Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lost time

[This post, in which I mention another post languishing in my drafts for a year, has been languishing in my drafts for months. But my goodness, it's already long for a blog post, and in the interest of teaching myself that not every single goddamn point has to be run into the ground in order for a post to be "finished," I've decided to post it largely as-is, adding only a few bits gesturing at empty places in it. Part of me thinks I'm on to something vitally important here, while part of me thinks this is as trivial and missing-what-matters as a half-assed 10th-grade term paper. The last paragraph in particular seems now almost embarrassingly grandiose, and yet these ideas continue to nag at me so that I can't find it in myself to get rid of it.]

A passage from Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God: A Response to the Bible in which he approaches the Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions through a look at Marcel Proust will I think give some helpful background for the ideas I want to talk about here.

         As every reader of À la recherche knows, Proust makes a fundamental distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. Voluntary memory is the memory of the historian. It tells us that the French Revolution broke out in 1789; that the First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918; that when I was five years old my family moved from X to Y; that I went to such and such a school, took such and such a job, married such and such a person on such and such a date. For Marcel this kind of memory is worse than useless. For what does it do for me to know such things? ... Yet Proust, unlike Nietzsche, was not forced by this insight into the position of having to opt for the memoryless life of the beast. Experience had taught him that there is another kind of memory, quite different from that of the historian, and so important had been this discovery that he made the whole of his giant novel develop out of the insight provided by this involuntary memory.
         Involuntary memory is the memory unleashed by eating again in adulthood a biscuit one had tasted as a child, when the taste brings back the entire world of that time, not as something consciously recalled but directly, physically, in an overwhelming flood. It is as if this memory were lodged inside the body yet sealed off until some chance taste, smell or motion releases it, like the genie from his bottle. Thus Marcel, bending down to tie a shoelace, suddenly finds himself re-experiencing the entire scene of which this movement had been an insignificant part, when his grandmother had helped him to dress. And as he experiences the living reality of his grandmother, her death hits him truly for the first time; before, he had only remembered her as the historian remembers; now he experiences her living presence and so her terrible final absence.
         But the important point about Proust's novel is that Marcel does not remain the mere passive victim of such occurrences. It is true that they cannot consciously be brought into being, but there does not remain for him, as for Nietzsche, an unbridgeable gap between a consciousness which is devoid of meaning and an unconsciousness which is fully meaningful, 'alive'. What bridges the gap is writing. À la recherche is in the end less about spots of time or moments of true being than about uniting the lost fragments of the body through the act of writing which tells of the dispersal of such fragments. And I would suggest that the liturgy, in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, works in rather the same way: it makes accessible to our daily selves a memory which is alive, which is quite other than the historian's memory. This, I think, is the point of [Yosef Hayim] Yerushalmi's book, Zakhor, which tries to answer the question of why Jews had to wait until the nineteenth century to manifest any real interest in history. The reason, he suggests, is that until then they had no need of history; that it was only with the loss of a traditional way of acceding to the past that the way of the historian became necessary. And we can see the same thing happening in the Christian world at the end of the Middle Ages: the rise of modern historiography goes hand in hand with the collapse of a communal liturgy.


Works of science fiction, by basing their interest precisely in the alteration of — broadly speaking — the environment, implicitly understand that the situation and problems of the individual are shaped by that individual's surroundings. They do not always, or even often, understand this in what strikes me as any significantly accurate or incisive way, but the shape of the understanding, at least, is there.

Specifically because the alterations sf works propose are necessarily alterations to the conditions of modernity — both because these are quite simply the conditions under which we find ourselves and because science and "high" technology (as we currently understand them) are peculiarly modern phenomena — sf is singularly well-placed to explore the problems modernity gives rise to in the individual (hence my insistence on placing sf alongside those works I think of as modernist, at the risk of homogenizing these very different literatures). If, again, sf in practice rarely does this in any significant way, the potential is there. And this problem, this fracturing of memory and therefore of the self that has to be reconstructed through chance encounters with involuntary memory — for, as Walter Benjamin points out in discussing the same issues in his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire", for Proust "it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it" — and then through the struggle of writing, is another peculiarly modern phenomenon, the product (as Benjamin explores in that same essay) of the breakdown of community and tradition that is one of the foundations on which modernity is built (and please note that when I say "modern" I'm speaking of a much longer time-scale than, say, "since WWI").

For well over a year now, the thought has been bubbling in my mind that it could be very fruitful indeed to examine the works of many sf writers through the lens of Proust's meditations on time and memory. A perhaps quarter-written post doing just this with Clifford D. Simak's City, Cordwainer Smith's "Instrumentality" stories, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and Octavia E. Butler's Kindred has been languishing in my drafts for nearly that long, and most likely will never be finished. The gist is that what is in Proust an individual struggle becomes a societal and/or communal (and sometimes literally universal, or transcendental) one in the sf works, while what is metaphorical, conceptual, or non-physical becomes literal, embodied, and physical.

In Simak, Proust's finding that deliberate, conscious investigation of memory can never conjure up the past in its totality is transformed into the scientific discovery that time travel to the past is impossible — because the past literally does not exist (which, incidentally, puts the reader — who lives in that past — in an odd position); meanwhile the robot Jenkins, the living communal memory of a family and, by extension, humanity, for thousands of years, embodies Proust's explorations of the way a physical object or sensation can involuntarily call up the presence of the past in a way that conscious effort never can. For Simak, what exists instead of the past when it is sought after intellectually is vague and nebulous, either a "figment of remembrance that flit[s] like a night-winged thing in the shadow of one's mind" or the more flatly-stated inconceivability of "another world" existing "where there should have been the past". Both of these options are so obscure and ungraspable precisely because the characters here refuse to trust the embodied memory available to them in the form of Jenkins — indeed their entire reason for seeking travel to the past is to discover for themselves whether what the robot remembers is true or not. It is characteristic of Simak's sense of irony that Jenkins is himself, as a robot, the product of intellect (though his immense longevity and thus his embodiment of communal memory are much more the products of chance), while the "other worlds" discovered scientifically bring with them their own flitting things: ghostly and often malevolent presences. Here, it seems, neither kind of memory is unproblematically available.

In Wolfe and Smith, meanwhile, these explorations of time and memory play out against even vaster swathes of history: Wolfe's four novels come down to us from a future so far removed that our sun is dying, while Smith's "Instrumentality" stories (making up nearly all of his sf output) flit about in one continuous imagined future, any given story alighting here or there almost at random, however many hundreds or thousands or occasionally millions of years from now. In both cases, most of the history and traditions, the known memory, have been lost, but still the immensity of time is felt, the traces of its passage compressed into strange physical presences; to put it in one insufferably cute phrase, the past is present in these futures.

In Smith, no one person is ever aware of the totality — seldom even is anyone aware of even a small sliver — of the ways the past weighs on (what is in any given story) the present; and even we, in our privileged position as readers, can only become aware of any of it by means of the fleeting, disjointed glimpses we get of it all — as this story alights in this moment, that story in that, seemingly at random, by chance. To read a Cordwainer Smith story is, to some extent, to share the feeling with the characters that while one is simply trying to live out one's own small life, one is also participating in some half-felt, never-understood fashion in the immense impersonal sweep of history. The fragmentary nature of this history, or rather of the traces of it available to us and to the characters, is key to this feeling.* Equally key is the embodiment of these traces in physical and ritual presences rather than in written history (think of the lingering danger of the Manshonyaggers, left over from some ancient Fourth Reich, or the rituals performed at the meetings of the Confraternity of Scanners). The vastness of time past, indeed one's place in all time, is felt, not rationally known.

*For this reason, NESFA's The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, admirable labor of love though it is, and though I am all in favor of his work reappearing in print, does Smith a disservice. I tend to feel that the word "complete" is never appropriate when applied to his work, that his stories are best encountered buried in and scattered across anthologies and magazines, perhaps sometimes some — but never all — of them gathered into single-author collections. If one wishes to reconstruct Smith's whole future history, to the extent that it is possible (hint: it is not), one should ideally be forced to delve into archives, to search, to hunt, to be a historian. The decision to present the stories in order of "internal chronology" is even more catastrophic; publication or even random order would have been better.

Wolfe's four-volume novel, composed as it was as a single work, is more contained, more "linear" in its decidedly nonlinear way, but its sense of the traces times past leave on the present is surprisingly similar. In this world however many millennia in the future, civilizations and technological and scientific knowledges have come and gone unknowably many times over. There has been time enough for the residues left behind by each of these waves to build and build, even if most is effaced — like a kind of fossil record. Scientific understanding that for us came too late to affect everyday speech is here unspeakably older than ancient, and so for example the characters speak of, to paraphrase (I don't have the books to hand), the west rising up to cover the sun, rather than the sun setting in the west. A method for faster-than-light travel that we can vaguely recognize as an (admittedly fanciful) extrapolation on relativity theory is presented as a quasi-magical ritual with mirrors and "living flame". The citadel in which the protagonist grows up is a rooted, integral part of the city in which it is loacted — and it is also a grounded space vessel. The notion of leaving Earth is absurd, unknown, or at best legendary, to most of the characters, but there are forests on the moon. Whole mountain ranges are statues (or maybe more accurately vice versa). And because of time dilation, there are people recently returned to Earth who left not far in our own future. Once again, the fullness of historical memory, not knowable through intellectual effort, lingers on inescapably, sometimes bringing itself unbidden to the fore, in physical presences.*

*And I haven't even mentioned the method depicted in the books of literally taking onto oneself the full memories of a dead person by eating portions of their flesh.

And of the four writers I've named, it is in Butler that the personal search for lost time most explicitly becomes political through its projection beyond the individual. At the novel's start, Dana is aware, in the sense that she knows the facts, of the United States's history with slavery; though she might in some ways deny it, she is even aware, in a vague sense, that her dehumanization as a waged worker and as a black woman — as a multiply-oppressed member of society — in the present bears some remarkable similarities to this past in its form, if not usually in its degree of physical brutality. But involuntary memory comes to her, as she begins to shift unpredictably between her own time and that of her enslaved ancestors; by the end of the novel, whip scars on her back and an arm lost when she reappears for the last time in the present partially inside a wall form the inescapable stigmata of the living memory and history of slavery, genocide, and oppression, the physical embodiment of the damage this past continues to do to the present.

The final points in Josipovici's discussion through À la recherche, that writing his novel is for Proust a way to reconstruct this modern fragmentation of memory (and therefore of the self), and that this role was once served by (among other things) the liturgy, I find I am not quite able, right now, to address fully. But think of the role of the "essays" in Simak (and in Wolfe); of ritual in Smith; of autobiography and eidetic memory in Wolfe. And think of Andrea Hairston's comments in her essay "Octavia Butler — Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist" (one of the precious few good essays in Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the 20th Century), where she defines a "prophet" not as someone who merely "predicts" the future but as one who attempts to channel the authority of the past through her body and writing in order to "illuminate the immanent possibilities of the here and now", in the process perhaps enabling a future to come to be — a role I suspect is not available to those at the center of modernity (i.e., white people, men) even in the partial sense in which it was and is to writers like Butler, who attack the center from the margin. For all four, though, writing seems to matter desperately, no matter how they may (to varying degrees) try to cover it up with the priorities of the "commercial" writer; they write, to be sure, for money, but they also write (rather than or in addition to doing other things for money) because of these problems. They write, it seems to me, not to "solve" these problems in any positivist sense, but rather to make the problems intelligible.

The four examples I've chosen perhaps leap readily to mind because in them involuntary memory is almost wholly traumatic, or at best deeply problematic, but this is not always the case in sf. In Doris Pisierchia's novel Star Rider, the members of an atomized, individualistic culture are finally brought together by the rediscovery of the physical legacy of their forebears, and though they are forced to incorporate its memory into their selves and move on because living with it would be literally deadly, there is no mistaking the salutary effects of the encounter. Consuelo in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is herself a physical manifestation of history — our present — within the future into which she is brought, a physical manifestation without which that utopian future likely will not exist. And, more quotidian if not less intriguing, William F. Touponce suggests in his (otherwise routine) study of Isaac Asimov that the gradual transformation of event into legend is one of that writer's central subjects; for Asimov, while this process may sometimes be amusing or sad or even dangerous, it is mostly just the way things work.

For all this, I have only sketched out here the rudiments of what I've been thinking about. I haven't even begun to explore the implications of all of this: what it means that what is in the one literature a personal struggle is extrapersonal in the other, for example, or whether it is even feasable to consider these problems on such a level, whether it makes any sense to project an individual (or even a societal, or political) struggle onto such a broader canvas. Consider this then a platform from which to launch further investigations, whether my own or (I flatter myself) yours, whether in essay, fiction, or some other form. For myself, I doubt I'll ever be able to explore these ideas to my satisfaction in writing, at least not in essays. But it is always in my thoughts both when I read and when I try my hand at writing sf.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Toward the eternity

Not much probably need be said about it, but I'd like to take a moment to look at a wonderful sentence from the beginning of the Ixtl episode of A.E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. (I imagine this was originally a standalone short story, as the Coeurl episode from the same "novel" was originally "The Black Destroyer", but I don't know the story in question.) It is the second of these sentences I am interested in, obviously, though I've included the first to give a (tiny) bit of context.
Ixtl sprawled unmoving in the boundless night. Time paced slowly toward the eternity, and space was fathomlessly black.
Again, not much need be said about it, no doubt, though also no doubt whole volumes could be written on it. But for now at any rate I just want to point out the fascinating, marvelous oddness of casting what is, almost literally, an eternal truth into the form of a standard narrative sentence. At the moment that Ixtl sprawled unmoving, time indeed paced slowly toward the eternity, and space was fathomlessly black; but time right now paces, space right now is, and as near as the word "always" has any meaning, they always have and always will. In the face of such constancy, verb tenses — so important in narrative — become simply arbitrary. Something outside of narrative is happening here.

I'm tempted to go on (to examine, say, what such a sentence does to Delany's model of sf's subjunctivity, or superficially similar oddities in verb tense that are not doing what I see this doing). But anything else I could say would ultimately be superfluous, so I will leave it at that.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: E. Lily Yu's "The Urashima Effect" and closing comments

We join a man, Leo Aoki, as he awakens from hibernation three subjective years, halfway, into a journey at relativistic speeds to a planet in another solar system. He is, according to plans at any rate, part of a research mission — the first of several people, including Leo's astrophysicist wife Esther, who will also be making the same journey, though the others will be two years behind. The story alternates between Leo's sort of puttering around his small vessel (playing chess and go and other games against the computer; looking out the ports at the stars, "gathered by aberration into a glittering disc eight degrees across" in an otherwise entirely black "sky"; and so forth) and his listening to a recording Esther made for him, most of the portion we hear consisting of her rendition of the folk tale of Urashima Taro, the fisherman who journeys to the bottom of the sea for what he thinks are only a few years but finds when he returns to land that centuries have passed*; she (a third generation Japanese-American) knows the story where he (fifth generation) does not because she is "inquisitive and knowledgeable about the cultural inheritance he had never claimed."

*The story may be familiar to sf readers from Ursula K. Le Guin's use of it in "A Fisherman of the Inland Sea", there as here a metaphor, naturally, for time dilation.

Leo thinks at first that the recording is a standard part of the mission, part of the "sixty hours of audio recordings by family and friends" each member of the team must bring with them, "to keep them sane and functional in their isolation." Once she finishes the story of Urashima, though, Esther tells Leo that shortly after he was put into hibernation "the US and Japan came to the brink of war"; there is talk in the US of bringing back internment camps. Because of these events, the flight that would have brought her to the planet — a collaborative US/Japan effort — has been scrapped, in favor of a "unilateral program that will not have the funding" to send her. Leo, over Esther's protests, has been sent anyway. Esther says that she "broke into your ship's systems and altered these recordings so that you would know what happened" — telling him the story of Urashima Taro first in order to give him time to recover from hibernation, and to prepare him for the news — and that she has rigged his ship so that, should he decide to, he can eject and, decades later, return to Earth to see Esther again, even though she will have aged enormously, become a different person in the intervening time. At story's end, it seems Leo has decided to continue the mission — for if he were to turn around, all that has already been lost would still be lost, and he would additionally be losing everything that, in terms of the mission, has been gained.

Now that I've dithered for two paragraphs in plot summary, I have to confess: I have basically nothing to say about this story. In theory I approve of its stasis, and of its talkiness. It is clear that Yu has thoughts in her head that I like, thoughts about loss and loneliness, time and distance, the melancholy beauty of Relativity, the need for roots, the shifting course of a life; and I'm sure I would nod in agreement to most anything she might say about the overwhelming racism of the United States. But one does not read stories in order to agree or disagree with them (or rather, this is but one part of reading among many), and however many marks I may make on my scorecard while reading this story the fact remains that the story itself is, for me, mostly uninspiring (which is to say, it inspires in me no strong feeling, whether positive or negative). It goes from point A to point B (with perfectly skillful zig-zagging and detours to points C and D along the way), but it gives me no feeling that anything has happened — in me, in the writer, in the world, even in those abstract concepts we call "characters". I'm not talking about plot or lack thereof, I'm not talking about "dynamic characters," I'm not talking about the busy-ness that many people are referring to when they say that things "happen" in a work of fiction; I mean that the work of art "The Urashima Effect" does not feel to me like an event of any consequence. It's fine. It's good enough, as far as that goes. I'm not sorry I read it, but neither am I happy I did. I spent most of my last post defending a story against the RUMIR title (for those just joining us: "routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable" — from Joanna Russ), but this time it seems to me that the acronym fits extremely well, so long as one doesn't forget the MIR along with the RU.


Since I do find myself with so little to say about the story, and since this is the final chapter of Sturgeonblogging, I may as well use this space for a wrap-up. I had originally planned to write a summation post with thoughts on the award in general, lists of the stories I would hate to win and those I wouldn't mind if they did, and maybe predictions. But the cat's out of the bag; I had been under the impression that the winner would be announced this coming weekend, but it actually happened on Tuesday (which means this post would have been something of an anticlimax even if I had had anything useful to say about the story at hand). But just for the hell of it, why don't I say something like what I would have said if it hadn't happened yet.

First, links to my posts.

  1. Gregory Norman Bossert's "Bloom"
  2. Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise"
  3. Alaya Dawn Johnson's "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass"
  4. Will McIntosh's "Over There"
  5. Alan DeNiro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica"
  6. Val Nolan's "The Irish Astronaut"
  7. Sarah Pinsker's "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind"
  8. Robert Reed's "Mystic Falls"
  9. Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"
  10. E. Lily Yu's "The Urashima Effect" (duh, scroll back up)
Ten stories. Five I wouldn't have minded winning ("Bloom", "They Shall", "Mystic Falls", "Selected Program Notes", and, perhaps surprisingly given the negativity of my review, "Wildfires" — which at least is trying for something). Five whose winning would have bothered me (and one whose winning did), to varying degrees (had "Urashima" won, I would have said "Really? Why? OK then," and shrugged; had "Over There" won, I would have known the jury was trolling us). If I were picking a winner from this list? I'm not sure. Probably "Selected Program Notes", though "Mystic Falls" and "They Shall" would be close contenders. (I'm also sure that if there is a best science fiction story of last year, whatever it is it wasn't on the shortlist at all.)

Looking over the list, I'm impressed in some ways with the variety. "Bloom", "Weight", "Over There", " Wildfires", and "Irish", say, ignoring for the moment their varying virtues, all go about being (or, in the last case, not being) sf in very different ways. In a contemporary field that can often feel claustrophobically homogeneous, it's nice to see that at least some kind of difference is being rewarded here. On the other hand, though, three notable formal departures aside, there is a great deal of homogeneity in how the stories go about being stories. You might be able to slip a piece of paper into the stylistic space between "Bloom", "Weight", "Irish", "They Shall", "In Joy", "Mystic Falls", and "Urashima", but it would have to be that really thin paper they print the unabridged OED on; and even "Over There", for all its two-column technique, is fully, if incompetently, committed to the same kind of storytelling.

I've been debating with myself whether to get sassy about the jury (and if so just how sassy to get). I have no particular opinion of Noël Sturgeon (who I know nothing about), James Gunn (I think all I've read of him is his terribly pointless but mildly charming book about Isaac Asimov), or Kij Johnson (I loved "Spar" when I read it a few years ago but suspect I might not now, and that's all I know of her). But everything I know about Elizabeth Bear and Andy Duncan leads me to believe that they are precisely the kind of artistically bland, timid, and contented people that I think are the bane of sf's contemporary existence (whether as writers, readers, critics, or editors), not to mention their equally bland, timid, and contented brand of liberalism and lily-white "anti-racism".

Given this, and given the general tenor of the choices, I have a strong suspicion that even those stories on the shortlist that I liked were chosen for reasons I would find unacceptable. Where I liked "Bloom" despite its "human story" (as I put it in my review), I suspect that that human story is precisely why it is on the shortlist, that if the story had committed to what I found lively in it it would not have been nominated at all. (Actually, it might never have been published at all, but though it's related, that's a different question.) Where I found the luminously poetic moments of "They Shall" questionable, I suspect they might be all the jury noticed. And so on.

If I had gotten this in before the announcement of the winner, I would have predicted that "Weight" would win, precisely because its inability to commit to its own conceit and its white-liberal-anchored "understanding" of other races and cultures are both so much in alignment with what I know of Bear and Duncan, and seem to epitomise the criteria I think I see driving the choices. As it turns out the winner was "In Joy", which would have been my second guess. In a way it's a relief; I really do find "Weight" not just bad but reprehensible, and for it to win a second award (after the Nebula; it's also currently up for the Sidewise, which singlehandedly makes a farce of that award) would have been unbearable. Despite that dodged bullet, though, it's hard to keep the despair at bay. It would almost be better if the jury had selected "Over There" — I could at least write the whole thing off as a farce and have a good laugh. As it is, though, this further recognition of an immaculately skillful story that is very deliberately miles and miles away from where I wish the field would let itself stray verges on heartbreaking.

On the other hand, no one actually seems to care much about the Sturgeons...?

Anyway. Sturgeonblogging is over, thank god. Actually, though I've been known to tease, and though it has been at times very exhausting and dispiriting, the project has also been fun and, for lack of a better word, useful; on balance I'm glad Niall Harrison convinced me to do it, though don't tell him I said so. From exploring what I think is good in stories like "Bloom" and "They Shall" to allowing "Mystic Falls" to lead me to a discussion of some very fundamental points of sfnal poetics; from teasing out the multiplicitous badnesses of "Weight" to stomping gleefully on the ashes of "Over There"; even throwing my hands up in despair at "Irish" and "In Joy": it's all helped me to articulate much of what I need to articulate, or at least to point in that direction. And though I know it's a skewed one, I feel like I have a better picture now of where contemporary short sf is at than I did before I started.

Never again, though. Sorry. Unless I somehow manage to forget how grueling this was, there's no way in hell I'm doing it again next year. On the other hand, the good parts have been good enough that I'm thinking I need to start reviewing new short sf more often. Maybe as some kind of irregular series, once a month or so, I could pick a story from a different venue and write a thing about it. Even with the extremely desultory nature of my new short sf reading I've read four stories so far this year that I think would make fine additions to any award shortlist or year's best collection (if you're wondering, they are Margaret Ronald's "The Innocence of a Place" in Strange Horizons, Dominica Phetteplace's "Through Portal" and Robert Reed's "The Principles" in Asimov's, and Sofia Samatar's "Ogres of East Africa" in Long Hidden), and if I can shine my lustrous spotlight on stories such as these for the benefit of my score [sic] of irregular [sic] readers, or try to explain why less admirable stories are less admirable, then I'd like to do so.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"

The story presents itself as exactly what the title says: a major artist, dead at least thirteen years (probably more, but probably not all that much more), is having a career-spanning exhibition, and these are some of the notes from the accompanying program. Through these notes we learn the broad outlines of her life, seen, necessarily, from the outside and in retrospect, and of her art, seen from the same perspective. She was born in the late 1950s and died in 2025; she painted (seemingly her only medium, or at least the only one mentioned here) in a microscopically hyperrealist style that nevertheless left room for what might broadly be called the nonrepresentationally metaphorical, particularly in the shape of the brushwork; she was a lesbian; her life, as most lives do, contained both happiness and a great deal of pain. She also, though the possibility does not seem to occur to the writer of the notes, may have been able to see (or perhaps was unable not to see) the souls of the dead.

I should say in the interest of full disclosure that I have a fondness for this story independent of its virtues as a story. I first encountered it, or at least the first half of it, read aloud in Schneyer's own impressively theatrical voice, during an evening which also included a great deal both of excellent food and of people telling me how smart and interesting I am. Given these associations it is difficult for me to bring to this story anything even approximating that mythical beast, objectivity; and it is very likely that I come to it with a much greater willingness to be impressed than I typically would.

That said, I was surprised to see Martin Petto, in discussing the Nebula shortlist (on which this story also appears), assign "Selected Program Notes" to the category of "RUMIR* [stories] that awards should weed out but instead tend to elevate." He is absolutely correct about this tendency (and this year's Nebula slate in general was a prime example, as is the case most every year), but I cannot agree with his assessment of this particular story. After RUMIRing it, he describes it as "a slipstream story told through... a frame that exists solely to conceal the fact [that it] doesn’t get any further than feeling very slightly strange." Leaving aside that I don't think I ever understood what "slipstream" was meant to mean (did anyone?), and leaving aside also that I agree, as description if not as evaluation, that the story does not "get any further than feeling very slightly strange" (I don't think it wants to), I think Petto has wholly misjudged the role of the frame.

*A very useful acronym from Joanna Russ: "routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable".

Before I explore the question "what is the frame doing?" directly, I'd like to address the science-fictionality of the story. It has chosen for itself the fairly uncommon, but far from unheard of, strategy of beginning in the recent past and progressing to the near future. But while its use of the conceptual construct of "the future" makes it by some lights ipso facto sf, there is very little in these future sections that we normally associate with sf: no significant technological change is mentioned, the way life is lived goes on largely as it does today*, and so forth. Given that the story is already "speculative" — enough so for today's sf publications, at any rate — by virtue of Latimer's possible relationship with the dead, and given that the technically sfnal element adds very little in the way of the actually sfnal — why does the story bother to extend into the future?

*Latimer is able to marry her partner in Rhode Island, but when Schneyer was writing that by now already-accomplished legal change was so obviously imminent — I would imagine that many same sex couples were already reserving facilities for their ceremonies — that including it is hardly speculative.

The mere fact of publication in a venue specializing in sf cues the reader to look for ways in which the story at hand "is" sf. With this story in particular, the reader quickly realizes that though the earliest "events" (i.e., dates of paintings) are in the past — 1978, 1984... — things are going to continue through to the future; the first clear sign of this is the date of death, 2023, given for Latimer's wife on her first mention in the third note. Seizing on this, the reader begins to look for ways in which these past events might influence future ones, and, once the future arrives, to look for the ways in which the future is different from the past because of that past. These, at least, are the traditionally sfnal elements I would imagine most seasoned sf readers would look for on a first reading.

They will find none. And while looking for the the hints of science fiction the reader has been cued to look for, the more fantastical elements can easily slip by on a first reading (I know I at least did not notice them at all until I re-read). This sort of sleight of hand could easily be dismissed as empty trickery, but for me it is a way structurally to enforce a first reading experience that approximates the "in-world" feeling a reader (or indeed the writer) of the actual notes might have. These people, living in a real world into which the paranormal does not, for them, routinely impinge, would be, as we just were, looking for entirely other information in these notes than clues that Latimer has some sort of communion with the dead.

And after all there is no way to know if she "really" does — we could just as easily ascribe it, as the writer of the notes does, to her combination of attention to detail (from which it is easy to assume that her accurate depictions of people long dead is a result of scrupulous research) and "such obvious imagination" (from which we could interpret, for example, her saying "You have to paint what you see, not what you think you're supposed to see" metaphorically and routinely). And here we begin to see some of what the frame is doing: we, as readers, are not inside Latimer's head, and as such we can never know what she knew, what she saw, what she felt; placing layer upon layer of mediation* and indirection (and indeed misdirection) between her experience and our own is one way to attempt to be true to this unknowingness.

*Another layer, which I won't have occasion in this essay to delve into deeply, is that since these are "selected" program notes, there is presumably, somewhere, a selector — and who is to say why this person has selected what they have selected, that they have not singled out notes that provide an even more distorted portrait?

This method of "representing" Latimer, too, makes for an interesting comparison with her own representational methods. Where her painting is hyperrealist — several times the notes suggest looking at details through a magnifying glass — the story sketches in her life with broad gestures. As such it is almost as if the story of Latimer were, much as one of the paintings discussed does (though along a different axis), criticizing her own artistic methods — as if to say, on the one hand, that there is no need for such detail, and on the other, that it is irresponsible to presume to be able to give so much detail about one's subject.

But there is another sense in which Latimer's enterprise and Schneyer's here are much alike. Repeatedly the notes point out that Latimer's composition and brushstrokes tend to push the viewer's gaze away from the putative subject of the painting, or from subject to subject. "It is as if the viewer is being pushed away from people and towards nature," says the description of the earliest painting; in another we read that Latimer "employs radiating brushstrokes which emanate from the model"; in yet another, "The composition pushes the eye of the viewer back and forth between the different groups in a sort of tennis match." And so it is with the story, in which the reader is constantly pushed away from one potential "plot" or "protagonist" or "central concept" in favor of another (or in favor of nothing, of an absence), in which the written equivalent of brushstrokes emanate from one area only to illuminate another.

The story's ironies reach probably their height in the one note not detailing a painting: the one on a video clip taken from a "documentary concerning contemporary artists" in which Latimer was featured. It is here that Latimer says "You have to paint what you see, not what you think you're supposed to see" as she sketches out a precise portrait of a long-dead young girl who is of course absent. And it is here that the notes give us, as a "discussion question" (at least one of which follows each of the notes):

Now that you see Latimer's manner of speaking and moving, are you surprised? Does she seem like the sort of person who would produce this sort of work?
Aside from being a parody of the kind of superficial discussion prompts common to the form Schneyer is mimicking, the questions are almost teasing the reader — who has of course not seen Latimer at all, as she is simultaneously long dead, in the future, and not real. She is actually absent to us as the dead girl is supposed to be to her.

As a whole the story raises and plays with (in the sense that play can also be serious) questions of its own appropriateness, indeed of the appropriateness of storytelling in general. In what sense can an absent person be "represented"? What does it mean that we are watching a "story" unfold? In the note on "The first of Latimer's paintings to draw critical attention" (and the one which is later criticized in another of her paintings), a Self-Portrait with Surrogates which portrays the "notorious child abuse and murder case" in which the aforementioned girl was the victim, we read that "None of the figures [the girl, her mother, and her father] displays any emotion; it is as if they are spectators at the event." Not only is this a reminder of our own spectatorship at an event — Latimer's life — which includes much pain, loss, and death, it also calls into question our reasons for spectating, and the involvement we feel in the event: what are these "emotions" we tell ourselves we feel when we say that a story is moving, or affecting, or sad or even happy?

The story ends, after a discussion of Latimer's final completed painting, with a last discussion question:

The title Comfort was suggested by Paula Tarso, executrix of Latimer's artistic estate; we do not know what Latimer herself planned to call it. Do you think the name fits?
Far more than simply raising once again the matter of Latimer's absence and unknowability, more even than raising again the questions about appropriateness that the story has been dealing with, this ending places the reader in the uncomfortable position of being implicitly given the authority — which the reader cannot actually possess — to determine appropriateness (i.e., by asking us if we think the name fits, the question implies that we are in a position to make such a judgment), while simultaneously having that authority relegated to the realm of mere opinion, in which everything is valid to the point that nothing is. Is this assignment of meaning to an absent woman's life and work appropriate? You decide!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Robert Reed's "Mystic Falls"

Though I've known his name for a while, it's only recently that my idiosyncratic and, to be honest, desultory explorations of contemporary (read: 1980 and after) sf have brought me to read a little bit of Robert Reed. When I subscribed for a year to Fantasy and Science Fiction, I was impressed with his novella "Katabasis" in the November/December 2012 issue — one of the about one-every-three-issues great stories that otherwise garbage magazine publishes, that make one almost regret letting one's subscription lapse. More recently, my significantly more pleasing subscription to Asimov's brought the remarkable alternate history "The Principles" in the April/May 2014 issue. Both stories are so much more concerned with allowing themselves, and the thoughts they think, to happen — and with examining what it means for themselves to be happening — than with PLOT! HOOK! PLOT! that it's hard to believe the contemporary sf field produced them. I've been very interested to read more of him.

So I came to "Mystic Falls" prepped to admire. As such it was a bit distressing to find that it is one of the two Sturgeon-shortlisted stories (the other being Sarah Pinsker's) that begins with one of those hooky one- (or in this case two-)sentence opening paragraphs that I spend so much time on twitter (and, occasionally, here) complaining about.

       There might be better known faces. And maybe you can find a voice that rides closer to everyone's collective soul.
       Or maybe there aren't, and maybe you can't.
Then another paragraph break, followed by more concrete narration. Again. Leaving aside the unpleasant associations called up by the last two words of the first paragraph, I see no reason for a story to begin this way other than accommodation to the needs of commerce. Though I may need to write one eventually, now is not the time for a full anti-short-paragraphs manifesto. For now I'll just say that my objection to this behavior is moderately lessened in this particular case by the insistence on such staccato paragraphing throughout — this is clearly a conscious choice, rather than an empty kowtowing to That's Just What You Do — though still I don't particularly see why Reed would want to hit the enter key so often, to such flatly faux-dramatic effect. Were I not so overexposed to these unbearable Hook The Reader As Soon As Possible moves, perhaps I wouldn't object so strongly, but I am, and I do.

Fortunately, there are things going on here other than an itchy paragraph finger; and though I cannot admire "Mystic Falls" as strongly as I did "Katabasis" and "The Principles", it does confirm for me that Reed is a writer worth exploring.

The story concerns what appears to be a woman — a woman no one remembers meeting until, later, they upload and re-play a day's memories and find that she passed nearby, or that her voice come to them in an advertisement, or that — with almost everyone, at some point — she actually said "Hello" and made brief conversation. Most people, perhaps influenced towards belief by some unknown aspect of her nature, accept this as merely a lapse in their real-time memory, because the uploaded memory certainly is not lying!, and grow fond of her as, perhaps, some local actress poised at the brink of global stardom. Some people, though — a few "experts who live for this kind of puzzle, and a lot more is at stake here than simple curiosity" — realize that she, who first started appearing only about seven weeks ago, and whom they only noticed still more recently — is, in the terms used to describe her in three successive, verbless, single-sentence paragraphs, a "cypher", a "monster", "The most elaborate computer virus ever." It is these experts (all except the narrator anonymous, usually speaking and behaving in unison), and their efforts to figure out what, and why, this woman is, that the story follows.

She exists only in memory — she is never now, she is always then — and even then only in computerized, stored memory; she only exists when those memories are actively reviewed. This requires, and/or allows, Reed to tell a story that does very peculiar things with both memory and time. The meat of the story's "action" revolves around the narrator's attempt, as planned with those other experts, to go back to the point in his uploaded memory that contains his own supposed meeting with her, in order to behave differently "this time", asking her questions in the hopes of discovering her nature. What a strange endeavor this is!

My uploaded memory claims that I stopped on this ground, here. I do that again, saying, "Hello," while the others chatter away, ignoring both of us.
Not "I stopped," not "I remember stopping," but "my uploaded memory claims that I stopped." The combination of the "ordinary" unreliability of subjective memory, the objectivity of computer records, and, overlaid on both, the certainty that the "objective" is lying is fascinating beyond the basic Philosophy 101 Cartesian level it may seem at first (and at last, on which more later) to be operating on; the impossibility of grasping anything solid despite the overwhelming sense that there is clearly something there to be grasped reminds me of the feeling one gets on trying unsuccessfully to remember a dream one recalled clearly just a moment ago; it also puts me in mind of my own model of sf's exploration of the limits of the explicable and of what happens to forms of explication when they encounter the inexplicable. And what on earth does it mean to say "I do that again" about an experience lived, remembered, misremembered (or dis-remembered?), and then relived? The narrator (as distinct from the story) both is and is not interested in such questions; if anything, he seems to be avoiding them, as though by not asking them their answers will go away.

But the telling in and of itself unavoidably poses the questions; the only way to evade them entirely would be to fall silent, and it seems the narrator cannot do this. Even at his most straightforwardly narrative moments, even as he tries to put the story into a simple anecdotal form, the very tenses and moods of the verbs betray his efforts — as here, after he makes contact with the woman (in the same way that his uploaded memory claims he "really" did) and in talking they discover (or rediscover, or claim) that they both take their dogs to the same vet, and both grew up in the same town:

We share a little laugh. Again, the coincidences should be enormous, but they barely registered, at least after the first time. All this distance from our mutual home, and yet nothing more will be said about our overlapping lives.
Present tense, conditional, past tense, a very ambiguous "after the first time," future tense: all describing the same event, all as accurate as they are inaccurate — and all necessary if the event is to be spoken of at all. Again I am put in mind of the strange things that happen to time when trying to recall a dream; the dream occurred at a fixed point in the past, during which things progressed, but in another sense it does not happen at all until it is remembered (if it is remembered) on waking, or later — and there is a further sense in which a dream sometimes can insinuate itself into memory, so that something dreamed just a moment ago seems to take its place in one's personal chronology days or weeks ago, retroactively coloring other past events, this other time dissolving, perhaps not fully, once the dream is consciously remembered. We do not quite have the language to speak easily of this, just as the narrator does not have the language to speak of what happened, is happening, to him.

But these events compel speech nonetheless. Who is this narrator who needs so to speak? We learn his name, Hector Borland, which seems almost too specific for someone who remains so fuzzy (the same is true of the "cypher" herself, who introduces herself with the peculiar name "Darles Jean" — both names make me feel like they're meant to suggest something, but nothing attaches to them, at least for me). In the room of faceless experts, "fifty minds, most of whom are superior to mine," he nevertheless "manage[s] to offer what none of the wizards ever considered" — namely, the approach of simply asking the woman who and what she is. He asks, in narration, if he is smarter than his colleagues, and answers himself, "Rarely." He asks if he has "some rare insight" into the situation, and answers himself, "Never." On the other hand, he says — without elaborating on it — that "There are also some happenstance reasons why my life meshes nicely with 'hers.'" He has a "little bit of fame," which, he tells us, "stems from an ability for posing respectable, unanswerable questions". In a very peculiar passage which reminds me of some of sf's coldly comic Continental pessimists — Houellebecq, maybe, or Lem — he tells us that

in life, both as a professional and as a family man, my technique is to juggle assessments and options that nobody else wants to touch. By avoiding the consensus, much of the universe is revealed to me. My children, for example. Most fathers are quite sure that their offspring are talented, and their daughters are lovely while their sons will win lovely wives in due time. But my offspring are unexceptional. In their late teens, they have done nothing memorable and certainly nothing special, and because I married and unsentimental woman with the same attitudes, our children have been conditioned to accept their lack of credible talent. Which makes them work harder than everyone else, accepting their little victories as a credit to luck as much as their own worthiness.
He describes these children of his as "exceptionally ordinary," and with those words he might as well be talking about himself, or at least the version of himself he allows us to see. Either there is something obvious in all this information that I in my cluelessness am not getting, or it is yet another dimension of the "ungraspable something" in this story. The narrator is a professional who has a seat at emergency meetings of experts, but in what field is he a professional, in what is he expert? What "assessments and options" does he juggle? How is "much of the universe" revealed to him? (Stranger, how are his children an "example" of this?) Yes, it turns out, I am reminded of Lem, particularly the hero of The Chain of Chance — who is both a totally ordinary middle-aged frump who only qualifies to be the hero of his story because he is so unexceptional, and also a celebrity astronaut with remarkable training both physical and mental. Indeed, both men find themselves faced with "cyphers" instead of antagonists, and both are themselves nearly as devoid of identity as those cyphers.

But while the impulse that moves Lem's hero to tell his story is not ultimately much different from that which causes one arm of a bureaucracy to generate a report for another, our Hector Borland's reasons for speaking are much more nebulous. He often addresses the reader directly (as in the above-quoted opening lines), but he just as often seems deliberately to reject the communicative. He writes very strangely, sometimes with peculiar sentence structure and word choice that seem at first a stilted way of saying something simple but turn out on closer inspection not quite to mean like one thinks they do:

I pause, and she comes up behind me, and for the first time what is as real as anything is what touches me from behind, the hand warm and a little stronger than I anticipated...
On my first reading, "for the first time what is as real as anything is what touches me from behind" immediately resolved itself into meaning, roughly, "she touched me from behind for the first time, and it felt as real as anything"; to the extent that story is communication, I think one has to believe that this is what these words communicate. But it is not what they mean! — or, rather, it is only one of the less likely possibilities of what the words could mean. Sometimes it is individual words that behave so strangely, as when he says that "if she has any real eyes, she notices the same spot" that he does. "Any"? And surely it is not whether or not she has "real eyes" that determines whether she is capable of noticing! Or take the moment, during the same incident I've taken both of these examples from, in which the narration switches from event to infodump:
The Mystic Falls wait around the next bend in the canyon. When I came to this ground for the first time, I paid surprisingly little attention to bird songs and tumbling water. In a world where every sight is uploaded and stored — where no seconds are thrown away — people have a natural tendency to walk in their own fog, knowing that everything missed will be found later, and if necessary, replayed without end.
The words "surprisingly" and "necessary" here are nearly impossible to understand. Why surprising, and to whom? Immediately after telling us that his inattention is surprising, he explains why it is not, and presumably would not be to any reader inhabiting the same world as he. And necessary — again, why, and to whom? Desirable, certainly, perhaps even compulsive, but what could make the endless replaying of a specific memory "necessary"? Even when he is (or seems to be) trying to explain things simply, Borland seems inescapably tied to incomprehensibility.

In his 1959 essay on "The Proper Use of Science Fiction" (many thanks to the estimable Maureen K. Speller, who made it possible for me to read this essay), Maurice Blanchot asks why sf (by which he means almost exclusively the American magazine sf of the 30s to the 50s) is so riddled with anacronism — why, though "the human world is conjured up as it will be in a hundred thousand years time", "man, leaving aside the usual changes in scenery, continues to live in much the same way in a universe that is depressingly static." He does not rule out "paucity of talent" or "lack of patience" as explanations, but he does offer another: that despite pretence to the contrary,

no one is interested in the existence of the completely different time of a completely different world. There should not be too much novelty. News from the year ten thousand will get through to us only to the extent that it is translated back into our own ways of life. Works of science fiction often overdo this process of re-translation.
"In general," he adds, "the genre tends to neglect the problem of the mediator." There is plenty of room for quibbling, and one could point, even at the relatively early date at which Blanchot was writing, to exceptions — but I think the point stands: he is observing real problems, ones which are still relevant to the field today (in some ways I might even say more relevant now than then). In those few of his works that I've read, Reed is consistently aware of these problems, and "Mystic Falls" is no exception. It is almost wholly about, not only the problem of the mediator as a person, but also the problem of mediation as a phenomenon. It is as if, to take Blanchot literally for a moment, the story were stuck somewhere mid-translation: almost but not quite recognizable, almost but not quite comprehensible; and by positioning itself thus, it makes the consideration of these problems inescapable.

It is in this spirit, too, that I think the story's worldbuilding needs to be read. The prevailing view would hold that works of sf are rewarding to the extent that the worlds they evoke are complex, and clear in their complexity. While there is something to this view, on its own it smacks a bit too much of the "overdone re-translation" Blanchot identifies: that is to say, a genuinely other world, whether removed from our own in time or in space or both, could not be made clear in the language we possess. And so it is that even as he gives us fairly concrete details — early on we know that there are still taxis, that phones are something you can argue with, that there is a "smart power grid" — Borland's world always remains unilluminated. Despite the fact that much of the story is spent hiking out in the open and in the sun, the story feels enclosed, dark, a tiny capsule moving through a larger something that, once more, can never quite be grasped. The unknowability extends so far that even when things get a more than a little fantastical toward the end:

The Falls were exactly as I remembered them: A ten thousand foot ribbon of icy water and mist, pterosaurs chasing condors through the haze, and dragons chasing both as they wish. The wilderness stretched beyond for a full continent, and behind me stood fifty billion people who wouldn't care if I were to leap into the canyon below.'s difficult to be certain that something has changed, that something is amiss here.

Unfortunately shortly after this, at the very end of the story, a kind of knowing certainty enters into the story. Though it is phrased as a question, Borland's "What if some of us, maybe the majority of us, were cyphers too — fictions set here to fool the few of us who were real and sorry about it?" collapses the story into a one-sentence proposition, a sort of Descartes-by-way-of-The-Matrix red pill/blue pill choice. This constriction is reinforced by the final sentence, whose otherwise potentially interesting celebration of reality even in the face of solipsism reads with such assurance that it could almost have started with "The moral of the story is...". In a post in praise of Clifford D. Simak's story "The Answers", I wrote — if I may be forgiven for blockquoting myself — that its ending too

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.
I find that I cannot say the same about "Mystic Falls." The difference, I think, is that while Simak's story has, in its every moment, a life and unfolding all its own — and thus a poor ending is only one of the flaws inevitable in any great work — Reed's story seems in retrospect entirely oriented around its ending. Everything that happens here happens so that Reed can make the proposition he has caused Borland to close with.

There is much more that could be discussed here. Some things that come to mind that I have not really addressed include, on the plus side, the fascinating nature of the cypher's being and her eventual death, and the story's kind of sideways championing of what I might call "enough-ness" (as in, "this is not everything but it is enough for me in life"); and on the minus side, the distressing pattern I've noticed in Reed of, if not quite active chauvinism, then certainly that kind of too-comfortable straight-dudeliness that in practice accedes all too readily to the broader needs of patriarchy. But no review can ever be comprehensive, and I have to stop somewhere, so I think I'll stop here: with the reiteration of my feeling that this story is a good attempt at an intriguing notion by an interesting writer, somewhat badly misfired; but misfire or no, one would be better served reading it than the vast bulk of short sf being published today.