love and that moves me—whether the naïve works of a Clarke or a Stone or an Asimov or the more self-aware efforts of a Delany or a Russ or, indeed, a Tiptree—leave rough. Novels like Rendezvous with Rama or Trouble on Triton, short stories** like "Nightfall" or "Painwise", live in the tensions and the contradictions; they leave the seams visible and do not allow us to forget them.

*Incidentally—"have", surely?
**And here I feel it is time for a periodic reminder that all forms of narrative have, in contemporary culture, been so thoroughly "novelized" for so long that when I talk about The Novel, most of the same or at least very similar issues apply as well to, e.g., short stories.

Lorrie Moore, whose fussily perfect and witty stories with nothing to say usually repel me, has one truly excellent story: "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," originally published in that hotbed of fussily perfect and witty repulsion, The New Yorker, later collected in her Birds of America. In this remarkable story, "the Mother"—a writer for publications like The New Yorker, indeed a writer much like Moore herself—finds that, in the face of a sudden life-altering disaster (the discovery that "the Baby" has cancer), she can no longer go on pretending that her enterprise as a writer is in any way adequate, in any way acceptable. How can I go on forming these perfect sentences, she asks herself, these clever turns of phrase? How can I go on creating these finely observed portraits of nothing at all, when what matters, when something happens that really matters, is ultimately unsayable, certainly unwriteable? And yet it seems that, as much as she struggles against it, as much as she finds herself unable and unwilling, she can (like anyone) only be the writer she knows how to be (and anyway, as "the Father" points out, "We are going to need the money"), and so we see her writing those perfect and witty sentences like "She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow," even going so far as to give the story not one but two of those Raymond Carver-tested MFA workshop-approved titles I started this essay complaining about — this story that is precisely about how inappropriate this detached perfection is in the face of a life and a world that involves us all intimately and messily whether we want it to or not. The story is devastating.

I was tempted to say that it is so powerfully moving because it "strikes the right balance" between these contradictory impulses (not so far off from Beckett's "can't go on, I'll go on"), but that phrase is I think exactly wrong. "People Like That " is so moving precisely because it does not strike a balance, because it lives in the impossibility of balancing. And because in this story Moore has shown us that she is aware of this impossibility, all of her other stories, or at least all those that I have read, none of which show an ounce of this awareness, none of which leave any room for self-questioning or self-doubt, all of which seem blithely certain that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, are not just bad stories but a betrayal, a lazy and cynical admission that Moore is willing to coast merely on her prodigious but empty technical skill, even though she has shown that she knows such coasting is irresponsible and unacceptable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I find, tries too hard to balance what Moore refused to balance in "People Like That", that she refuses to acknowledge even exists in her other stories. Fowler has always known that these problems exist; I admit I am new to her writing and have as yet read very little of it, but the handful of earlier short stories I have read deal very much in these problems, as indeed this new novel does as well. But now it is as though Fowler wants to have it both ways, to find some middle ground between the stark knowledge of "People Like That" and the breezy ignorance of the rest of Moore's career.* And though her efforts in this direction are emphatically not a betrayal, and though there is much, so very much, to admire in this novel, I nevertheless find it all very distressing.

*To be super-clear, I'm not suggesting that Moore and Fowler's careers are in any way linked; I don't even know if Fowler has ever read Moore, and it's irrelevant.

The series of questions I blockquoted oh so terribly long ago ("How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word" et al) actually contains one more that I originally left off, one which may seem at first to be taking us out of the metafictional realm of the rest of the paragraph and back into, as it were, the fiction proper: "And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred?" But this is perhaps the one question out of the series that cuts closest to the heart of the fundamental bad faith of all fiction. Because of course none of the events of the novel ever occurred—despite Fowler's rendering them distinctly, in living color and surround-sound, and make us believe with all our hearts did happen.

But this is complicated by Fowler's political concerns. For there is factual—even propagandistic, if such a word is usable in a non-pejorative sense—information in this book. Rosemary, and behind her Fowler, is terribly and righteously concerned that we become aware of some of the horrors committed in the name of "science," with the backing of industry. We are introduced to forms of animal testing, for example, that are horribly real. But Fowler cannot find it in herself to fight against the homogenization of The Novel as hard as she sometimes seems to want to. And as she works so hard at touching every sentence equally into life, the "political content" of her novel becomes, as Richard puts it in a fine meditation on the presence of racism in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, contained by her novel. It's a thing that happens between the covers, the same as any of the other witty or funny or sad or moving incidents or observations made in the course of its 308 pages; and when we turn the last of those pages and put the book down, so too do we put down its politics.

It is of course asking too much of Fowler to expect her to solve the problem of The Novel's containment single-handed. But for every step she takes toward acknowledging the problems, toward examining them and living with them, she seems to take one or sometimes two steps in the other direction. Her writing is extremely good. I very much enjoyed her language, her wit. How could we not enjoy such turns of phrase as when Rosemary describes her first college roommate as being "appallingly gregarious—so outgoing she was practically incoming," or when CIA men come by her apartment, telling her that her aggressively unhelpful landlord has applied for a job at the agency, "which struck me as a terrible idea no matter how you looked at it, and I still gave him the best recommendation I could make up on the spot. 'I never see the guy,' I said, 'unless he wants to be seen.'" This is genuinely funny; Fowler is similarly skilled in moments of pain and deep feeling. Her novel truly is written in living color and surround-sound; her efforts in these directions are sometimes astounding. But it is in these efforts, indeed in their notable success, that my problems with the novel lie. The jacket flap states, forthright and certain, that this "is Fowler's most accomplished book". I fear that it is.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some observations on Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

  • Dick's misogyny is vicious. He is utterly incapable of mentioning a woman, any woman, in any context, no matter how briefly, without stopping to demean, belittle, ridicule, and/or objectify her. It is to the point that the word misogyny alone is insufficient to describe it; adding gynophobia helps some, because there is a palpable element of fear to his hatred, but in all, language, even the misogynist patriarchal language we have, sputters into shocked silence in the face of woman-hating this...dedicated. And yet he consistently puts some of his most interesting thoughts and writing into the mouths of women characters. Ruth Rae, for example, is a monstrous caricature that only particularly virulent misogyny could come up with; and yet her sudden disquisition on animals, love, grief, and so forth in chapter 11 contains some of the most fascinating and sensitive writing Dick ever produced, and is the first time that this until then only intermittently decent novel really comes to life. I'm not saying any of this makes up for the misogyny—Christ, far from it—merely that it is very peculiar, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it.
  • It is impossible to "get a fix" on any of the characters in this novel. It is impossible to "like" or "dislike" any of them in the sense that most novels encourage us to like or dislike their characters. We spend most of our time basically inside Jason Taverner's head, but who is he? At times he seems a vacuous celebrity; at times, a philosopher. Early on we see him wholeheartedly supporting a genocidal sterilization policy, but we are given no hint of any kind of internal architecture that would support such a belief. He is an unquestioning beneficiary of a police state who can immediately articulate complex objections to the nature of that state. He is cruel and unfeeling; he is sentimental. He is a Van Vogtian superman who, as in Van Vogt, spends the entire novel in over his head; unlike in Van Vogt, it is impossible to imagine him in any other situation. (Can we really see him as the host of a variety show? even one that features dramatic presentations of scenes from Proust?) Who is this man? Certainly not a "character" in the usual novelistic sense; the same goes for all of the other characters. Nor are they Asimovian "labels for the different parts of the story machine", for the parts of this story machine are resolutely unlabeled.
  • Flow My Tears takes place in "the future"—it was published in 1974 and takes place, as the first sentence establishes, in 1988—but it is such a wholly impossible future from the vantage point of that 1974 that it has to be considered an "alternate future." There are things that did not exist in 1974 that have been going on in the novel's present for much longer than 14 years. The 1974 the characters in the novel lived through had to have been a different 1974 than the one in which Dick wrote. The novel rarely, if ever, makes this explicit, but it is consistent. I don't have much to say about this, no theorizing or analyzing to do, but I find it interesting, a seldom-used approach that strikes me as having a great deal of potential, though I am not certain at the moment what exactly I think that potential to be.
  • I have to say, I have no idea what Dowland is doing in this novel, aside from the obvious fact that Dick, like all those with any sense at all, loves him. I don't object to his presence, I just don't see the reason for it. That said, I've learned as much about music from the brief but inexplicably illuminating comments scattered throughout Dick's works as I have from anyone, so I suppose I should thank him.
  • And finally, all those people who consider Philip K. Dick a genius—well, he might be, or at least he pretty definitely was sometimes, but I hope they all realize that he was also, fundamentally, kind of a dumbass.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Proposal for an sf writers' strike

Though I know I have no authority whatsoever with which to make this proposal, nevertheless: I propose that all sf writers should go on strike, effective immediately. I don't mean that they should stop writing, or even that they should stop submitting what they write to publishers and magazines.

Instead, they should all immediately stop writing, and certainly stop submitting what the publishers and magazines want. Imagine it: all the big science fiction publishers suddenly find themselves without a single bloated first volume of a trilogy in their submissions piles, without a single plucky teen protagonist, without a single paranormal police procedural. What would they publish? When none of the publishers have even a single thing they know they want to publish before they even receive it, what will they do? Why, they'll have to publish something they didn't want to publish, or stop operating entirely.

Or imagine: one day, all of a sudden, maybe even today, all of the online sf magazines stop receiving stories with hooky single-sentence opening paragraphs.* What would they publish then?

*That last one technically doesn't count but I had to include it because in a way it's even MORE what I'm talking about than the rest.

UPDATE: On Twitter @waterandfruit pointed out to me that the majority of the stories I link to in my final complaint are written by women. First off I want to straight-up apologize for that. My "method" was just to pick the most recent story at each magazine that met the criterion (and in no case did I have to back far to find one!); I didn't even look at the stories themselves or who wrote them. I should have thought to, though, because coincidence (or, as @waterandfruit speculated, possibly the greater pressure on women to conform and pigeonhole themselves) led to the sample being heavily skewed. I also want to clarify that I'm not by any means complaining about the specific stories linked, most of which I haven't read, or even saying that no good story can start this way. I'm just complaining about the current ubiquity of that specific way of opening.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Simak's "Answers"

When I picked up Clifford D. Simak's short story collection Strangers in the Universe to continue reading where I had left off, turned the page, and discovered that the next story was called "The Answers", a shiver ran through me. (I'm not being dramatic, it really did.) It is difficult to imagine anything more exciting lying unread ahead of one than a story called "The Answers" written by Simak—author of such beautiful enigmas as A Choice of Gods and The Visitors and the agonized, hilarious masterwork City. A title like this from him, you can tell, would come in quotation marks even if that weren't the convention for short story titles. "The Answers", he calls it. With many writers we would expect something tiresomely triumphant to follow such a title. With Simak, though triumph of some sort is not entirely out of the question, we feel certain that it will be much more complicated than that, that the very notion of "answers" will be thrown into, if you will, "question."

Even in the first sentences we are already shifting disconcertingly between certainty and uncertainty, groundedness and the lack of it. (In a typically playful Simakian move, this last is both figurative and quite literal.) Unlikely as it may sound, the opening sentences put me in mind of no one so much as Heidegger, both in what they're saying and how they say it:

They knew it when they stepped out of the ship and saw it. There was, of course, no way that they could have known it, or have been sure they knew it, for there was no way to know what one might be looking for. Yet they did know what it was, and three of them stood and looked at it and the fourth one floated and looked at it.
The location of this knowledge is uncertain: "each of them, in his brain or heart or intuition, whatever you may name it, knew...". The subject of their knowledge—the home, which they have just stumbled upon, of a quasi-legendary "fragment" of humanity that millennia ago separated themselves off "to make their way into the darkness of the outer galaxy"—is itself uncertain, for whether this separation actually occurred (and if so why it did) has been, we learn, a matter for contestation for a thousand centuries (for this story works with that delightfully absurd time scale that was once common in science fiction). And even the mode of this contestation, in Simak's witty description, seems uncertain, self-contradictory, even if only for humorous effect—for, we are told, "the matter had become an academic question that had split into several cults of erudite belief and still was fiercely debated in a very learned manner."

That's the first paragraph. It continues; in the second paragraph we read, of the sight that the four stand (or float) and look at: "It was a place. One hesitated to call it a city, though it was probably a city." Just a moment later, "one knew that he had been wrong in thinking this a city" (hesitant though the thought was!) "—that this was no city, but an extensive village, with all the connotations that were in the word." "There was a greatness about the place," but not in any of the terms in which we are accustomed to thinking of greatness; indeed, we are told that it is "the greatness of humility," which to the story's first readers, if not necessarily to us (who after all pride ourselves on our sophistication, and at any rate have benefited from the intervention of Le Guin's taoism, among other things), must have sounded very much like another self-negating phrase.

I could keep going—the story certainly does—but perhaps that is enough. The point is that in these passages, Simak begins to blend many of his characteristic concerns: uncertainty and inconclusiveness; the simultaneously beautiful and melancholy decentering of the human perspective, without losing sight of the human; the valorization of the pastoral (for the humility and essential "villageness" of the non-city arise from its oneness with the landscape, its "blend[ing] with the trees and grass of the hills on which [it] stood"; significantly, in addition to humility it gives a sense of "the greatness, too, of a well-ordered life"). He does this in such a way as to lead us to see the essential unity of these concerns: his keeping us alive to mutually contradictory possibilities, we sense, is one with his emphasis on the inadequacies of positivist humanism, and both are one with his insistence on the value of living "a well-ordered life" close to—for lack of a better word—nature. And if all this uncertainty seems incompatible with an ordered life, and if all this pastoralism seems inconsistent with space travel and "high technology," well, he told us we were on shifting ground from the very beginning, didn't he? For nothing in Simak is absolute (even his pastoralism is often terribly ambivalent); and there is a question in every statement, a defeat in every victory, a sadness in every moment of happiness.

All of this worries academic critics, who stay away from Simak in droves. I've seen one critical "discussion" of his work: M. Keith Booker, in his thoroughly wretched book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964, brings up Simak's name briefly only immediately to dismiss him as "muddled." For though Booker (mostly correctly) suspects Simak of being anticapitalist, he can detect in him no doctrinaire Marxism; Simak is therefore ipso facto muddled, QED, see you later. (One wonders what these critics would think of Marx, were they ever accidentally to read him.)

But this post is to be an appreciation, not an argument or even really an analysis, so let us leave the execrable Booker behind with these last words: no doubt Simak wrote more than, in some senses, he should have (always the curse of sf writers, particularly those of his era), which has caused the waters to be muddied with a number of works below his highest level of achievement. But he is anything but "muddled," anything but dismissible or ignorable.

For me Simak is one of the greats (perhaps in the same sense that this story's village is "great"?), one of the world's most important writers. Does anyone but me still think of him this way? Once, I know, he was greatly beloved of sf readers (a fact which, admittedly, is every bit as perplexing as his being ignored by critics is telling), but it seems to me that today he has been largely forgotten (which, if true, is again telling). Am I wrong? I would love to be wrong; if I am, please tell me so.

This post arose out of an overwhelming excitement that began vibrating through me as soon as—indeed, even before—I started reading "The Answers", an overwhelming urge to tell someone, anyone, everyone how wonderful, how wondrous, this work is. Read this, I want to shout. Everyone, read this. I want to press the book, falling apart though my copy is, into everyone's hands. I want to point out the poetry, the awe, the wonder, the humor, the terrible sadness, to make sure that no one misses a bit of it.

I want to point out this early passage, which in its onrushing sentences, in its layered reported speech, in its setting up of opposing views neither of which we can find it in ourselves to endorse, in its bitter comedy, reminds me powerfully of Thomas Bernhard. Though of course it is still no one but Simak:

There were those, too, who had said that it mattered little whether you found the missing fragment or not, since little that was of any value would come from a race so insignificant as the human race. What were the humans? they would ask you and would answer before you had a chance to speak. Gadgeteers, they said, gadgeteers who were singularly unstable. Great on gadgets, they would say, but with very little real intelligence. It was, they would point out, only by the slightest margin of intelligence that they were ever accepted into the galactic brotherhood. And, these detractors would remind you, they had not improved much since. Still marvelous gadgeteers, of course, but strictly third-rate citizens who now quite rightly had been relegated to the backwash of the empire.
There is no analyzing the humor of a passage such as this, only pointing at it. "Gadgeteers," funnier with each repetition! And "Great on gadgets, they would say"! "Strictly third-rate"! I can only hope that you laugh as much as I do, and then ponder as much as well.

I want to point out too the peculiar tone Simak is able to create in the best of his works, particularly in the dialogue; a tone somehow reminiscent simultaneously of fable and of epic (in the classical sense), but full always of a melancholy foreign to both of those forms. If you will forgive me further blockquoting:

       "I am staying," the Human said. "I am just a Human and you can get along without me."
       "I thought you would be staying," said the Dog. "Do you want me to go back and get your stuff?"
       "If you would be so kind," the Human said. "I'd not like to go back myself."
       "The Globe will be angry," said the Dog.
       "I know it."
       "You will be demoted," said the Dog. "It will be a long time before you're allowed to go on a first class run again."
       "I know all that."
       "The Spider will say that all humans are crazy. He will say it in a very nasty way."
       "I don't care," the Human said. "Somehow, I don't care."
       "All right, then," said the Dog. "I will go and get your stuff. There are some books and your clothes and that little trunk of yours."
       "And some food," the Human said.
       "Yes," declared the Dog. "I would not have forgotten food."
       After the ship was gone the Human picked up the bundles the Dog had brought, and, in addition to all the Human's food, the Human saw that the Dog had left him some of his own as well.
No doubt some of the air of fable comes superficially just from "the Human" and (especially) "the Dog", but that is certainly not the extent of it, and as I said before fable is not the only referent here. Look at the rhythms of this passage, the two-sentence utterances at the beginning of it, for instance, and the way they give way to shorter ones for a moment before returning in altered form. The way it is always "the Human said" but "said the Dog" (except for the one carefully deployed, identically structured "declared the Dog," somehow so very revealing of the Dog's ancestral affection towards the Human), which is not a programmatic distinction used throughout the whole story; elsewhere we see both "said the Human" and "the Dog said." Look at how very non-naturalistic this dialogue is, even more so than in sf in general; it is more like a call-and-response, more like a ritual perhaps, than it is like a conversation—even though the events in question are new as can be. The comparison with John Jones's comments on Aeschylean and Sophoclean dialogue that I have made in the past (and hope to make in more detail in the future) is very relevant here. And perhaps it is tragedy more than, or at least as much as, fable or epic that is at work here, particularly in the sense we get that the actions of the Human arise not out of some internal "character" so much as out of his Humanness,* and the actions of the Dog too out of his Dogness, and those of the Spider and the Globe out of their Simak-defined, alien Spiderness and Globeness, much as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, say, do what they do not because of who they are, in our modern sense, but because of what they are.** And yet still there is that pervasive melancholy, impossible to define, every bit as foreign to tragedy as it is to fable and epic.

*Later on, more than halfway through the story, it comes as something of a shock when the Human gives his name.
**Note how very different this is from making the characters "symbolize." Agamemnon does not symbolize kingness, he
is a king, and acts as one; the Human does not symbolize Humanness, he is a Human, and acts as one.

And indeed for all this "The Answers" is not tragedy or epic or fable; it is science fiction. And being science fiction, it is able to concretize ambiguity without, necessarily, immediately, losing ambiguity. And so it introduces "the Truth." Our Human (who now has a name, being as he is among other humans for the first time in the story), is asked why he stayed behind when the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe left the planet to return to an outer space occupied by a great, inhuman empire. The suggestion is made:

       "You thought there would be things to find. Great secrets to be learned."
       "I stayed," said David, "because I had to stay."
       "But the secrets? The glory and the power?"
       David shook his head. "I don't think I thought of that. Not of power and glory. But there must be something else. You sense it walking in the village and looking at the homes. You sense a certain truth."
       "Truth," the old lady said. "Yes, we found the Truth."
       And the way she said Truth it was capitalized.
       He looked quickly at her and she sensed the unspoken, unguarded question that flicked across his mind.
       "No," she told him, "not religion. Just Truth. The plain and simple Truth."
       He almost believed her, for there was a quiet conviction in the way she said it, a deep and solid surety.
       "The truth of what?" he asked.
       "Why, Truth," the old lady said. "Just Truth."
Of course, there is no authority outside or even inside the story that can tell us if the word has really earned its capital letter.* We are back in the realm of uncertain knowledge we entered in the story's opening sentences. But just as their knowledge was good enough for the Human, the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe then, theirs is good enough now for the people on this planet, and ("spoilers", as they say) David's ends up being good enough, in its way, for him. And the tone of fable, of epic, of tragedy that I discussed above combines with sf's literalism to give that capital a great deal of weight, perhaps as much as is possible in modern writing. Leaving the question of whether we can believe in Truth aside, the rest of the story, by behaving as though we can, becomes an examination of what it would mean to be able to believe in such a thing, what it would mean for such a thing to exist.

*As an aside, note the pun in the word's first appearance, before it gains its capital: "You sense a certain truth," David says, before he realizes that these people have, or consider themselves to have, a certain Truth.

The entrance of Truth on the eleventh page of fifteen in a story so uncertain as this, even though we have been somewhat prepared by the title, is more jarring even than the sudden naming of the Human had been, and for much the same reason: Truth, like the individuality that seems to inhere in a name (even one as nondescript as David Grahame), is a concept that had seemed absolutely alien to the world of this story. But it is by, or through, or in these shocks, these contradictions, this constant shifting of the groundless ground on which the story rests, that the story lives.

Nothing, of course, is perfect; the end of "The Answers" resolves the story's ambiguities into a mere proposition, something that at last asks the reader simply to agree or disagree—complex, hesitant, and ambivalent as such agreement or disagreement may in any case be (as it is in mine). But if the story falters here at the end, succumbs at last to the tempting patness it had heretofore resisted, this in no way invalidates what came before—rather it means that the inevitable failure of the crucial but ultimately impossible endeavor Simak has set for himself is in this specific case a bit more spectacular than we might wish. Such things happen in any enterprise worth undertaking, and the failures are every bit as important as their supposed opposite.


This appreciation has left much in the story untouched, as anything written about a story that is not a straight reproduction of the story must. I have not mentioned the books that "went to dust as soon as they were touched," leaving one only to "wonder at the magic words they had held," or the other signs of the lost and literally untouchable promise of wisdom the past seems to hold out. I have not mentioned the lovely descriptions of the old woman, with the "restful beauty of the very old," and the old man, whose face shows a calmness that is "incomplete because it was not so deep and settled" as compared with the old woman's, and so "could not as yet know the full comfort of old age." I have not mentioned the impact of Simak's careful, economical worldbuilding in the beginning of the story—the Dogs, the Globes, the Spiders, the empire, the thousands of centuries—nor have I mentioned the even more amazing impact that the story's quickly leaving all this behind has. And though I have mentioned the problems with the story's ending, I have not mentioned the marvelous, vital things it does that it would not be able to do were it not for those problems. But let us leave it at that; we have to stop somewhere.

Reading this story was a marvelous antidote to the disillusionment I've been feeling with sf. It is possible. What I love about sf does not exist solely in my mind. There are works of sf to stand with the greatest works of other literatures. To me, the question facing the contemporary sf writer should be: using "like" as broadly as possible, am I to write like Simak? Is such a thing still possible? If not, why not? And how, then, am I to write in the awareness of this impossibility?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Books Read 2013

2013 was Marooned Off Vesta's first full year, and I've decided to mark it by beginning a tradition (stolen both in concept and in form from Richard, who was also the reason I read quite a large number of these books) of a big round-up post of all the books I read in the past year. In 2013, for a variety of reasons which I mostly hope do not repeat, I read an awful lot. First the list; afterwards, some statistics and comments.

Links are to posts where I wrote about or after, or posted an excerpt from, the book or writer in question.

1. Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography
2. John Hawkes, The Passion Artist
3. Kate Zambreno, Heroines
4. Thomas Bernhard, The Loser
5. Marina Tsvetaeva, After Russia (trans. Michael M. Naydan with Slava Yastremski)
6. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2012 issue
7. Samuel R. Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (re-read)
8. Christine Schutt, Prosperous Friends
9. Plato, Theaetetus (trans. M.J. Levett, revised by Myles Burnyeat)
10. Clifford D. Simak, Why Call Them Back from Heaven?
11. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
12. Plato, Sophist (trans. Nicholas P. White)
13. Lyn Hejinian, My Life (1987 version)
14. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)
15. Dorothy M. Richardson, Pointed Roofs (Pilgrimage 1)
16. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle
17. Plato, Statesman (trans. C.J. Rowe)
18. Gabriel Josipovici, Infinity: The Story of a Moment
19. Mary Shelley, Mathilda (re-read)
20. Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (trans. Ursula K. Le Guin)
21. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn)
22. Denise Levertov, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads
23. James Joyce, Chamber Music
24. Samuel Beckett, Endgame
25. Lars Iyer, Spurious
26. Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died
27. Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)
28. Dorothy M. Richardson, Backwater (Pilgrimage 2)
29. Paula Gunn Allen, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepeneur, Diplomat (re-read)
30. Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean
31. Gary Lutz, Stories in the Worst Way (re-read)
32. Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
33. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai
34. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2013 issue
35. Joss Whedon et al., Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8
36. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
37. James Blish (as William Atheling Jr.), The Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction
38. Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows (trans. Chris Turner)
39. Isaac Asimov, The Beginning and the End
40. Claudia Rankine, Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric
41. Dorothy M. Richardson, Honeycomb (Pilgrimage 3)
42. L. Timmel Duchamp, Love's Body, Dancing in Time
43. Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312
44. Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, During 1843
45. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964, Robert Silverberg, ed.
46. Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
47. Muriel Spark, The Public Image
48. Joanna Russ, On Strike Against God
49. Brit Mandelo, We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling
50. Patricia Cumming, Afterwards
51. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (re-read)
52. Gabriel Josipovici, The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004
53. Deb Taber, Necessary Ill
54. David Byrne, How Music Works
55. Lars Iyer, Dogma
56. Dorothy M. Richardson, The Tunnel (Pilgrimage 4)
57. Samuel R. Delany, Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
58. Renata Adler, Speedboat
59. Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible
60. Algis Budrys, Outposts: Literatures of Milieux
61. Alex Irvine, Rossetti Song: Four Stories
62. L. Timmel Duchamp, The Grand Conversation: Essays
63. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
64. Samuel R. Delany, The Ballad of Beta-2
65. Dory Previn, Midnight Baby: An Autobiography
66. Muriel Spark, The Driver's Seat (re-read)
67. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2013
68. Dorothy M. Richardson, Interim (Pilgrimage 5)
69. Vonda N. McIntyre, Fireflood and Other Stories
70. Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
71. Mark Siegel, Hugo Gernsback: Father of Modern Science Fiction, with Essays on Frank Herbert and Bram Stoker
72. Justina Robson, Natural History
73. Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
74. The Cascadia Subduction Zone volume 3 number 2
75. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet issue 28
76. Tao Lin, Taipei
77. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman that Never Evolved
78. Dan Hind, The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment Was Hijacked and How We Can Reclaim It
79. Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer
80. Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Time for Everything (trans. James Anderson)
81. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class
82. Joanna Russ, What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class and the Future of Feminism
83. Keith Roberts, Pavane
84. Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 (re-read)
85. Samuel R. Delany, Empire Star (re-read)
86. The Other Half of the Sky (ed. Athena Andreadis, co-ed. Kay Holt)
87. Olive Moore, Celestial Seraglio: A Tale of Convent Life
88. Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip (re-read)
89. Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought
90. Marilyn Hacker, Presentation Piece
91. André Gide, Corydon
92. Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient
93. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
94. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2013 issue
95. Olive Moore, Spleen
96. Muriel Spark, Not to Disturb
97. Lars Iyer, Exodus
98. The Cascadia Subduction Zone volume 3 number 3
99. Mary Ruefle, The Adamant
100. H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
101. Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (trans. Dorna Khazeni) (re-read)
102. Robert A. Heinlein, The Past Through Tomorrow: Future History Stories
103. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
104. Alchemy and Academe, ed. Anne McCaffrey
105. J.M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999
106. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
107. Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (ed. Justine Larbalestier)
108. Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics
109. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley)
110. Dorothy M. Richardson, Deadlock (Pilgrimage 6)
111. Timothy Clark, Martin Heidegger
112. bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
113. Imogen Binnie, Nevada
114. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
115. Lyn Hejinian, The Book of a Thousand Eyes
116. Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse
117. Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (aka The Last of Mr. Norris) (re-read)
118. Richard Wright, Black Boy
119. Lori Selke, The XY Conspiracy
120. Thomas M. Disch, 334
121. Peter Handke, Across (trans. Ralph Manheim)
122. The Homeric Hymns (trans. Thelma Sargent)
123. Dorothy M. Richardson, Revolving Lights (Pilgrimage 7)
124. Khatru Symposium: Women in Science Fiction (ed. Jeffrey D. Smith, rev. ed. Jeanne Gomoll)
125. A.E. van Vogt, The World of Null-A (re-read)
126. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964) (ed. David Farrell Krell)
127. Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room
128. Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters (trans. Ewald Osers)
129. Barbara Paul, Pillars of Salt
130. Isaac Asimov, Foundation (re-read)
131. Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach, eds.
132. Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2013

General statistics

Number of different writers represented: 86
Most represented writer: Dorothy M. Richardson (7 books)
Most represented writers all of whose books I read were not part of the same long multi-volume novel: Samuel R. Delany and Virginia Woolf (5 books each)
Number of books written by men: 59
Number of books written by women: 59
Number of books written by (people known to me to be) (people who in the U.S. would be considered) people of color: 17
Number of books written by people not from the U.S. (with some tendentiously subjective decisions regarding emigrés, by which e.g. Denise Levertov "counts" but Hugo Gernsback does not): 57
Number of books in translation: 20
Number of "books" that are actually magazines: 8
Number of books not included in authorship statistics (magazines, anthologies): 14
Number of re-reads: 16 (not including a small handful of books I read for the first time and re-read in 2013)

(includes both plays and comics, of which I only read one each anyway)

Number of books I consider fiction: 79
Number not included in authorship statistics: 11
Number of writers represented: 47
Most represented writer: Dorothy M. Richardson (7 books)
Most represented writer all of whose books I read were not part of the same long multi-volume novel: Virginia Woolf (4 books)
Number of books by women: 35
Number of women writers: 22
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 8
Number of writers of color: 4
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. (with same disclaimer as before): 36
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 19
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 26 (not including Beckett)
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 12
Number of books in translation: 10 (including Beckett)
Number of writers of books in translation: 7
Number of foreign languages represented: 4 (French, German, Norwegian, and Spanish)
Most represented foreign language: French (3 writers, 5 books)
Number of re-reads: 13

Science Fiction

Number of books that seem like they could conceivably be called science fiction whether I would call them that or not: 43
Number of books I think it makes sense to consider science fiction: 37 (removing Hawkes, Jackson, Knausgaard, Russ's On Strike Against God, Whedon, and Woolf's Orlando)
Number of books that seem uncontroversially science fiction: 34 (removing further Beckett, Gorodischer, and Lovecraft)
Number not included in authorship statistics: 11
Number of writers represented (from here on figure are based on the 37 books I consider sf, minus the 11 anthologies and magazines): 23
Number of books by women: 10
Number of women writers: 10
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 4
Number of writers of color: 2
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 4
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 4
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of books in translation: 2
Number of writers of books in translation: 2
Number of foreign languages represented: 2 (French and Spanish)
Most represented foreign language: French and Spanish (1 book each)
Most represented writer: Samuel R. Delany (3 books)
Number of re-reads: 8

(Includes philosophy, history, politics, criticism, etc., as well as most "unclassifiable" books such as Pascal Quignard's, etc. Two books, Gide's Corydon and Larbalestier's Daughters of Earth, are counted both here and in fiction: Gide's because it seemed to belong equally to both; Larbalestier's because it contains equal numbers of stories and essays.)

Number of books I consider non-fiction: 44
Number not included in authorship statistics: 4
Number of writers represented: 36
Most represented writer: Plato (3 books)
Number of books by women: 15
Number of women writers: 15
Number of books by people of color (with same disclaimers as before): 8
Number of writers of color: 7
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 17
Number of writers not from the U.S.: 14
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 6
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 5
Number of books in translation: 10
Number of writers of books in translation: 8
Number of foreign languages represented: 4 (French, German, Greek, and Japanese)
Most represented foreign language: French (4 books)
Number of re-reads: 4
Number of books of or about literary criticism*: 25
Number of books about science fiction*: 12
Number of books of or about philosophy*: 12
Number of books about science*: 4
Number of books about music*: 1
Number of books of or about history*: 9
Number of books of or about feminism*: 17
Number of books about racism and/or POC experience*: 7
Number of books about sexual minorities: 1
Number of books of or about theology and/or religion*: 3
Number of memoirs, autobiographies, etc.*: 5

*broadly speaking, making snap judgments, and with a lot of overlap


Number of books I consider poetry: 11
Number not included in authorship statistics: 1 (The Homeric Hymns, by multiple unknown writers; included back in consideration of national origin, language, etc.)
Number of writers represented: 9
Number of books by women: 9
Number of women writers:8
Number of books by people of color: 1
Number of writers of color: 1
Number of books by writers not from the U.S.: 4
Number of books by writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of writers not from the U.S. writing in English: 2
Number of books in translation: 2
Number of writers of books in translation: 1 (not including The Homeric Hymns)
Number of foreign languages represented: 2 (Greek and Russian)
Most represented foreign language: Greek and Russian (1 book each)
Most represented writer: Lyn Hejinian (2 books)
Number of re-reads: 0

Scattered, drastically incomplete comments

As I said above, I read an awful lot in 2013--almost certainly more than I have in any other year of my adult life. And for the most part I think I read well, with a great deal of thinking, discussion, and writing (here and for myself) on what I read, and with more immediate or near-immediate re-reading than I've ever done before (though still not much, not enough). A small handful of the books listed above I have basically no memory of (sorry, Margaret Fuller and James Joyce!), suggesting that I maybe didn't so much read them as pass my eyes over them, but the vast majority I feel I could still speak intelligently on if called upon to do so (to whatever degree I am capable of intelligent speech!).

2013 started with a decision to pay close, conscious attention to how many books by women I was reading, as I realized that what I had thought was approximate parity in previous years was anything but. This was largely successful, as evidenced by the fact that I read the same number of books by women as by men; on the other hand, it's quite likely that I read a bit more by men than by women because of the disproportionate representation of men in most of the multiple author anthologies and magazines that I did not count towards the total (the Larbalestier- and Andreadis- edited anthologies, along with the fascinating Khatru Symposium, go some small way toward rectifying this, but I doubt they are enough). And when we break things down, it turns out that my reading was still heavily gendered: in every category except for poetry--the one in which I read the least--I read more men than women.

Still, I'm glad I made the "effort," especially since it became less and less of an effort as I went on; one of the things that makes one's reading skew heavily male if one does not try consciously to fix it otherwise is that, as Joanna Russ discusses in How to Suppress Women's Writing, women writers are treated as though they all worked in isolation; where reading one man might lead one naturally towards reading another and another--influences, cohorts, what have you--reading one woman tends to lead nowhere without effort--not usually because she did work in isolation, but because male supremacist culture behaves as though she did. When one begins to read a lot of women deliberately, however, it becomes easier and easier to be led from one to another, and easier and easier to prioritize these paths. And even aside from that, I read a huge number of just truly wonderful books by women in 2013 that I doubt I would have read without a deliberate program of reading women.

On the other hand, my reading was incredibly white. There is no excuse for that. I'm going to be working on it.

My other major reading "goal" in 2013 was basically to begin filling in gaps, reading those essential works that I have until now missed; thus my first-ever reading of Proust and Woolf, for example, both of whom have been immensely satisfying, both of whom I plan to continue reading in 2014 (incidentally, I swear that I didn't know when I started that reading Proust in 2013 was, like, A Thing). Filling in gaps in my sf reading has been less pleasant; a great deal of both the contemporary* and classic sf I've read has left me cold (Disch's 334 stands out as a book I had eagerly anticipated only to find it had little to say to me).

*Not included on the list above is the unsystematic reading I've done in the online sf magazines: Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Daily SF, Expanded Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, and others; I have found in them a small amount of truly excellent work in an otherwise very, shall we say, mixed bag.

I did, however, read a number of books from outside of sf that I thought had a great deal to say to sf, books that I wish the bulk of sf readers weren't too parochial ever to give a chance. Books like Beckett's Endgame, which in many ways is sf while also posing a fundamental challenge to it; like DeWitt's The Last Samurai, Knausgaard's A Time for Everything, and Moore's Spleen, three of the very greatest books I have ever had the privilege to read, which among other things investigate the nature of knowledge and of knowing to a degree sf readers and writers seldom dare to (Knausgaard too is relevant on the matter of time, history, and "the future"); and like Richardson's long novel Pilgrimage, just over half of whose thirteen volumes I read in 2013, which finds so much wonder in the present moment that it becomes an implicit slap in the face to sf--and even, sometimes, an explicit one, as when it cogently argues against the literary enterprise of "Hypo Wilson", a character who pretty directly and transparently stands in for H.G. Wells (who was a friend of Richardson's). And above all there is Heidegger, whose explorations of art, science, technology, and (natch) the nature of being should be central to the sfnal consciousness, but of which I'd guess 99% of sf readers and writers are totally ignorant.

I'm not trying to be a snoot. But I've become very disheartened with sf over the course of this year, not least because of the horrifyingly extreme philistinism flaunted by the great bulk of its readers and writers, most of whom seem absolutely to revel in assuming that anyone who cares about art and life is axiomatically stupid and frivolous; most of whom brag ad nauseam about their intellectual daring and curiosity while in actuality restricting themselves to one or two tiny corners of expertise, deeming all else, again, axiomatically stupid and frivolous; for most of whom the past--even the recent past of their own field--is as irrelevant and unknown as the future is constricted and "trope"-ified. If the total sf apostasy that has been threatening to overtake me for the last few months does happen, this will be a big part of why.

Um, but anyway. I did read a good deal of worthwhile sf. My re-reads of Asimov and van Vogt (both during the months of potential apostasy, sort of a self-administered first aid) reaffirmed me in my faith that, despite all its many inanities, something beautiful really did happen, at least from time to time, in the American magazine sf of the 30s and 40s. Books by McIntyre, Russ, Delany, and Roberts (some re-read, some read for the first time) re-convinced me that it was once possible to do amazing, necessary, and transformative work within that tradition. And though such oases are few and far between, Duchamp, Robson, Salaam and Taber indicated to me that the 1980s did not totally destroy those possibilities, that sf since then has not been a total wasteland. The stories, if not the criticism, in Larbalestier's anthology opened up worlds of writing that had been deliberately hidden but that are simply too powerful to stay hidden.

And Lovecraft, whose incomparable At the Mountains of Madness I re-read and whose short fiction is also ongoing reading, has re-emerged for me as one of the major writers of the 20th century, unappreciated alike by those unaware of him, by his detractors, and by his "fans," the majority of whom seek, panic-stricken, to deny everything that his writing says, does, and is, in favor of pretending that he was a "bad writer with great ideas" (whatever that means) and that tentacles qua tentacles are the peak of these ideas.

In non-fiction, 2013 brought me some excellent and thought-provoking sf criticism of very different kinds (Budrys, Delany, Duchamp, Houellebecq) but also a great deal of awful. The area of thought somewhere between philosophy and literary (and art and music) criticism continues to be perhaps the most essential to me, what with Benjamin and Hyde and Quignard and Tanizaki and the always-necessary Josipovici and, again, Heidegger, from all of whom I have learned more than I could ever say. I read brilliant (and often horrifying) feminism ranging from the medieval to the extremely contemporary, all of it vital; the disconnects in it (wishing, for example, that Russ and Davis and Federici could have written more directly to one another's arguments), most of them no doubt due to the fragmentation of feminist thought enforced by patriarchal violence and "forgetting," are as depressing as ever. Speaking of which, Zambreno (who makes this fragmentation one of her major topics) emerged as having one of my favorite brains. And she along with Wright, Malcolm X, and--perhaps surprisingly--Woolf's A Room of One's Own convinced me, in all their extremely different ways, of a vitality in self-exploratory writing ("memoir", roughly) that I had not suspected was there.

This blog was once intended to be about both sf and poetry, but the latter has obviously fallen by the wayside. I started the blog at a time when I was reading an unprecedentedly huge amount of poetry; I still am interested in it but am not reading nearly so much of it, and find myself generally without much to say about it that has not been said much better by any number of other people. Levertov and Hejinian are my primary passions out of those I read in the past year.

For the most part, the best reading I did in 2013 was outside of this blog's supposed purview. Almost nothing I know of in sf can give anything close to the sensawunda, if you will, of Woolf, Bernhard, Hejinian, Richardson, Josipovici, Benjamin, Levertov, Beckett, Gunn Allen, DeWitt, Quignard, Proust, Knausgaard, Moore, Carson, Wright, Handke, and Heidegger, Heidegger, Heidegger. You might say that comparing sf to these "giants" is unfair--but it shouldn't be.