Sunday, March 12, 2017

Meta-Anthology 2016

Here I go again. This features short stories that appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Best American Mystery Stories 2016, 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Because of the lag built into the editorial processes of those volumes, the stories in question were first published in the year 2015. I make no pretense of this comprising the best stories of that year. Just the stories that best exemplify what "anthologies" (from the Greek άνθος, "the blossom of a flower," or metaphorically, the highest or best; and λόγος, "word") ought to be about.

Megan Abbott, "The Little Men," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Bibliomysteries.

To be quite honest I am not entirely sure what happened in this story. The narrative so effectively evoked the main character's increasing paranoia that it collapses the line between the real and the imagined, leaving the reader with the unmistakable smell of gas and the indisputable fact of death.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Apollo," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, April 13, 2015.

There is more going on beneath the surface of this eleven page story than on the surface of most novels. Bonus points for any reader who can pinpoint the ways the narrator of this story subtly undermines his own contentions and beliefs.

Steve Almond, "Okay, Now Do You Surrender?" from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Cincinnati Review, vol. 11, no. 2.

When my meds are out of whack I bear a bit too much resemblance to the protagonist of this story. The daughter seems a bit too young to support the twist, but it was otherwise entertaining enough that I decided to suspend disbelief.

Tahmima Anam, "Garments," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Freeman's, October 2015.

The challenge of writing a good sweatshop story is that it is hard to convey exhaustion if one has not lived it, and hard to find the time to write if one is living through that exhaustion. While there may be some sweatshop poets in Bengali, few if any of them have been translated. Anglophone residents of the republic of letters have to trust that Anam has bridged this gap well enough to tell us about life at the other end of the supply chain.

Charlie Jane Anders, "Rat Catcher's Yellows" from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Press Start to Play.

I read this story when it first came out in a themed anthology, and already considered it to be one of the better pieces from 2015. A compelling portrayal of how love manages to survive the circumstances, and even the minds, which first gave rise to it, it holds up well on a second reading.

Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House

This is a very bookish story--literally--but I am a very bookish person. A kind of 19th Century "Missed Connection" unfolds in the margins of some popularized natural history.

Charles Baxter, "Avarice," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

This is either the most anti-capitalist Jesus story of the year, or the most Jesus-y anti-capitalist story. And so much more besides.

Matt Bell, "Toward the Company of Others," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 65.

A novel excerpt that works on its own as a short story, and thus makes me want to seek out and read Scrapper, whence it came. The world needs as many Detroit stories as possible.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Glimmer Train, Spring/Summer 2015.

More than a hundred years later, our writers and our neuroscientists are still catching up with William James's early psychological insights. Along the way Bynum refashions the Goldilocks story into an allegory of the clueless disconnection of contemporary life.

Ted Chiang, "The Great Silence," from Best American Short Stories 2016 and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in e-flux.

This may be the best story of 2015, though I did not have occasion to read it until it was reprinted in the May/June 2016 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the same issue in which my story "Caribou: Documentary Fragments" appeared). My message to Ted Chiang: "You be good. I love you."

Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American.

What passes for country music these days isn't really country music any more. This story is like an old-time country song in prose form, complete with war, tragedy, sex, liquor, and the love of a dog.

Louise Erdrich, "The Flower," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 29, 2015.

I loved this story when it was first published. In a different layout, I found more to love--it's odd, but certain sentences stand out better when stretching across a full page than when in a third-of-a-page column, and vice versa. Such as, for example, Anishinaabe practices in the naming of girls.

Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Colorado Review, vol. 42, no. 2.

Reminds me, peculiarly, of N. K. Jemisin's novel The Fifth Season, insofar as, when geological time and human time intersect, pliable organic matter usually ends up singed or crushed.

Kendra Fortmeyer, "Things I Know to Be True," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in One Story.

I suspect this was set in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, rather than contemporaneously, in the wake of our Endless Wars, because today the story told would be encompassed within a few abbreviations and stock phrases, such as PTSD or paranoid schizophrenia. Fortmeyer set herself the challenge of telling a story through a narrator whose words, literally, escape him, and met it admirably.

Tom Franklin, "Christians," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Murder under the Oaks.

Some Southern Gothic worthy of Flannery O'Connor, except this one appears to have been based upon real yet obscure incidents of the class struggle in southern Alabama.

Meron Hadero, "The Suitcase," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Missouri Review, vol. 38, no. 3.

An Ethiopian-American O'Henry story, redolent of injera and berbere. There are many world cultures in which hospitality and honor are bound up with one another, so I also ended up chuckling with recognition in those places where Ethiopians sounded strangely like Greeks or Ashkenazi Jews.

Smith Henderson, "Treasure State," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 64.

Haven't we all wished we could cave in our fathers' heads like pumpkins? Oh, is that not quite a universal sentiment? Well, the pumpkin was asking for it.

Robert Lopresti, "Street of the Dead House," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in nEvermore!

There are a few too many Poe retellings in the world, but this among the better ones that I have seen. There is something in the intellectual atmosphere that is leading many a writer to try to give voice to the beasts.

Elizabeth McCracken, "Mistress Mickle All at Sea," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story.

The story accretes, like a pearl on a grain of sand, around this aphorism: "The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone."

Erin McGraw, "Priest," from 2017 Pushcart Prize 2017. First appeared in Image.

Pascal's wager does not always work.

Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in ZYZZYVA no. 104.

I wanted to dislike the story. After all, I am so sick of stories and novels set in academia, have a general, principled stance that the world would be better with fewer of them, not more. But at a certain point it hit that this was my story--the impostor syndrome, the unexpected failure to play a game one scarcely knew existed--and then it became more than my story, with added intersections overdetermining the outcome. Roland Barthes looms large in the text, but Pierre Bourdieu lurks in the subtext.

Michael Noll, "The Tank Yard," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2015.

This could have been one of the best stories of all time, not merely one of the best stories of 2015, had it not taken a moralistic turn toward the end. The turn was ambiguous enough, however, to keep the story from melting into a puddle of cant. Rural desperation and methamphetamine bond to one another as tightly as anhydrous ammonia and H2O.

Dominica Phetteplace, "The Story of a True Artist," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in ZYZZYVA

The difference between being "Gen X" and "Millennial" seems to be roughly the difference between being imprisoned in the Panopticon, and being born into it. Dominica Phetteplace's writing brings me the closest I can be to understanding what that difference means.

Karen Russell, "The Prospectors," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 8, 2015.

To snatch back life from death is the biggest steal of them all. To know the fact of one's death well enough to be able to forget it is what it takes to become a ghost.

Sofia Samatar, "Meet Me in Iram," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Meet Me in Iram / Those Are Pearls.

A lost city, or a tribe, of which one may imagine oneself to be a part.

Vandana Singh, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared on Tor.com.

Vandana Singh is so comprehensively, multi-facetedly brilliant as to vaporize all trace of writerly ego. No one else can write about the possibility space of impossible machines half so convincingly.

Micah Stack, "The G.R.I.E.F." from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American

It's hard out there for us queer hip-hop heads. A little bit of fantasy helps the hate flow smooth.

Lisa Taddeo, "Forty-Two," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in New England Review.

Is there any Schadenfreude better than watching terrible people make one another, and themselves, miserable?

Brian Tobin, "Entwined," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2015.

I like this as a voice-driven driven story, capturing the iterative nature of guilt and depression, despite the somewhat contrived nature of its revelations along the way. I like the fact that redemption and forgiveness cannot be given by facts, when the person who feels the guilt does not wish for either.

Catherynne M. Valente, "Planet Lion," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Uncanny Magazine May/June 2015.

"What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" I like stories that begin as jokes but become sublime.

John Edgar Wideman, "Williamsburg Bridge," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Harper's Magazine, November 2015.

I recently had a story rejection pounce on one of my meta-fictional digressions, so it is a relief to see that someone can get away with them in print. To be fair, Wideman does it better.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Salvage

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

--T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land," 430-432

The collapse of the Socialist Workers Party of Britain, by way of a sexual assault cover-up scandal, emitted several incandescent fragments, as leftist party implosions have and will. One is tempted to compare it to the supernova that overtook Gerry Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party thirty years ago, and to invoke the 18th Brumaire's overused quote about "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." But if the first time was already farce, then what is the second instantiation? Commedia dell'Arte?

One commonality between the WRP of the 1980s and SWP of the early 2010s, however, is a great quantity of talented individuals, who were not only underutilized but actively sidelined, biding their time in wasted anticipation of the coming insurrection. Within the nebula that once was the mothership of Cliffism, a gravitational agglomeration of such persons has emerged, in a project known as Salvage Quarterly, one of the more promising outcomes of that reckoning.

The "Quarterly" in that title has, to date, been more aspirational than descriptive. As a former contributor to Proletarian Revolution magazine, however, I consider that an expected part of the terrain of leftist publishing. In contrast to most leftist publications, however, they print poetry, visual art, and fiction, and they pay contributors. So when Nick Mamatas mentioned to me that Salvage's fiction editor was looking for "stories under 3000 words" that were not "bad agitprop"--and by the way, this fiction editor was none other than China Miéville--I sent a story that had unsuccessfully made the rounds of more conventional science fiction and fantasy publications, but that I thought would be to China's taste, entitled "Ruins of a Future Empire." Despite a few lingering blemishes, he saw some merit in it, and after a round or two of gentle editing, the final product is now available in Salvage's fourth issue.

Here you can see the story listed, way down at the bottom of the Table of Contents.

Thus I am now on a first-name basis with one of the best novelists of our generation, and even share space with him on the list of contributors printed on the back cover:

Aside from their willingness to print my fictions, however, there are more substantive reasons to value Salvage. They are among the few projects on the international far left today willing to attempt to come to grips with the central antinomy of our present moment--the ineluctable urgency of crisis, and the presently dire state of proletarian class consciousness. It is a relief to be involved, if only tangentially, with an effort to address this through collective effort rather than individual ratiocination. (Note for the perplexed: Such general endorsement of the project does not amount to a specific endorsement of each essay or thesis comprised therein.)

To read my story, or to get a sense of what Salvage is about, buy the issue. Perhaps consider subscribing.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Zionism Then (1933) and Now

The Zionist Organization of America, the most unrepentantly right-wing Zionist organization in this country, has unsurprisingly come out in defense of Trump's ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees. The ZOA, like the hard-right nationalist parties in Israel with which they align, are the ideological and organizational descendants of "Revisionist Zionism," led by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

On February 24, 1933, less than a month after the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany, the Jüdische Rundschau, the leading Zionist newspaper in Germany, reported on a speech that Jabotinsky had just given in Berlin (see page 2 of issue 16. The Rundschau was aligned with what was then the mainstream of the Zionist movement, which favored an alliance with the Jewish labor movement in Palestine (though certainly not with Palestinian Arab workers!), and a conciliatory attitude toward the British Mandatory authorities, so their reportage of Jabotinsky, while fair, was not entirely sympathetic. They wrote the following:

Er legte dar, warum Kommunismus und Zionismus unvereinbar seien. Es sei z. B. das politische Ziel der Kommunisten, Europa aus allen Kolonialländern vertreiben zu wollen, während sich Jabotinsky als enthusiastischer Anhänger des europäischen Rechtes auf Herrschaft in der Kolonialländer bekannte. Aber ist nicht die jüdisch-palästinensische Arbeiterschaft selbst die schärfste Gegnerin des Kommunismus?

My translation is as follows:

He laid out why Communism and Zionism could not be united. For example, it is the political aim of the Communists to expel Europe from all the colonial countries, while Jabotinsky is well known to be an enthusiastic supporter of the European right to rule the colonies. But isn't the Jewish labor movement in Palestine the sharpest opponent of Communism?

Two days later, the Reichstag was set aflame. In this moment, as the Nazis were getting ready first to come for the Communists, as Niemöller would later famously reflect, the Labor Zionists saw fit to counter Jabotinsky by boasting of their own steadfast opposition both to Communism and to the struggles of colonized peoples for liberation.

Seventy-four years later, the heirs of Jabotinsky, having long since outpaced the Labor Zionists in the struggle for hegemony within the Zionist movement, are still boasting of their opposition to the supposed barbarian hordes. The way was paved for this by their putative opponents, the Labor Zionists. Those who do not learn from history may get what they deserve, but not before they have dragged the rest of us to hell alongside them.

Has it ever been more clear that any Jew who wishes to remain loyal to the sacrifices of our ancestors, and the moral core of Jewish traditions, that Zionism must be repudiated?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Top Ten Books of 2016

I read enough books in 2016 that were published that year--and enough of them were good--that it actually makes some meaningful sense for me to indicate which of those books were, for me, in the top ten. These are included without regard to genre, with the result that two are novels, five are single-author collections of short stories, one is a scholarly monograph, and two are single-author collections of essays.

1. Rabih Alameddine, The Angel of History

Despite the advances in anti-retroviral therapies, it is still possible to die of HIV/AIDS. Nonetheless, the "plague" marks off discernible generational divisions among gay and bisexual men. For the elders, those who are now in their fifties (like Jacob, the protagonist of this novel) or older, it meant watching your friends and lovers die. For those around my age, it meant knowing people who caught it when it was still expected to be a certain death sentence, and coming out in an atmosphere in which that threat haunted every erotic liaison. Comparatively carefree young ones appear as characters, foils to Jacob's grim aesthetic of survival. By extensively referencing Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, one of the best novels of the 20th century, Alameddine plays a dangerous game, which works because of his own sharp dialogue and shimmering prose. Early on in the book, I felt myself falling in love with Jacob. The elements of the fantastic are extensive enough that I hope any readers of mine who are eligible to nominate for awards in the macro-genre of "science fiction and fantasy" will read this novel and consider it.

2. Louise Erdrich, LaRose

I already did a long post about the changes in my reception of Erdrich over the years. I had been looking forward to this novel since the appearance of "The Flower" in the New Yorker, a short story based on sections of the novel. I was surprised but not disappointed--though "The Flower" digs deep into the history of colonization, much of LaRose takes place closer to the present. The result is an affecting portrait of the unpredictable ways history can play out into multiple presents, complete with cute kids, family tragedies, and fart jokes.

3. Matthew Neill Null, Allegheny Front

Null's short story "Gauley Season" appeared an earlier Meta-Anthology entry of mine, so I was thrilled to see this collection. Nearly all the stories were as good or better than "Gauley Season." Loosely linked, and well rooted their Appalachian setting, the collection shows Null to be one of the best practitioners of the art of the short story working today.

4. Catherine Besteman, Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

A young anthropologist begins her career studying members of a subordinate ethno-racial caste in a distant land, settled agriculturalists in a country where nomadic herders dominate, many of them descendants of slaves marked by a darker hue. Decades later, after much turmoil in their homeland, the people she studied, including several of her original informants, find themselves resettled as refugees in a declining mill town in the whitest state of the USA--the same state where the anthropologist is now a tenured professor. And the same city where I work, not far from where I live, so reading this book I had the at times disorienting experience of encountering friends and acquaintances in the text, endnotes, and/or acknowledgements. The sole weak point of the book is chapter 6, which I wish had been as incisively critical as the other chapters, highlighting gaps and contradictions in the discourses of the more cosmopolitan-minded members of the helping professions that it profiles, as ruthlessly as other chapters expose the muddles of international humanitarian NGOs, national and local governments, bigots, and even refugees themselves. Aside from that, the book serves as a guide for how to stop "seeing like a state," and start "seeing like a refugee." And in my opinion, the latter will become an increasingly necessary disposition, not only for remaining humane, but for survival.

5. Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

If Liu were only responsible for much of the growing availability of Chinese science fiction in English translation, he would be one of the most important figures in literature today. But before he turned his hand to translation, he was already an undisputed champion of short fiction in the genre. This collection is a welcome addition, not least because many of his short stories previously appeared in online publications. (Personally, I prefer to read fiction on a printed page; I find it more conducive to the necessary contemplative posture than reading on a screen.) The new story contained in the collection "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition," should be considered for awards.

6. Eric Neuenfeldt, Wild Horse: Stories

If this book already won the Grace Paley Prize, does it need my praise? Evidently, judging from the fact that two months after its release mine is still the only review on Goodreads. Loosely linked short stories, most set in Wisconsin, all with youngish working-class white men as protagonists--a sawyer, a scrap hauler, a snow plow driver, a wheelchair builder, retail clerks in marine and medical supplies, a remedial educator in a prison, and a good few bicycle mechanics. This book could be subtitled "Why Trump Won"--not because I could imagine most of these characters voting for him (though there are some exceptions), but because through these stories one sees the aftermath of the decay of social institutions that would once have worked for men like them, the growth of their cynicism--and you know that none of them would have been ready for Hillary. The best story in the book is "Lifer".

7. Rion Amilcar Scott, Insurrections: Stories

Another set of loosely linked short stories, this time all set in a fictional Maryland town, descended from a fictional antebellum slave insurrection. Within that space, Scott satirically explores the potentialities of blackness set not against whiteness (at least, for a change, not primarily) but against itself. The insurrections chronicled here are on smaller scales, but prefigure the fire next time.

8. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays

Worth reading if only for the first essay, "Black Body," which revisits the "village" in James Baldwin's "Stranger in the Village" in order to give voice to critiques that might be unimaginable otherwise. But there is much more that is worth reading in this volume.

9. John Manderino, But You Scared Me the Most: And Other Short Stories

It is unfortunate for Manderino that this book is getting shelved with horror, because even though he toys with the conventions of that genre and makes good use of the uncanny, the predominant emotional expression that results is laughter rather than the shiver. I especially recommend the title story, "Bigfoot Tells All," "Self-Portrait with Wine," "Bob and Todd," and "The Weary Ghost of Uncle Doug."

10. Sayed Kashua, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Kashua is arguably the best living writer in Hebrew. There is probably no argument that he is the funniest. And he is a Palestinian, an Arab, who grew up with Arabic as his primary language until high school in the "Arab town" of Tira. (Municipalities in Israel are classified--by the government--according to their ethnic makeup. Tira and places like it exist because the ethnic cleansing with which the state of Israel was created was not 100% successful, only about 80%.) All of which helps him in his efforts as an ironist. My Hebrew is good enough to appreciate Kashua in the original, but only in short bursts, so the translation of this collection is welcome--not only for my sake, but for others who should hear his voice. This leaves the question of whether the translation works or not. Does humor translate? For me it did, though this translation makes some odd choices, particularly when it comes to leaving Hebrew and Arabic phrases untranslated. Sometimes inexplicable--why not render "ikhsa" as "yuck" or "yech" or "gross"? Sometimes clearly prudish. (Did the translator think that Kashua's profanity would render him less sympathetic to an Anglophone audience? Mother's cunt!) So I wonder how many of the layers of meaning would make their way to a reader who was not like me, who did not know some Hebrew and a little Arabic and a lot about Israeli society and Israeli racism. And if the only people who can appreciate the book are those who have been immersed enough already in "the situation" to have made up their minds about it, then what, exactly, will it have accomplished? Well, if nothing else, it will have accomplished this passage:

"Dad, what's a mortgage?" I asked whenever I saw an article about mortgage holders being thrown into the street, penniless.
"A mortgage, my son," the communist would answer after lengthy reflection, "is a debt because of which poor people have their home taken away."
"What, a mortgage is a Nakba, Dad?"
"Exactly, a Jews' Nakba."

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 in Review

Good grief, what a year.

Ordinarily I am not very much invested in celebrity culture. But from the tears that came unexpectedly to eye when a local DJ played "Blackstar" recently, it has become clear to me that I never properly, fully mourned David Bowie. He directly and indirectly (through his influences on Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Joy Division, and so many more artists) formed much of my aesthetic sensibility, not only in terms of his primary genre--the music I listen to--but in the sense of performative transformation that pervades what I seek in other areas, especially prose writing. An exception to the general run of promoted mediocrity, I predict he is one of the few cultural figures from the latter half of the 20th century who will be remembered at all in the 22nd. If nothing of note other than his death had happened in 2016, it might have been possible to come to grips with what it means to be in a world without him, with one fewer piece of unanticipated genius to look forward to. But so much more happened.

2016 was also the year in which the analytic techniques I learned from Marxism began to fail me in predicting world events. Not only the election of Trump and Brexit came as some surprise, but most signally the relentless betrayal and destruction of the revolution in Syria. Malevolence seems to have taken shape as an active force in human affairs to a degree unparalleled since the 1930s. In the 1930s, at least, there were still a few political geniuses on the scene who discern, in the chaos of events, the coming line of development--most importantly Leon Trotsky; until his premature death, Antonio Gramsci in his notebooks (from which few at the time could benefit); some forgotten or nameless Bolshevik veterans who perished in Stalin's camps; C. L. R. James, Chen Duxiu, and Ta Thu Thau; and in their more astute moments, the likes of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. I do not doubt that there are individual geniuses of my generation or younger. But one effect of the last forty years of relentless, slow-moving defeat is to isolate individual genius from the motion of masses, to blunt and stupefy political judgment, rather than sharpen and make it incisive.

There was so much mourning, then, to be done this year: for individual examples of the best the species has to offer (not just Bowie, but then Prince, and Leonard Cohen, and Sharon Jones...); the relentless, crashing dissonance of each person, especially black, callously murdered by police this year (more than 1,000 in 2016 alone); for the very prospect of the collective, long-term survival, let alone flourishing, of the species as a whole; and also, in my case, for the remains of a world-view that had served me pretty well in understanding and anticipating events over the years. Mourning is work, and with my attention to the world divided in so many directions, I did not do the work very well.

Despite, or perhaps in some measure because, of that work of mourning, I did get some writing done, and did manage to get some of my writing published.

To be precise, two new short stories of mine were published this year: "The Libidinal Economy of the Suburbs" appeared in FLAPPERHOUSE, and the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction included "Caribou: Documentary Fragments". I liked and am proud of both; for those of you keeping track for purposes of annual awards, only the latter counts as "science fiction". Though FLAPPERHOUSE's tastes are pan-genre, that piece is solidly in the realm of domestic realism, albeit in an experimental mode. (Both, it could be said, are formally experimental, though their experiments are more in the nature of replication efforts than attempts to break new ground.)

Publication of a third story is in the works, but it is now clear that it will not be in time for this calendar year. I usually reserve announcements of forthcoming new pieces until I have either received payment or signed a contract, but in this instance the labors and reassurances of the fiction editor seem to be promise enough: My story "Ruins of a Future Empire" will appear in the upcoming fourth issue of Salvage, a communist periodical out of Britain whose fiction editor is none other than China Miéville. Working with him has been a delight. Not all great writers are good editors, either of their own or others' work, nor are all great editors any good at all as writers. China's talents are evident on both sides of the transaction; he helped me to identify the warts that distracted from the underlying structure of the story and surgically remove them. I am looking forward to the issue.

My first published story, "Moose Season," has now been republished by the new short fiction app for mobile devices, Great Jones Street. To be frank, I don't own a suitable device, and even if I did, I doubt I would download the app, as I dislike reading fiction on screens. However, their selection seems to be great, so if you do like reading fiction on such devices, please give it a shot! I have been recommending pieces to the editors. If you are a writer and have written a short story that I like, or that you think I would like, feel free to remind me in the comments. And if you are a GJS writer or user, and there's a story of mine you think should be in it, please let the editors know.

Unlike last year, I do not have detailed thoughts on either of the major science fiction awards. My writing income was so meager this year that I had to let my SFWA membership lapse, so I am not able to nominate things for the Nebulas. And for similar reasons, I will not be joining WorldCon or nominating for the Hugos. When the official nominees are announced, then I will read or comment.

I have been working on my annual "Meta-Anthology" post; at this point, I am waiting on a copy of the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. Once I have read that, I will finalize it and post it.

I do want to put up reviews of some of the best books I have read this year, but for length's sake I will omit that from this entry, bring it to a close, and save those for another day.

May 2017 find you strong enough for whatever struggles it brings.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cuba after 57 Years of Fidel: Socialist Barbarism at Its Best (So Far)

The Marxist hypothesis (as distinct from Alain Badiou's Communist Hypothesis, which upon closer examination turns out to be neither communist nor hypothetical, but Neo-Platonist) was grounded in material reality and therefore potentially falsifiable. The most concise statement of it in Marx's own words can be found in his 1852 letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:
  1. that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production
  2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,
  3. that this dictatorship itself only contributes to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

There are a few subsidiary clauses about what each of these key phrases--the development of production, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the classless society--mean in Marx's usage that can be found in The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), but the essentials are all here at least in embryo.

Over the course of the 20th century several social formations and events arose whose leaders and supporters claimed to be instantiations and proof of the Marxist hypothesis, but we have yet to see the classless society. Insofar as they developed production, it was either on a temporary basis, only to later fall behind the competitive baseline of surrounding capitalism (the Stalinist USSR and afterward), or through flagrantly capitalist methods (post-Maoist China). To claim to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than over the proletariat, required both in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China the torturing of a few concepts and more than a few human bodies. From a point of view that regards Marx's original hypothesis as worth testing and the classless society as a goal to be achieved, these are easy to reject.

More challenging is the comparatively humanist example of the 1959 revolution in Cuba and its aftermath. In ways that had been obscured early on by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, each eager to claim pride of place for the guerrilla foco, but that have been recovered by subsequent historiography, the overthrow of the Batista regime was to a great extent the work, the doing, of the urban and rural working class in Cuba, much as the overthrow of first the Tsar and then the Provisional Government had been in Russia in 1917. Yet unlike Russia, power was not captured by any party rooted in the proletariat, but rather by a loosely affiliated set of political leaders from urban middle-class origins. The party that did have the strongest roots in the Cuban working class, the Popular Socialist Party (aligned with the USSR), had largely held aloof from the uprising and had attempted at various points to sabotage it; it only began to join post-revolutionary governing circles as Fidel Castro and others tightened their own alignment with the Soviets, and sought to ally with a disciplined, practiced bureaucratic structure for use in calming outbreaks of working-class radicalism and demands. Thus, unlike the post-World War II overturns in most of Eastern Europe, or the "People's War" that culminated with the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it would be false to say that the Cuban revolution was not a working-class revolution. But it is accurate to say that it was not a revolution led by the working class, and that the resulting government was not a "dictatorship of the proletariat." The role played by the working class in Batista's overthrow accounts for why, throughout the subsequent 57 years, Fidel Castro had to be far more attentive than his former counterparts in eastern Europe or east Asia to the well-being of the masses. The advances in medical care and education of which the Cuban people have cause to be proud (though they know the present system's limitations better than most external observers, e.g. the emergence of a two-tiered medical system since the "Special Period") are in fact the gains of the Cuban working class itself, alienated from them and presented as the beneficent product of the leadership generally, and Fidel in particular. (There is a longer story to be told about how the defeat of an earlier, more explicitly proletarian uprising in the mid-1930s made possible this particular combination of events, but retelling it would take me too far afield from the point of this essay.)

The preceding paragraph is a very concentrated summary of research that I undertook, extending over several years, with an eye toward at least an article, possibly a book, attempting to explain the Cuban Revolution from within a theoretical framework that regarded the Marxist hypothesis as still open to validation. As I have explained in previous entries on this blog, however, unfortunately the possibility of validation of the Marxist hypothesis is most likely closed, due to impending impacts of climate change, brought about by the accumulation of capital. My best statement of the case so far remains this one from May 2013:

As powerful as Marxism may be as a method of critique--i.e., as a means of understanding and predicting the destruction that is being perpetrated by those who rule us--its utility as a guide for positive political action was premised on a conditional hypothesis: That the working class would come to a conscious understanding of its own interest in and capacity for revolutionary reconstruction of society after the capitalist class had created the material prerequisites for a higher order of social organization, and before the capitalists had managed to destroy those material prerequisites. In Rosa Luxemburg’s words, the choice facing humanity was that between socialism--understood as a classless society based upon a level of technical development and productivity of labor sufficient to allow the steady and expansive satisfaction of human needs--or barbarism.

If we reach 450 ppm [of atmospheric carbon dioxide], however, then even if the working class were to take power, it would do so in a context of runaway climatic feedback processes, sea-level rises sufficient to inundate major cities (and even entire nations), dramatic desertification of the world’s bread-baskets, deadly heat waves in some of the most densely populated regions of the planet, etc. Marxism as a method of critique would tell us that new scarcities will give rise to new oligarchies, new distributions of power, and new modalities of exploitation and oppression. Marxism as a mode of critique will tell us that the moment for its realization has passed, that its fundamental positive hypothesis has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control.

The choice, then, is not between socialism and barbarism, but between various flavors of barbarism. And there may well be some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism....

More than three years later, the only thing I would change about this passage would be to remove the reference to 450 parts-per-million. Already at 400 ppm we are seeing evidence of accelerating feedback processes and all the rest. Three years ago I thought we had a window of about 35 years for recomposition of working-class revolutionary leadership, and judged, based on the state of affairs at the time and the history of political development, that such recomposition was unlikely in that timeframe. That was based on what was known scientifically at the time. But the methodological conservatism of climate science--which has an eerie parallel in the routinist conservatism of most putatively Marxist organizations--meant that this timeframe was too generous. The window is already closing, and the world political situation is, if anything, worse.

So I want to return to what I hinted at in that last sentence, "some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism." At present there are only a few "actually existing" examples of such "socialist barbarism" remaining. In most of them, the element of barbarism has such an overpowering stench as to render nauseating the lingering pretense to socialism--the billionaires' party of today's China, the barrel-bomb Ba'athism of Assad's Syria, or Venezuela, where the boliburguesia and its ruling clique loyally pay their debts to the world's banks while food and medicine disappear from the shelves. For the moment, Cuba remains the best (most attractive, least repellent) example of socialist barbarism on offer.

How long that moment will survive the death of Fidel remains to be seen. During the peculiar interregnum of the last five years, in which he had formally turned over his positions of authority to his brother Raúl and others but remained, insofar as his health allowed, a vocal public figure, he often subtly undermined the plans and policy initiatives of Raúl, who has made little secret of his desire to be Cuba's Deng Xiaoping, by making speeches or writing newspaper columns that hearkened back to the egalitarian traditions of Cuba's working class. Aside from the differences in ideology and personality between the brothers, well-known to long-time Cuba watchers, this reflects more importantly a dialogue within the ruling stratum, trying to gauge how much the masses will tolerate increased openness to world capital and the growth of inequality that would necessarily result. With Fidel's death, the ruling stratum loses a well-respected voice--not for the working class, but for an ingenious combination of revolutionary romanticism and Machiavellian caution. The ghoulish celebrations by Trump-voting gusanos in Miami hoping to regain a share of the lucre ought not to blind us to the fact that world capital already has its tentacles coiled around the neck of the Cuban working class, extending from Canada, Spain, Germany, Britain and, yes, Russia and China.

For those of us who want to retain some element of socialism within the heritage of barbarism which capital has bequeathed to us, Cuba represents not an unsurpassable horizon, but a target of what can be attained and exceeded. The task remains to salvage as much of the Marxist hypothesis as is materially possible. If not the full abundance promised by the classless society, then at least the proletarian dictatorship--that is, rule of, for, and most importantly by the working class. If not development of production--for production as it exists at present accelerates the destruction of its natural basis--then reorganization of production to minimize, end, and ultimately repair the destruction wrought by capital. In this we can learn a few things from the Cuban people--for example, the dramatic reduction in petroleum use and carbon emissions during the Special Period, cited even by Jill Stein of the U.S. Green Party as something to learn from--but that means being frankly critical of their past and present leaders.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Red Cat, Green Bag

I guess the cat is out of the bag, or at least, the cat has stuck its head out of the bag and started meowing. A quick summary is that the Maine Green Independent Party (to date, the only minor party registered with the State of Maine, though it looks like the Libertarians will start winning their appeals soon) is now pissing itself in public. The only Green candidate in the entire state who braved Maine's ballot access requirements--more restrictive for minor parties than for unregistered independents--is Seth Baker. But the Democrat he is running against is Ben Chipman, a former Green with a reputation (in my opinion, mostly undeserved) for progressivism and a lot of personal friendships among the older cohorts of Portland Greens. And so you have recognized leaders of the state Green Party--including the state coordinator for the Jill Stein campaign--who are openly campaigning for a Democrat, against the only other member of their own party on the ballot in this state.

And these same people expect to be able to parry Democratic Party criticisms that "all the Greens do is run a presidential candidate every four years," even as they openly sabotage their non-presidential candidates.

I have been holding my tongue for months. I no longer see the tactical advisability of continued silence.

My ballot has already been cast. I did vote for Jill Stein, though largely at this point to be able to tell my 9-year-old daughter (who was seriously fangirling about Stein) that I had. Ancillary reasons include having that at the ready to piss off the many Hillary Clinton supporters in my life, and the fact that socialists in Maine didn't have our collective act together in time to get the Soltysik/Walker campaign recognized as a write-in candidacy by the Maine Secretary of State (let alone the far more onerous task of ballot access). Seth, to his credit, is keeping things positive--far more than I would if I were in his shoes--and thanks to young comrades like him, I expect the latter issue will not be a consideration the next time ballots come out. I don't live in his district, so unfortunately I could not vote for him.

My qualms about the Stein campaign, however, far predated the present situation. Some of them are organizational. Aside from the local situation, the fact that her national campaign coordinator is David Cobb--the milquetoast "safe states" candidate of 2004--was an early bad sign. But mostly, they are political. Some are matters of style that give a clue as to substance--the insistence, for example, on referring to the candidate as Dr. Jill Stein, which telegraphs an emphasis on middle-class respectability. But others are far more substantial. First there was the pivot to trying to capture the support of disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters, which went too far in soft-pedaling the analysis of the Democratic Party. (For example, going from saying "you can't have a revolutionary campaign in a counterrevolutionary party" to saying "it's hard to have a revolutionary campaign in a counterrevolutionary party.") But where Stein really screwed the pooch was on Syria.

It was in the cards from the moment Ajamu Baraka was announced as her running mate. Even before then, though, I had characterized, in private conversation, Stein's call for a Middle East-wide U.S. arms embargo as comparable to FDR's policies during the Spanish Civil War--preferable, in theory, to the current U.S. policy of arming Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Sisi regime in Egypt to the hilt, but fundamentally a recipe for counterrevolutionary slaughter, since there is no chance short of global thermonuclear war that Russia would abide by such an embargo and stop arming Assad. But I have to confess that I took my eye off the ball, and it was not until early October, when Syrian activists started calling out Stein, that I realized that her official position called for aiding the Assad government to recover control of the full territory of Syria. Unfortunately I can't link to that version of her statement, since it was deleted off the website in favor of a much briefer, formally pacifist version. This is not the only issue on which Stein's website has disappeared past positions down the proverbial memory hole, and that in itself is an example of poor political hygiene.

The point of this is not to blame Stein for the U.S. left's confusion regarding Syria. Stein is symptomatic, not causative. (The remainder of this paragraph is a slightly expanded version of a series of tweets that I posted on October 5th.) On some level one would expect her views on Middle Eastern politics to be bad; it's almost a miracle that they are not worse. She's a Jewish woman, older than my mom, younger than my mother-in-law. She lives in a very bourgeois milieu in suburban Boston. Then in the 2000s, she started radicalizing, driven largely by the health care issue. Demographically, one would expect her to be a PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine). And given the Green Party's history of taking pacifistic positions on the Israel/Palestine issue, that obscure the real power relations of ethnic cleansing and occupation under a veneer of false balance, she could very well have taken refuge in that sort of position. To the partial credit of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party, one gets the sense that this was not how things played out, that her new lefty friends started telling her that a PEP position is indefensible. Again to Stein's credit (unlike my mom, who sticks fingers in her ears whenever I mention Palestinians) it seems she tried to learn. The problem is, in the Green Party, who is there to learn from? Stalinists without a political home; conspiracy theorists; kooks. (Baraka fits under these headings.) Even so, the sort of political education one can obtain from these people is useful up to a point. In the mid-2000s, the notion that the USA is the source of all evil was the beginning of wisdom. But only the beginning. But then in 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia set himself on fire. Previously impregnable regimes across the region of the Middle East and North Africa started looking shaky. This was not only a problem for the Green Party, but the entire U.S. left, who all got caught flat-footed. For the conspiracy theorist types, who entered the period with a crude classification of "puppet regimes" (those openly subservient to the U.S.) and "the Axis of Resistance" (those with a rhetorical patina of opposition to the U.S. and Israel, no matter how inconsistent), the refusal of popular uprisings to respect this dichotomy could mean only one thing: it's a CIA plot. And with political education from such people--who now cannot acknowledge in the face of growing evidence that U.S. policy serves to prop up the Assad regime, not take it down--it is therefore unsurprising that Jill Stein puts her foot in her mouth whenever she opines at length about the Middle East.

This is one issue of several. I would argue that the most important issue of all is climate change, and its threat to human survival. That at least is how I rationalize my own approach to the Green Party, which once upon a time I would have regarded as impossible to justify. The fact that several people who were attracted in 2012 and beyond by Stein's talk of a Green New Deal are now open in arguing for socialist solutions as a necessary alternative to capitalism provides me with further justification. But issues like Syria provide advance warning signs of how seriously individual leaders and political tendencies can be taken when they speak of "revolution." Just as some members of the Green Party limit their opposition to capitalist Democrats to the ones they dislike, and support those they like, too much of the U.S. left turned on the people of Syria when they dared show their distaste for a preferred ruler. As the candidacies of the two major parties show, U.S. imperialism--political and economic hegemony backed by military might--is the cornerstone of the capitalist stability in the U.S., constituting the one orthodoxy which no one, not even Bernie, dare question. U.S. imperialism will only be overthrown by revolutions that replace the interlocking system of capitalist states--sometimes puppets, sometimes "resistors," always repressive--under its control in key regions of the world. And to paraphrase Jill Stein herself, "you can't have a revolutionary party with a counterrevolutionary foreign policy."