Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Meta-Anthology of Short Stories, 2013

Because somebody had to, I recently read through the Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Rich Horton's Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy for 2013. The following is a listing of stories from each of those anthologies that I consider worth reading. This should not be confused with a listing of "best short stories" for any time period. I do not have enough time or money to keep up with all the publications that are worth keeping up with. And there were plenty of stories I did read that happened not to have been included in any of the above anthologies. This is just a selection of some selections, limited to those anthologies which I happened to be able to find at my local public library, or at the library where my wife works. Following the practice of the Best American series, stories are listed in alphabetical order by author's last name.

Daniel Alarcón, "The Provincials". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Granta 118.

I liked seeing a story with a non-North American setting in the anthology, and I appreciated the knowing yet smooth way the author handled the unreliable narrator. Whether this inspires me to go out and read the just published novel of which it is a portion is yet to be determined.

Kate Bachus, "Things Greater than Love". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in and available online at Strange Horizons.

The depiction of hazardous labor and the esprit de corps that develops during such labor is a bit too rare in science fiction, both for good reasons (the utopian desire for the elimination through automation of labor's necessity) and bad ones (a Randoid libertarian disdain for those who work with their hands instead of--or more accurately, as well as--their brains). This story is a welcome exception to that, with the added challenge of interspecies, interplanetary comprehension.

Tom Barlow, "Smothered and Covered". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Spring 2012.

Unlikable characters and a not-entirely-trustworthy narrator, a sharp commentary on the disposability of children in the U.S.--especially black girls, but working-class children in general--and a vivid recreation atmosphere of a late night shift at a Waffle House.

Andrea Barrett, "The Particles". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Tin House.

An effective story that intertwines the personal and theoretical aspects of scientific rivalries. At points it adopts the matter-of-fact tone of a paper's methods section, so readers less accustomed than I to reading scientific prose may find it hard going. Might have been even stronger if the protagonist were depicted making an ahead-of-his-time discovery, such as an early finding of epigenetic inheritance, that doesn't get published at all because of Mendelian hegemony. As the story stands, he seems like a once-promising student who, through some bad luck and unfortunate career choices, has ended up a mediocre scientist, so the stakes of his emotional turmoil for anyone but him are unclear. Having him be as brilliant as he imagines himself to be, yet incapable of being recognized due to the nature of the research process, would have been more tragic. I would have liked that story better--and may try to write something like it one day--but I liked this story anyway.

L. Annette Binder, "Lay My Head". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Fairy Tale Review.

The creative writing program emphasis on strong openings results in stories that begin powerfully and then fade out, like a newspaper article, and thus which do not quite work as stories. This story is one such, though the beginning is strong enough, and the fade slow enough, that it sustained my interest throughout, its structural weaknesses only becoming apparent in hindsight. "Babies weren't frightened of her face" is a great first sentence.

Aliette de Bodard, "Heaven under Earth". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in and available online at (the soon to be late and lamented) Electric Velocipede.

Future possibilities of gender plasticity are often imagined as utopian, and in some ways that is good: Gender is a cage. Yet technological ease neither negates the oppressiveness of social relations nor the at times painful resistance of the body. This story captures those well, with emphasis on the emotional journeys and contradictions of the protagonist.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, "The History of Girls". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Witness.

Effective intertwining of the phantasmatic and the real, bringing the reader into the pain that is too often glossed over with journalistic clichés about "tragedy".

Eileen Dreyer, "The Sailor in the Picture". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Crime Square (Vantage Point Books, 2012).

Well-drawn period piece cum domestic violence revenge story.

Karl Taro Greenfield, "The Horned Men". From Best American Short Stories. First published in ZYZZYVA No. 95.

The U.S. housing bubble and collapse was fueled by the big sociopaths of Wall Street, but its development required the active collaboration of small sociopaths scattered in subdivisions throughout the nation's suburbs. Several of those small sociopaths got burned. This is one of the better stories I have read capturing the social and spiritual implications of that.

Clark Howard, "The Street Ends at the Cemetery". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2012.

A multiple-cross noir, which by ably keeping up with the multiple threads of conspiracy makes up for having a corrections officer as the protagonist.

Gish Jen, "The Third Dumpster". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in Granta 120.

This story holds up to multiple readings, for me at least. Though set in southern California, it brought me back to my former home of Flushing, Queens. It is not evocative of "the" immigrant experience, for there is no singular immigrant experience, but of one of many possible ways in which intergenerational tension can be complicated by cultural drift.

Xia Jia, "One Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu). From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in and available online at Clarkesworld.

If Ken Liu had done nothing but translate this story, it would have been sufficient. (Of course he did much more, and I find it odd that no stories by Liu himself appeared in Horton's anthology--for example, the amazing, Hugo award winning "Mono no aware".) In several important senses, the future is Chinese: the very survival of the human species may well hinge on events in factories in megalopolises whose names most Americans and Europeans do not know. If science fiction can encode rebellious messages under dictatorial regimes, as it so often has (in Eastern Europe, South America), then this story deserves close reading. That it is also imaginative, emotionally precise and, as translated by Liu, linguistically gifted, makes it all the more deserving.

Bret Anthony Johnston, "Encounters with Unexpected Animals". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at Esquire.

This could well have fit in a crime fiction anthology. While, if read with a certain type of critical lens, this story could be presented as an exemplar of "rape culture" (the accuser as Machiavellian confabulator), nonetheless it is an excellently composed piece.

Kevin Leahy, "Remora, IL". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in The Briar Cliff Review, 2012. Available online (pdf).

One of the best written stories I've read, in any year, of any genre. Makes effective use of first-person-plural narration to explore the moral compromises and social disruptions on one end of the prison-industrial complex.

Ursula K. LeGuin, "Elementals". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in Tin House.

Every one of LeGuin's sentences in this masterwork carries as much weight as some of the other stories on this list. A transcendent must read.

Kelly Link, "The Summer People". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. First published in Tin House.

To escape your bondage, would you entrap someone else? This is the moral question posed by this fantastic--in both senses of the word--story.

Kelly Link, "Two Houses". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury.

With strong attention to the emotional and social complexities that would go along with the technical prerequisites of interstellar travel, pitch perfect writing and a good sense of the uncanny, if I had read this story blind I would have attributed it to LeGuin.

Nick Mamatas, "Arbeitskraft". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk. Available online.

I would be a sucker for something with Friedrich Engels as the main character. But every time I read this story, I uncover another nuance, an aspect in which it critiques various types of vulgar Marxism, or the technological fetishism of much of the science fiction genre. In this story, steampunk and Marxism face one another as antitheses and thus find themselves aufgehoben.

Nick Mamatas, "Thy Shiny Car in the Night". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally appeared in Long Island Noir (Akashic, 2012).

Bit players from The Sopranos meet Jack Kerouac in a tale of family, the American Dream, murder and betrayal.

Emily St. John Mandel, "Drifter". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Venice Noir (Akashic, 2012).

Acutely observed psychological study of a disconnected protagonist who meets a dark end.

Meghan McCarron, "Swift, Brutal Retaliation". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in and available online at

Combines the ghost story and suburban, domestic realism to good effect. For what is more horrifying, really, than a suburban middle-class American family?

David Means, "The Chair". From Best American Short Stories. First published in The Paris Review No. 200.

If you read this piece in the anthology, do not read the author's note on it, for I think there is more going on in it than the author even realizes. Probably best appreciated by parents.

Steven Millhauser, "A Voice in the Night". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at The New Yorker.

I suspect every Jewish writer has to write a story like this at some point. Makes effective use of a quasi-Talmudic structure--text, commentary, meta-commentary--marking out different stages in the protagonist's life. Eminently quotable. My version of this story, when it comes, will likely involve the binding of Isaac.

Melinda Moustakis, "They Find the Drowned". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Hobart No. 12.

I'm not sure how I went this long in my life without reading anything by Moustakis. This piece--non-linear, imagistic, collaged--works on so many levels--natural, scientific, familial, social. An amazing feat of writing.

Linda Nagata, "Nahiku West". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Analog.

What if it were a crime to be no-longer-quite-human? Good blend of hard SF and crime fiction that helped me look past the fact that it was told from the point of view of a cop.

Micah Nathan, "Quarry". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in Glimmer Train.

A well-plotted exposition of how coming-of-age can be mediated through violence.

Antonya Nelson, "Chapter Two". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in The New Yorker.

I had already read this story--I'm not sure where, since I don't subscribe to The New Yorker--but did not realize it until after I was a few pages in. It crept up on me slowly, like a feeling of deja vu. A humorous story that survives a second reading is rare enough to merit a first reading, at least.

Joyce Carol Oates, "So Near Any Time Always". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published EQMM; also appears in her novella collection Evil Eye.

Not all crime stories need end in murder. Stalking is also a crime. Uncanny description of the psychological terror to which half the population routinely subjects the other half.

Jamie Quatro, "Sinkhole". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in Ploughshares, and also available in her collection, I Want to Show You More.

As many evangelical Christians as there are in the United States, one would think that their lived experiences would be better represented in fiction. The coastal bias of the literary world prevents that. Of Quatro's many good stories exploring this dimension of our culture, this is one of the better ones.

Suzanne Rivecca, "Philanthropy". From Best American Short Stories. Originally published in Granta 120.

I loved this story when I first read it. I loved it even more when I read it a second time. Maybe it's because, like the author, I work in the philanthropic industrial complex as a grant-writer, albeit in a more richly endowed sector. Maybe it's because I like unbridled class hatred. I also love the fact that she used her author's note in the anthology to put in a plug for the Homeless Youth Alliance in San Francisco. If you have some cash to spare, support them--especially since they are losing the lease on their drop-in center--or find an organization in your area that has a similar mission.

George Saunders, "The Semplica-Girl Diaries". From Best American Short Stories. First published in and available online at The New Yorker. Also in Tenth of December.

I had already read this in Saunders' new collection and didn't feel the need to read it a second time. What it has to give, it gives up readily: a sharp critique of consumerism, transnational labor exploitation, and the eerie convergence of the paterfamilias role and the cop-in-your-head. Also, a great example of good science fiction that gets more respect from the "literary mainstream" than from the SF ghetto.

Asako Serizawa, "The Visitor". From The O. Henry Prize Stories. Originally published in The Antioch Review.

American liberals have managed to reconcile the hegemonic image of World War II as "the good war" with a touch of regret at such monstrosities as the internment of Japanese-Americans and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether the mass slaughter of Japanese conscripts or the firebombing of civilian targets in Tokyo, other monstrosities that went with the war in the Pacific--the more obviously imperialistic of America's war theaters--are barely known, acknowledged only reluctantly, and dismissed as so many eggs in the omelet of bringing peace and democracy to the world. This story, focusing on the mother of a missing soldier and one of his former comrades, brings the horror of the "enemy's" war home.

Jim Shepard, "The World to Come". From Best American Short Stories. First appeared as One Story No. 161.

Murder mystery and 19th century lesbianism. I think the voicing wobbles a bit early on, with phrasings that don't seem quite consistent with the period, but it finds its footing and becomes gripping.

Randall Silvis, "The Indian". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in EQMM.

A small-town family caper ends badly for all. Not terribly profound, but well paced and plotted.

Lavie Tidhar, "Under the Eaves". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in Robots: The Recent A.I., 2012.

Sociologically complex telling of a post-colonial world, in a post-Zionist Tel Aviv / Jaffa.

Catherynne Valente, "One Breath, One Stroke". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Originally published in The Future Is Japanese (Haikasoru, 2012).

When I first read this piece in its original printing, I couldn't get into it. It seemed too precious. Perhaps because I have done more writing since that first reading, in this second reading I grasped its central metaphor, of a writer's divided consciousness and the impossibility either of being outwardly understood or of being internally satisfied. I suspect one must be a writer to appreciate this story.

Genevieve Valentine, "The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published and available online in Lightspeed Magazine No. 21.

Neither alternate histories nor secondary world fantasies usually excite me. The strong writing in this piece, and unique combination of the two genres, overcame that for me.

Maurine Dallas Watkins, "Bound". From Best American Mystery Stories. Originally published in The Strand, February-May 2012.

A nice posthumous discovery from the playwright of Chicago. Formally smart, exposing how confessions often reveal more about the confessor's desire to please those in authority than the facts of who did what to whom.

Robert Charles Wilson, "Fireborn". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Rip-Off! (ed. John Scalzi).

Earlier this year, Zadie Smith and The New Yorker made a bit of a splash by publishing what appeared, at first glance, to be a science fiction story. As is Smith's want, it explored structures of class, but this time in a speculative fashion, extrapolating from present trends toward decreased social mobility and the gamification of the upper reaches of the economy. The only problem was that it wasn't a story; there was no problem or arc. It was just a vignette or scenario. As it turns out, a year earlier Robert Charles Wilson had already written the story about class and stagnation that Smith's piece wanted to be, and if his use of language is not quite as opalescent as hers, its narrative path was much more compelling.

Callan Wink, "Breatharians". From Best American Short Stories. First published in The New Yorker.

My tweet about this story was "pleasantly twisted". As I think back on it, I realize that is all I have to say. If you like screwed-up stories about screwed-up people, you'll enjoy this one. If you don't--and I know many otherwise intelligent people who don't share that taste with me--you won't.

Caroline M. Yoachim, "The Philosophy of Ships". From Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First appeared in Interzone #243.

A solid philosophical exploration of the implications of machine consciousness, told in an affecting way.

Friday, December 13, 2013


"People stared at me on the train. I'm accustomed to that--when they see a freakishly tall black man, even the British overcome their famed (and largely mythical) reserve, and stare like scientists at a new specimen. The stares had become more hostile in recent years, as waves of African refugees fled their burning lands. I was born in Newcastle, like my parents, but that isn't written on my face. When I spoke, people smiled to hear a black guy with a Geordie accent, and their hostility melted.

"Now I was no longer black, but people still stared. My grey exo-skin, formed of myriad tiny nodules, was iridescent as a butterfly's wings. I'd been told I could create patterns on it, like a cuttlefish, but I hadn't yet learned the fine control required."

--Ian Creasey, "Erosion"

So much implied and packed into just a few sentences. This is how you do transhumanism, people.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mitosis of Big Pulp: Genre's Revenge

Big Pulp, the publication which purchased my story "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," has announced that it is "breaking out into three new magazines, each with a different focus." One of the three, M: Horror & Mystery, is the one that will be publishing the Jumping Frenchmen.

My understanding is that editor/publisher Bill Olver is responding to reader comment and demand, in the hope and expectation that three different magazines that hew more closely to traditional genre boundaries will sell better and find a more reliable subscription base. I hope he's right, and I don't know enough about the business of publishing to second-guess. From my perspective, if it results in my story being read by more people, and by more receptive people, so much the better. (That it means my story's publication will be pushed back until November 2014 is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor annoyance.)

There is one aspect, though, in which I find it disappointing. As both a writer and a reader I sought out a multi-genre publication for this story. As a reader, because the set of what I enjoy reading does not map isomorphically to any known genre. And as a writer, because there is an aspect of this particular story that, I believe, can be read in at least two ways, depending on the frame of expectations the reader brings to it. In many cases, such framing is provided by genre. However, since M does still pair horror and mystery, two genres which I believe to have very different ontologies, I can still hope that some readers will be suitably confused.

As Big Pulp undergoes its mitosis into three distinct entities, I hope the ecological niche it leaves behind, of multi-, pan- or non-genred magazines, soon finds a new occupant. In the meantime, I hope you are sufficiently intrigued by my Jumping Frenchmen to feel the urge to subscribe to M. Do it!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fiction and Transgression: 12 Preliminary Theses

  1. Without conflict, there is no story.
  2. In a stable society, where the power of the state is or appears secure, there is no conflict without transgression of one or more social norms.
  3. When a social norm is codified in law, its transgression is defined as a crime.
  4. To the extent that human conduct is governed by laws which are enforced by a state, therefore, literature as the telling of stories will tend to become synonymous with crime fiction.
  5. A given work of literature's relationship toward crime fiction must be judged synchronously with the system of laws in place at the time and place of its telling.
  6. At present, in the core states of the Anglophone world (U.S. and Britain), as well as the more prosperous states of the periphery (e.g. Canada and Australia) the authority of the state is not subject to large-scale challenge, and has not been for quite some time.
  7. Also at present, within those geographical and linguistic areas, crime fiction is generally regarded as something distinct from fiction as literature, a "genre," and as such is regarded as literature only insofar as it engages in some form of ill-defined self-transcendence.
  8. Coincident with the emergence of that distinction, there has been a widening of the scope of privacy such that certain social norms which were once enforced through law are no longer, though they remain social norms. When Hardy wrote about adultery, for example, he was writing about an act which was defined as a crime, and thereby critiquing the intervention of the state into these libidinal transactions. Now the adultery plot is staple of literary fiction, without criminal implications of any sort. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to consider whether there is a causal or conditional relationship between the emergence of the distinction between "crime" and "literary" fiction and the decriminalization of certain "private" acts. Their temporal coincidence suggests that this would be something worth investigating.)
  9. Thus, crime is now something to be avoided by the writer who seeks for his or her fiction the marks of literary distinction. Yet it is impossible to avoid transgression at all--for without transgression there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no story.
  10. Within "literary realism," therefore, transgression must be kept within careful bounds. Either it must be a transgression of a social norm that is not, or is no longer, a criminal matter, or it must be the sort of transgression that, while formally against the law, is rarely enforced--the sort of thing, like smoking pot or exceeding the speed limit, that "everyone" does and for which "no one" gets arrested.
  11. In practice, this limits the potential subject-positions of the protagonist of such literature. For some people do indeed get arrested for smoking pot or speeding--members of the lower strata of the working class, especially those who are marked as non-white. Just as a young man of color "risks" getting stopped and frisked if he dares walk in New York City, a story risks categorization as genre simply by having a few too many swarthy and/or impoverished characters.
  12. From the above conceptual framework, combined with empirical data, it would be possible to derive a set of mathematical equations for predicting the frequency of certain story-lines (the affair, the uncomfortable cocktail party), characters (the functional alcoholic, the lecherous professor) and demographic types (professionals vs. manual laborers; white people vs. non-white; native-born vs. immigrant) within any given set of fiction defined as "literary".

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Love Is the Law: Interview with Nick Mamatas

JT: One theme I've seen in reviews of Love Is the Law, as a minor criticism which I find off-base, is the suspicion that Dawn serves at times as a sock puppet for your views. For those of us with detailed knowledge of the far-left ecosystem, it's clear you've chosen to set her and Bernstein in a milieu--"orthodox Trotskyist" for lack of a better term--purposefully distinct from your own. What was hardest for you in thinking/writing a character like that?

NM: Not hard per se, but that was the core of the challenge. How do you write characters who find the collapse of the Berlin Wall upsetting, or even apocalyptic? Like anyone else on the far-left, my hobby was reading the opposing newspapers and magazines, so the constant litany of the number of washing machines in East Germany, or the supposed acceptance of personal responsibility for the Cultural Revolution, is pretty bizarre. But it's just a matter of accepting axioms, trudging down the logical path, and entirely ignoring impulses toward pragmatism.

JT: In that respect, it seems similar in some ways to Crowleyan "magick": The notion that one need only find the "correct" slogan acts as a kind of abrahadabra, the stenciled placard as a kind of sigil.

NM: Yup. And if I were to drop you into a room full of Trotskyists and then into a room full of ceremonial magicians, you'll meet many of the same sort of people. Declassed intellectuals who like reading, who keep certain aspects of pop culture at a distance, almost always white and male, occasionally oversexed.

JT: Yet the respective world-views demand that they regard one another as polar opposites. Dawn so much as admits it at several points in the narrative. She is conscious of her own contradictions, but perceives as contradictory systems of belief whose inner connections she is slow to perceive.

It seems to me like it was a conscious decision on your part not to set it in the hot-house atmosphere of a microgroup, to make Bernstein into a "sect-of-one". What can you say about your motivations for that?

NM: Partially I just wanted to set it on Long Island, with a main character loath to set foot in the city, and outside of the occasional college campus or extended hippie family, you just weren't having sects on Long Island in 1989. Partially it was just based on my own experiences. Like going to a house of this kid who had hired me to work on his movie project, and meeting his middle-class parents... and the basement is full of Che Guevera titles. Or meeting an old man on a bus who sees a copy of Socialist Worker in my bag and says, out of nowhere, "Is that a Shachtmanite paper?!" Or the woman who whispers in my ear about Dorothy Day. Leftism was an underground, with more former members of this or that movement than current members.

JT: The Long Island setting seems to me critical to that, in a way that I did not quite realize even as I was reading the book. It hit me earlier today at a birthday party for one of my daughter's school friends. I wander over to the bookshelves--as bookish lefties often will--and even here in suburban, semi-rural Maine I'm seeing Karl Marx & The Black Jacobins--same as on my bookshelf. Yet when I talked with the parents, it was all about our kids' classes, teachers, etc., the usual middle-class aspirationalisms.

At that moment, the "Red Submarine"--which I'm assuming was satirical in intent--seemed like it might have something to it after all.

NM: We're all just waiting for our AK-47s and instructions for the uprising to appear in the mail. Well, Stony Brook did have a group of sorts called the Red Balloon, but RS is more of an inversion than either a send-up or a tribute.

JT: Yet 90% wouldn't know how to handle the weaponry if we got it.

NM: Luckily we only need fifty strong Bolsheviks.

JT: I caught the reference to the Red Balloon, in a moment of sectarian imprecation by Mike that was pitch-perfect. Previously I'd only heard about them through polemics in back issues of Proletarian Revolution.

NM: Ah yes, the grand fight for the hearts and minds of the working class! Red Balloon or LRP, who shall lead us?

JT: In some ways, this seemed like your most formally traditional book. The narrative mostly moves forward in linear time, with fairly standard flashbacks. First person, mostly naturalistic narration, by a seemingly trustworthy narrator. There came a point when I accidentally skipped a couple chapters and had to go back, and the resulting feeling of disorientation put me in mind of Bullettime, but that was my own clumsiness, not your design. Did you want to keep it formally straightforward because this was your first venture into crime fiction, or were there other motivations?

NM: Yup, crime required a minimum of shenanigans. Which makes it more challenging. I was writing a noir story last week and it took all week. I started it in three different ways, got 2000 words in and then starting throwing stuff out. With fantastical fiction, you can paper over narrative logic with spectacle. With crime, you can only get to spectacle through strict adherence to narrative logic.

JT: Yet Dawn's dueling ideologies do result in some moments of retrospective papering over of the sort that is naturalistically performed all the time. Her escape from the final showdown is a function of blind accident and the ineptitude of her opponents, yet in her mind it is her Will and the historical dialectic converging on inevitability.

NM: Well, we are all the heroes of our own stories!

JT: In a certain sense, we have someone who is facing events that could have destroyed her faith in all that she once believed--the collapse of the Soviet Union, the death of her guru, the drug-induced collapse of her family--and we watch as she grasps onto the slenderest shards of what remains to reconstruct it all.

NM: Right; that's the narrative logic. She's telling us her version of events, in the first person. And she's introspective, but like everyone else her ability to see herself is limited by her worldview.

JT: I don't want to destroy your chances of commercial success with crime readers, but Dawn is a terrible detective. She discovers things only when they're directly on top of her, and in the end the story, despite the pile-up of over-the-top events--sex, drugs, rock and roll, murder and the occult--can be said to take place entirely in her head. It's a bit like "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Punker".

NM: Aw, that's okay. I was reading an Ian Rankin novel the other day in which there's 300 pages of spinning a big international conspiracy involving the Russians, a big Scottish bank, and a mysterious sexy woman, but in the end it turns out that some random guy did the murder. It happens. But ultimately, Dawn thinks she's in a hard-boiled detective novel, but actually she's in a noir novel.

JT: I'm not saying it as a criticism. My preference is for stories in which the story that is diverges from the story that is told. In some respects, the lack of fantastic crutches enables that gap to remain in place, unremarked but there for the reader who likes it to seize upon it.

NM: Genres always eat themselves, right out of the womb. Agatha Christie is credited with a lot of the "rules" that are supposed to scaffold mystery writing, but she also published books in which the narrator committed the murder, or ALL the suspects did, etc. So anyone who tries to write something other than paint by numbers will keep from painting by numbers, or at least I hope.

JT: I just finished Rankin's most recent and he pulls a similar misdirection: The character who convinces herself and the cops that there's a serial killer is a distraught mother. There is a serial killer, but it turns out her daughter has just been hiding out from familial dysfunction.

And in the end, I don't think it's ever resolved whether Bernstein's death was homicide or suicide.

NM: Well, Riley thinks it was a homicide, and that he did it!

JT: Now I'm feeling like an idiot, but I had the sense that Riley's "confession" was confessing to some sort of occult process.

NM: Well, yes he thought he killed Bernstein via the occult process. But he's clearly as weird as Dawn.

Some years ago I was in a Wendy's restaurant when a woman bumped into someone and accidentally led that person to spill his drink, and she blamed Satan for what happened. But then she got to chatting with the man and they had a friendly exchange. So then she credited God for spilling the drink, which is how He led her to meet such a nice man.

JT: And Dawn believes in a similar occult process of responsibility as well. Even before Riley's confession, there's this: "So, did Riley kill Bernstein? On one level, it hardly mattered. His neck was made for the lamppost." They were bound to hate each other regardless of their overt actions.

On a totally trivial, inside-baseball level, I have to ask: Did you mean to name Bernstein after the arch-revisionist? Or is it just a happy accident of a common German Jewish name?

NM: Happy, occult accident!

JT: Dawn would say there are no accidents.

So, now the obligatory question: How's retirement from the SF/F/H spectrum treating you? What are the odds of the world seeing something along the line of Bullettime again?

NM: Well, Bullettime was a noir-fantasy, so to get to that again I would either have to march backward, or forward the whole way around the world until I caught up to it from behind. The latter is more likely to happen than the former.

JT: Mostly noir for the moment, then? Or are your marching boots on?

NM: If you're writing, and not trapped writing a bunch of series characters to order, you're automatically wearing them.

JT: So if a publisher asked you to write a Dawn Seliger lesbian erotica prison murder mystery sequel, how much of an advance would they have to offer to get you to accept?

NM: It likely wouldn't take all that much, but they'd really have to publish the sequel in which she is out of the joint, it's 2008, and she's a yoga mom in Berkeley California. Then capitalism appears to collapse...

JT: ...and soon enough she's showing up to Occupy Oakland with her kid strapped into an Ergo baby carrier.

NM: Or something like that!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Billy Moon

What happens when a middle-aged Christopher Robin finds himself the Paris of May 1968, and quite in spite of himself carries with him the Hundred Acre Wood as a space of utopian possibility?

From a world-historical perspective, not much at all. As every time traveler knows, the only way to avoid paradox is to leave things exactly as they were to be, and as every historical materialist (in Walter Benjamin's sense) knows, history only became history because the alternatives to it were already corpses in their own times.

Yet in the tunneling symbolic spaces between the real and the imaginary that can, with increasing anachronism, be called a novel, everything happens, and the provisional name of that everything is Douglas Lain's Billy Moon. This Lacanian diagram of a book is designed to confuse. Yet whereas obscurity in theory is the symptom of the will to power, an attempt to obtain and secure mastery through intellectual force and law, in literature it bespeaks an attempt to be realistic, not by demanding the impossible, but simply by allowing it to be.

Philosophers have critiqued ideology in various ways, but the point is to stop living it. This meta-critique is implicit at several points in the narrative, but nowhere more starkly than in one of the "probabilities" (i.e., unknowable near-endings):

Gerrard was dreaming, but the dream was not his own. Gerrard had thought that knowing that it was a dream, that lucid thought, would be enough, but the dream had a structure, and there were dream police.

May 1968 exerts a pull on the radical imagination because it was the first near-insurrection in conditions of modern capitalist affluence. One hopes for the sake of human survival that it proves not to be the last, or that it does only because future such events lose the prefix "near-". It is a moment in the structure of the dream.

As those who stand in solidarity with that moment find in reflecting upon it, to escape alienation it is not enough simply to live one's dreams, for those dreams may or may not be our own. Or rather, our daily reality is already a dream, an enervating play of abstractions. What could be more realistic than to wear a hat, have a job, bring home the bacon, and yet all but the hat are already fantastical. (And if the hat is the commodified product of exploited labor from a distant land, fashioned to evoke some television character who is fashioned to evoke some film character who was fashioned to evoke the actor portraying the character who has himself been fashioned to evoke a crude archetype, even the hat is not simply a hat.) To face reality as it simply is, rather than as we imagine it to be, would be revolutionary in its significance, and as simple as walking to the North Pole.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dissident Gardens

I am not sure whether to refer to Jonathan Lethem's newest novel, Dissident Gardens, as a beautifully written book that is at times deeply flawed, or a deeply flawed book that is at times beautifully written. Let my ambivalence stand as judgment.

It puts me in mind of my own abortive attempts at novel writing, in which a first chapter spills forth, lyrical and inventive, and then second and subsequent chapters get bogged down in exposition and world-building. Except of course that Lethem, being an accomplished novelist rather than a crude beginner, starts at a much higher level than I do, and so his bogs are more tolerable. I have already excerpted many of the gems on Twitter, so this review will focus more on the bogs.

The Baffler has already published a critical review by Rhian Sasseen which I must acknowledge. Much of what I have to say negatively about the book has already been said well there. The critique of his attempt to shoehorn a political novel into the framework of familial, domestic realism (a form that nearly exhausts what passes for "realism" in the U.S. literary marketplace at the moment) is particularly apposite. In Lethem's hands, radicalism becomes a kind of familial curse. My standard critique of this applies: If politics were hereditary, I would be a Golden Dawn sympathizer. Both politics and families are more complicated than this novel can portray.

Yet Sasseen's critique falls into the trap of being the kind of radical-left writing that makes itself ridiculous by demanding impotently to the mainstream that the left be taken more seriously. The various moments of absurdity that appear in the novel--Rose Angrush & Albert Zimmer meeting due to a poorly coordinated intervention into a milquetoast Popular Front organization; Rose, the former union organizer, degenerating into a neighborhood watch captain and library board member; Tom & Miriam seeking Sandinistas and bumbling into the camp of a CIA-sponsored contra; their son, Sergius, whose sole contribution to Occupy is to Occupy Pussy--are absurdities that are familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few years in the radical left. Failure to acknowledge absurdity leads only to ever greater farces whose dimensions become tragic. As a case in point, consider the "sarin socialists" fresh from their jaunt to visit the great leader Bashar al-Assad.

If anything, one wishes that Lethem had had the knowledge and daring to probe further into the potential for absurdity, had done for the last fifty years of American radicalism what Carl Hiaasen has done for South Florida. For example, consider the fact that Trotskyists appear only as objects of distant imprecation by Rose. This may seem picayune, except for the fact that Dave Van Ronk--blues-folk revivalist, and early supporter of the "American Committee for the Fourth International"--makes a significant cameo in the development of Tom & Miriam's relationship. That fact alone puts these characters no more than two degrees of separation from the likes of Tim Wohlforth and Sy Landy, and likely fewer. For the reader with personal and historical knowledge, this bespeaks so much lost potential for both intense political argument and trenchant satire.

I am deliberately saying little about the character of Cicero Lookins, except to indicate that I have reason to believe that he may have been based on a dear friend of mine, and if so, the depiction borders on the slanderous.

There is also a book that could be written, by someone more patient and/or masochistic than I, on the state of Maine as a figure for utopian rustication in New York City culture, with data-points ranging from the electro-pop duo Matt & Kim, to NYT-scion cum cli-fi wunderkind Nathaniel Rich, to this book. The final chapter is written entirely in a tone I call "metropolitan sneer," a tone familiar to me whenever I encounter acquaintances from my time in NYC. If that's what people need to do to make piece with the fact that they're paying $3,000/month in rent, I won't begrudge them, but it is the identification of the American far-left with metropolitan centers like NYC and San Francisco, and the attendant association with know-nothing elitism, that is one of the many things deserving of satire.

Someone reading this could fairly infer that I hated the book. It would be more accurate to say that I resented the book for failing to live up to the early promise of the first chapter, and for giving me reasons to continue to enjoy it along the way, despite its manifold faults. I hope it inspires others to write better novels covering similar ground.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Crowded Magazine

Crowded Magazine is a science fiction / fantasy / horror magazine out of Australia, which pays pro rates (0.05 AUD / word) and selects stories based on a crowd-sourced slush-reading process.

Disclosure #1: I submitted a science fiction story on their latest round, and it wasn't selected. To be honest, it wasn't my best work; I don't necessarily think it ought to be published. Had it been, I would have pocketed one hundred Aussie smackeroos and smirked at the poor taste of the SF-reading public. My purposes in submitting it were: To gain access to the slush, and thus some slush-reading experience, to see what sort of stories would be submitted to a magazine like this, and what would ultimately get published. So this review is not an exercise in sour grapes.

Disclosure #2: I read a total of 91 pieces of slush in this latest round. To my pleasant surprise, the editors decided that this was a worthy enough effort to earn me "a year's subscription to Crowded Magazine, starting with the second issue...." As you will see, this review is largely positive. If I did not like the magazine, I probably would have just kept my mouth shut. A positive attitude from me toward a publication cannot be bought, but must be earned, through good writing and decent production standards.

Disclosure #3: Even though my attitude toward this magazine stems neither from sour grapes nor bribery, I still cannot pretend to be wholly disinterested. I would like to submit to it again, on a future round, with a better story next time. For that to be possible, their business model requires that they have enough paying subscribers. If I can contribute slightly toward that, so much the better.

First a note about process: I found the experience of reading 91 pieces of slush eye-opening and salutary for my own writing process. That is despite the fact that I gave most pieces I read only one or two stars (on a scale of four). A brief guide to my methodology:

  • 1 star: Could not bear to finish it, or it was so short that I could not help finishing it, but wish I could go back in time to prevent myself from ever having read it.
  • 2 stars: Severely flawed.
  • 3 stars: A good read; either had a few small flaws that could be addressed in the editing, or just was too slight or cliched to rise to the level of 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: Greatness. (I think I gave this rating only once or twice.)

I did not always write comments to go along with my starred reviews; that depended more on what else I had going on than on my attitude toward the story. When I did, however, it helped me gain a better level of awareness as to the flaws of my own writing. For example, at the end of one story I found myself annoyed that a lengthy subplot had been included for no apparent purpose other than as build-up to a pun. Recognizing that I had done that, albeit with a shorter build-up, in another story I was editing, I got rid of the joke and improved the story.

In terms of my likelihood to even begin reading a story, let alone finish it with a favorable attitude, I had a definite rank-order preference by genre: SF, horror, fantasy, in descending order. That does not necessarily correspond with my preferences in published fiction, which I partially articulate in this bit on fiction and ontology, but it was largely the case in the slushpile.

As to the comments on my own story, they fell into three categories: favorable and insightful; critical and insightful; critical and clueless. Of the three categories, the second--critical and insightful--was best represented. The "crowd" was more useful to me as a writer than many (by no means all) professional or semi-professional editors. More literary publications should experiment with methods like this.

Turning from the slush to the published work, I find myself noting that, of the pieces published in the second issue, many of them I do not recognize as pieces I had read in the slush. That may be due in part to the fact that the editors instituted a two-track submission process, wherein one could either send a story directly for their consideration, or submit to the crowd. As both a writer and a data geek, I do hope the editors will publish statistics on how many of the published stories came from each track. It also could be that some of the stories were ones that I had read, but that enough time had lapsed that I had forgotten their details, or that the editors had worked with the writers on improving them, or that some of them had never been in the slush but were never read by me because they had been lumped in, under the "fantasy" heading, with trite sword-and-sorcery trash.

Regarding the stories themselves, I can certainly say that, even if not all are to my personal taste, they do all surpass my submission. But so as to not seem to damn them with faint praise I should say more. In terms of quality of prose style, Crowded is one of the most consistently readable genre fiction publications I have seen. It compares favorably to several that pay better and follow a more traditional editorial process, yet which veer wildly from works of genius through overwritten purple tapestries to dismal panderings to numbskulled in-crowds. Were it not for the fact that my copy is PDF, and thus has no cover, I could say that I read it "from cover to cover in one sitting."

I'll conclude with brief, spoiler-free notes on the stories themselves:

  • Alan Baxter, "Roll the Bones": Solid combnation of SF and noir. If his other work is this good, I'd be honored to share a TOC with this author any time.
  • Jason Michael Gruber, "After the Hourglass Empties": Doesn't pander to readers with belabored exposition or the tying up of loose ends. Not sure if the payoff is worth the work, but I need to re-read and think a bit more about it.
  • Ruthanna Emrys, "The Jester's Child": A touching bit of transhumanism.
  • Tracy Canfield, "House Cats": I like the pacing and the balancing of revealing-concealing, but any story set among blue-bloods, whether set in the past, present or the future, faces an uphill climb with me. A rare case of a story that might have been improved by a Faulknerian "we".
  • Stewart Horn, "Eastern Promise": I'm a sucker for anything with recognizably Scottish voicing, though said voicing also means that the late Iain Banks will be involuntarily called to my mind--which is not a fair comparison.
  • Gaie Sebold, "An Empty Room": Cutely creepy.
  • Tim McDaniel, "Yes - and Also I Really Did Need to Buy Cadmium - Cadmium, I Tell You!": Two main characters, one well-drawn, the other a touch cartoonish for my taste. But the dialogue is crisp.
  • Tory Hoke, "The Baby Mimic": I love the first sentence, and the rest of the story holds up from there. In my opinion, the best in the issue.
  • Daniel Barnett, "Miss Rahl": Not to my taste. Might be more appealing to hardcore horror fans than I found it.

If this sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to subscribe to Crowded Magazine. A subscription, or submission of a story, will also get you access to the slush--which is a masochistic pleasure of its own.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Facing Barbarism

For some time now--basically, since I wrote this--I've had to face a dilemma each I've set out to write the biography of Rosa Luxemburg requested by my daughter. One of Luxemburg's best known watchwords was "socialism or barbarism". It seemed as though, either I could write the book and end on a forced and insincere note of optimism, as if the fight for socialism in the sense that Luxemburg understood it were still plausible. Or the book could be a confession, addressed to my daughter's generation and all to come, that my generation and all that came before were unequal to the challenge that she posed. Neither seemed attractive, and so the writing on that project has been at a standstill for three months now.

It occurs to me, however, that there have been other times in history when the liberatory potential of an earlier period, having gone unrealized, gave way to "the common ruin of the contending classes," as Marx and Engels put it in their manifesto. The decay of Mauryan Empire in India or the Han Dynasty in China, or the immense destruction wrought on African civilizations by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, with my eurocentric education, the example with which I have the greatest familiarity is the decline and fall of the Roman empire. At its height there were several rebellious figures and incidents that can still be recalled today: the Gracchi, Spartacus, and a certain Judean Zealot known as Jesus of Nazareth.

The reputations of the former two were revived through the recovery and dissemination of the classical Roman histories, and did not once again gain wide popularity until the American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries and the European proletarian movements of the 19th. But the latter, in spreading widely through the declining Roman world and becoming the state ideology of its inheritors, survived also to inspire many of those who rebelled during the "Dark Ages"--Bogomils, Cathars, Waldensians, Fraticelli (extreme Franciscans)--in the name of imitatio Christi.

What I am proposing, though, is not to make of Luxemburg or any other martyrs of the socialist cause the center of a religious or quasi-religious cult. After all, part of the ethics I propose, to begin to make sense of what is to be done in our coming decline into post-capitalist barbarism, is a respect for science. What is of lingering value in Marxism was precisely the effort to develop a scientific understanding of human social development, not through the abstraction a ahistorical laws from the current state of affairs, but the demonstration of the transitoriness of that state of affairs. Luxemburg, more than most Marxists of her period (the end of the Second International) exemplifies a scientific approach, in that she was the least prone to argument from authority, the most likely to negate specific conclusions of Marx's when the facts and the method pioneered by Marx seemed to call for such negation. And if, what is needed for the historical period into which we are heading is a certain type of ethics, then among the ways to foster such ethics, particularly among the young, is to promote historical figures whose actions exemplify them.

In her universalism, her intellectual rigor, and her horror of violence, there are few figures from the early 20th century who are more apposite to the challenges of the 21st than Rosa Luxemburg. A book showing that will be the kind of book I try to write.

One thing that helps is that, when I began this project, my daughter was still reading only picture books, and that is the type of biography I had envisioned. She has now moved on to chapter books, so in rewriting and extending what I have so far, I can pitch it to a higher level. The challenge will be getting it done quickly enough that, by the time I finish it, she hasn't already given up on me and taken up J.P. Nettl's magnum opus on her own.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Yusuf Idris

Sometimes it was difficult, nay impossible, to think about things we got used not to thinking about; things that we are used to taking as they are: it is wrong to torture animals, but fine to slaughter them; women grew their hair but men cut it short; and a car owner is accorded more respect than a barefooted man though both are human beings.

The above quote is from the novella "The Secret of His Power," by the Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris, recently translated by Rasheed El-Enany and published by The American University in Cairo Press in a collection entitled Tales of Encounter. The other two pieces in the collection, "Madam Vienna" and "New York 80" are deeply flawed, in ways that I might post about later. But "The Secret of His Power," which I have not yet finished, I nonetheless strongly recommend, for that sentence and many more.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Karen Russell & the Shirley Jackson Awards

An addendum to a prior post: It appears that "Reeling for the Empire," one of the best stories from Vampires in the Lemon Grove, has just won a Shirley Jackson Award in the Novelette category.

Well deserved, though also an indication of how contentious (and pointless) categorization can be, as this was a story that I had pegged as "science fictional".

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine

My short story "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine" is going to be published in The Big Pulp (available in print and various e-reader formats.

The bad news is that it won't be appearing until May 2014. Unless one of my pending submissions comes through the publication process more quickly, I'll be on track to publish approximately one story per year. My total published output will come to about 6,000 words. At this rate, I may have enough out there to fill a slender, 150-page collection by the time I'm 63. Awesome!

Writing is easy; publishing is hard.

I had actually thought this would be one of my more difficult stories to place. It features Maine cuisine, wars coming home, fathers and sons who don't get along very well, rare psychiatric ailments, French, a soupçon of possible time travel, and a lot of blood. Yet Big Pulp was only the second venue to whom I submitted it. Other stories that I thought would be easier to place are still languishing.

I know what I like to read, and I know what I am capable of writing, and more often than not the latter overlaps with the former. But getting a bead on the market for short fiction, that is a skill I am still developing.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dialogue and Speech Tags

One thing I have become aware of since I started writing fiction that I thought might be publication-worthy: Many editors, and a fair number of authors, have a special animus against what they deem to be "annoying" speech tags. The definition of "annoying" seems to vary, but the broad consensus seems to be that words other than "said" should be used infrequently if at all, and adverbs are especially annoying.

My relationship to speech tags as a reader is quite different: Only rarely do I take note of them at all. If I take note of them, it is usually a phenomenological indication that the writer has failed in a critical task, giving unique voice to the characters. As an illustration, I will point to the two novels I most recently finished reading: Iain Banks' Stonemouth and Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.

In the first, each character, once they had engaged in one or two substantive speech-acts, could be readily identified whenever they opened their mouths. In that case, there was no need to refer to the speech tags to keep straight who said what in a given scene; they existed instead as indicators of the speech-style of the first-person narrator and main character. Serving that purpose, they often took a form that, in the hands of a lesser writer than Banks, could well have been "annoying"--belated back-announcing of who said what, use of verbs and adverbs to convey elements of physical demeanor that are not readily evident from the quoted speech, etc.

Wecker's first novel, while it succeeds brilliantly as an example of fiction "in which multiple ontologies conflict" (if I may quote myself), has the critical weakness that nearly all characters, regardless of age, gender, mother tongue, ethnicity, occupation, ideology or species, speak in voices that are barely distinguishable one from the other. Thus, in dialogue between the wise old rabbi Meyer Levy and his Socialist Labor Party-member, social worker, 27-year-old apikoyres of a nephew Michael, one must refer continually to the speech tags to keep track of who is saying what. In reality, in Yiddish, a conversation between two such characters would have been marked by pious sprinklings of Hebrew and Aramaic on one side, and Marxian jargon rendered into daytshmerish on the other--and this could have been rendered well in English, just by walking in the footsteps of I.B. Singer. There are exceptions to this, of course, usually in the form of minor characters from whom I found myself wishing to hear more, such as Maryam Faddoul, the yenta of Little Syria. I found myself wishing I could spend more time lingering in her coffeehouse, listening to her gossip about Arbeely's strange new Bedouin apprentice Ahmad.

If speech tags are "annoying," then, it seems to me to be a symptom of a problem that takes longer to diagnose by close reading than it takes to skim a manuscript looking for deviations from the rules: That the characters function as roles rather than as persons with more-or-less complicated histories which have left identifiable marks on how they speak. Well-written dialogue is well-written whether it is framed by Joycean dashes, laconic saids, or a garrulous first-person narrator who talks over the words of the characters. Weak dialogue will call attention to any weaknesses in plot, narration or characterization surrounding it, regardless of how it is presented.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Top Five

My list of "Top Five Sentences I've Read Recently" has gone live on the blog of The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. The list was submitted (along with a piece of flash fiction) six months ago, so for "recently" read "between November 2012 and January 2013". And alas, the flash fiction piece it accompanied was not accepted for the Journal. (Still awaiting word on placement elsewhere.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fiction and Ontology

Ontology is one of those words whose use mark the user as someone who has taken more than a few philosophy classes. Etymologically, it means the study of the existence of things. Not particular things, but the thing-ness of things, what marks off the existent from the non-existent, and why there is anything at all rather than nothing.

Once you step into the realm of ontology, words take on meanings that are often diametrically opposed to their colloquial meanings. "Realism" refers not to a hard-nosed, calculating approach to social affairs, but a robustly starry-eyed Platonism, for which the forms or ideas of things are real, more real in fact than those with which we clothe ourselves and brush our teeth in the mornings. "Materialism" refers not to a grasping acquisitiveness, but to the conviction that the stuff of the universe takes precedence over any notion that could be formed about it--and the most militant of materialism in this sense is often, though not always, coupled with radical egalitarianism in social affairs.

I have a tentative hypothesis, that to the extent that genre labels mean anything more than crude market segmentation--and they do mean that, but I am guessing that they can and often do mean more--they serve as indices of the ontologies operant within a piece of fiction.

My preferred fiction to read tends to be that in which multiple ontologies conflict, or in which the predominant ontology of the narrative undermines itself along the way. Fiction in which different characters adhere to different ontologies and come to blows as a result, or in which a character's professed ideology and that implied by his or her actions are divergent, or a character's ontology proves to be literally true in a way that turns out to be disastrous.

Readers who wish to assess the degree to which I write the sort of fiction that I prefer to read unfortunately have a limited set of published pieces from which to judge at this point: "Moose Season" (from The Big Click) and "One-Sided" in Things You Can Create. (More coming soon; announcements pending.) If you don't think I have, it's fine to say. It is a hard kind of fiction to write.

The potential for that kind of fiction exists within and around any genre. The relationship between genre and ontology is not singular or isomorphic. A genre maps to a probability-space of possible ontologies that tend to center around a fundamental thesis.

For example, the genre of horror may have multiple ontologies, with the locus of the horror existing in obscure corners of the universe, in characters' psychological substrates, or in a malfunctioning social order. Yet the fundamental thesis each of these types of horror-ontology is that there are forces and powers that intrinsically surpass human understanding, which are either malevolent or destructively indifferent. It can be argued that the ur-text of horror (in the English language, at least)--the text with reference to which which all subsequent manifestations can be read as a commentary--is not Poe or Lovecraft, but a single line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (And indeed Hamlet contains within itself several of the tropes that are characteristic of later manifestations of the genre: spirits, madness, incest, collapsing families, mass murder.)

Just as Aristotelians differentiate between the ordo essendi and the ordo cognoscendi--the order in which things come to be and the order in which they can come to be known--there is a difference between how genres manifest in the history of literature and how readers come to be aware of them. To a certain extent the ordo cognoscendi of a genre will vary factically from reader to reader, though it may be possible--with the disciplinary tools of history, ethnography and literary criticism--to discern common patterns that may be grouped by language, nationality, ethnicity, generation, gender and class. For example, my first conscious awareness of the potential for horror in literature likely came through Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, followed shortly thereafter by the works of Roald Dahl. A scholar could determine how common that is for U.S.-born English-speakers of my generation, and how much it may have been conditioned by my being male, Jewish, the child of an abusive Greek immigrant father and a mother whose literacy exceeded her formal education.

The phenomenology of fantasy as genre is harder for me to trace than horror. Let me explain with an anecdote. I had to have been six years old at the time, as my parents were separated, we were living with my grandparents, and they had just gotten cable. My younger brother was watching the kids' show Pinwheel on Nickelodeon. There was an animated sketch in which a young child climbs into the sky, grabs a star, and brings it back down to earth with her. When the star withers and starts looking rather sickly, she climbs back up and returns it to its proper place. I was furious. "This is ridiculous!" I ranted. "Even if you could get up into the sky, a star is a super-hot ball of gas," (I didn't know yet to call it plasma) "with all the atoms fusing together. She'd be all burnt up before she ever touched it!" At the time I was reading a great deal of science-fact books, in all possible areas, and not long thereafter I would discover science fiction. It was not that I was absolutely, precociously opposed to any manifestation of imaginative capacity. But I could no longer stomach flights of fancy that neglected facts that had been well-established through the scientific method, and this change had come upon me far earlier than I suspect it does for most other people.

I am thus poorly situated to discuss the ontologies of fantasy, except through a reconstruction of childhood states of mind with which my experience is either second-hand (from observing the development of my own child) or at a farther remove (i.e., via the findings of developmental psychology). What I will preliminarily call naïve fantasy depends on the survival into late childhood and even adulthood of habits of mind that are characteristic of early childhood, such as intentional and attributional fallacies. Consider an experiment in which an adult leaves the room, an experimenter then changes the location of a hidden object, and the child observes this change. Up to a certain age, the child will believe that the adult, upon returning to the room, will also know the true location of the object. As the child develops a Theory of Mind, i.e., an emergent understanding that other minds may not know or perceive all that the child knows or perceives, the experimental results will change. What I want to suggest is that for many people, perhaps even most, the development of this Theory of Mind is never entirely complete. The fact of something being known by someone implies that it is intrinsically knowable, if not through direct observation then through some occult connection. Perhaps the knowing being is no longer one's Mother, with her "eyes in the back of her head" (a lie that mothers in my family have been telling small children for generations), but an omniscient deity, or a gnome, domovoi or jinn hiding in the corner. It manifests in vestigial fashion whenever one person says of another that they "should have known" that someone was experiencing some unvoiced emotional distress.

Related to this are the beliefs that if something happens, it happens "for a reason" or because something has been done by someone; and that if one can imagine something being done, then it can be done. Thus the line between "realistic" fiction and fantasy fiction is particularly permeable: A fiction that described only characters who never lapsed into fantastic attributions of knowledge or agency to others, or beliefs about the possibilities of the world that were not consistent with fact, would be a fiction without emotion or conflict. The difference between fantasy fiction is that in literary realism, the fantastic is present but policed. Characters--and readers--are punished for holding to their fantasies, but only insofar as those fantasies do not correspond to those that are politically hegemonic at the moment of the fiction's articulation.

This is why it is anachronistic to refer to ancient myths, fairy or folk tales, or classics of religious fiction as "fantasy." When they were written, Prometheus Bound, The Mabinogion and Paradise Lost were no less realistic for their authors and intended audiences than the novels of Balzac and Tolstoy were in the 19th century. (It is also one of many reasons why "magical realism" is problematic as a genre label: The ways of life of subaltern peoples are stigmatized as "magic," while the alchemy of everyday life under the rule of capital presents itself as "realism.") The possibility of a cleavage between fantasy and realism first emerges with the Enlightenment. No wonder then that the earliest examples of fantasy fiction are associated with the Romantic movement. The ontologies of fantasy cluster around the thesis that "All things that can be imagined are possible." This is quite distinct from the thesis of horror ontologies, for which things are not as potentialities but as actualities, independent of their being known or even imagined.

Naïve fantasy selects a certain set of potentialities to present as actual, and develops from them a more or less richly imagined world. It does not discard the distinction between the imagined and the real, but plays with it much in the way that my five-year-old daughter employs the word "pretend," to signify something that exists not in a way that can be touched and seen in every day life but does exist insofar as it is elaborated in a daydream or a game. Thus, it is very unlikely that a piece of naïve fantasy will engage in the kind of ontological conflict that makes for the sort of fiction I most want to read. (That is not to say that it is not worth reading: It may be lushly written, with complex characters and interesting plots. For many readers--good readers--that is what they are looking for. It is not what I am looking for.)

The rupture between fantasy and realism resulting from the Enlightenment, however, has also made possible a kind of fantasy that operates in the subjunctive mode, under the standard of "as if". It estranges the reader from the expectations of realism in order to illuminate an aspect of present-day reality that otherwise could go unnoticed. Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is not describing a world in which young office workers transform overnight into hideous insects: If that were all it had done, it would be trite and dull. Yet I imagine that anyone who has once read that story, and then had to wake up in the morning to get ready for a particularly mind-numbing white-collar job, has imagined their thin legs waving in the air over their upturned, reddish-brown carapace. As Samuel R. Delaney wrote about science fiction, "It's a kind of writing that, at its best, can help you learn to ask questions". This suggests, therefore, that science fiction "at its best," is like this kind of subjunctive fantasy in some respects. There may well be other kinds of writing that have this property of helping one "learn to ask questions." If science fiction is distinguishable from subjunctive fantasy, either as a subtype or as a distinct genre, then the distinctions must be in the realm of ontology, and thus in the approach toward the questions.

It would be easy if we could delimit science fiction from fantasy if one could define science fiction as speculative fiction which "accepts the scientific world-view." The problem with this is that there is no such thing as a single scientific world-view. There are several world-views which are more or less compatible with scientific methods of investigation. For example, mathematical realism--the belief that mathematical concepts exist independently of the minds that comprehend them--is an example of the kind of metaphysical realism (Platonism) referred to above; it is commonplace among mathematicians and many theoretical physicists, yet could not be further from the pragmatism one finds among most practicing natural scientists, or the constructivism one is more likely to find among psychologists and neuroscientists. Toh Enjoe's Self-Reference Engine, which I reviewed a few months ago, is an excellent example of the type of fiction that can puts this sort of ontology into play, but it is far from the only kind of fiction which could be called science fiction.

Provisionally, I would say that science fiction is distinct from fantasy in that the delimitation of possible beings is accepted. It clusters not around the thesis that "all things that can be imagined are possible," but that "it is possible for things to be otherwise than they are." In the realm of ontology, this emerges historically in the form of the various polemics against Leibnitz's Theodicy and its theory that this is the "best of all possible worlds" because it is the only one. (I could therefore make a case for Voltaire's Candide as the urtext of science fiction. That would have to be a separate essay.) Possibilities are endless, but they are not limitless. One can reach for the stars, but one can not grasp them in one's hands. The space within which the fiction writer can work with possibilities is that in which scientific hypotheses remain contentious, subject to further testing and refinement. Note that this does not rule out the possibility of near-future or alternate-history science fictions: Since the sciences that attempt to explain human action and the development and change of societies are those that are least formalized, those in which hypotheses are most likely to be colored by ideology and data are most equivocal, one need not travel thousands of years and light-years away to elaborate other possibilities.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject--far from it--but a provocation to thought and debate. Think a bit on your favorite genre, writer or story, and think: Does it have a singular ontology, or does it set ontologies in conflict? How would you begin to articulate those ontologies?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Transcendence and Fiction

There is a particular, well-documented snobbism that denies the possibility that literary quality can coexist with science-fictional, fantastic or horrific elements of plot. In certain publications, the phrase "transcends the limits of" is a sign that the critic is about to laud an author whose work strays distressingly from the confines of domesticated realism. (Similarly, the word "gritty" indicates that the critic managed to take interest in a work despite the presence of working-class or otherwise immiserated characters.) The result is a kind of "no true Scotsman" tautology. Genre fiction, you see, just does not offer the kind of pleasure of the text that true literature does. If one then points out an acknowledged classic that is fantastic, science-fictional or horrific in essence, then clearly it has "transcended the limits of the genre." As with any tautology, this methodology sheds no light on what makes literature good or great. And since transcendence is in the eye of the beholder, what breaks the frozen sea within one critic might well make another lose his appetite for morning tea and toast. (Click that link only if you want to be driven apoplectic.)

Yet there seems to be an inverse snobbism whereby those who identify genres not as ways of writing about and estranging oneself from the world, but as communities of comfortable sameness, distance themselves from any work that might induce uncomfortable sensations in between their ears.

Let us consider the case of Karen Russell's story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Of the eight stories, all but the last, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" (which I found to be too long by a factor of roughly three, and otherwise dissatisfying, despite some occasionally brilliant sentences and observations) would fit comfortably in one of the above referenced genres: the title store, "The Barn at the End of Our Term" and "The New Veterans" are straight fantasy; "Reeling for the Empire" and the hilarious "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" are science-fictional in essence; and "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and "Proving Up" are as unnerving as anything by Brian Evenson or other great horror writers. (Even "Mutis" could have been horror, had Russell allowed herself to dwell more in uncanny potentialities rather than messy realities, and failing thereby to capture either.) And, aside from "Mutis" and "New Veterans" (which I'd already read and didn't care for when it first came out in Granta), all are excellent. In tone, mordant wit and talent for telling misdirection the writing reminded me of Kit Reed--a writer whose work was as likely to appear in Fantasy & Science Fiction as in The Yale Review.

Yet, unlike Reed's, all of Russell's stories were first published in self-conceived "literary" venues, rather than "genre" ones--albeit relatively venturesome ones, like Zoetrope, Granta, Tin House and Conjunctions. Her CV has a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Berlin Prize, but no Hugo, World Fantasy Award, or Shirley Jackson Prize. I'd need to research it, but I don't think these stories were even nominated for these awards in the years of their first publication. And they should have been. (To be fair, her first story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves did get on the Honor List for the Tiptree award.)

The question that remains to be answered, then, is why not? I am not asking this rhetorically; please comment with any ideas. I am new enough to both the reading and the writing of speculative fiction that I do not have enough data from which to construct a theory.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Everybody Run, Run, Run

"He had introduced Ifemelu to Fela at university. She had, before then, thought of Fela as the mad weed-smoker who wore underwear at his concerts, but she had come to love the Afrobeat sound and they would lie on his mattress in Nsukka and lisen to it and then she would leap up and make swift, vulgar movements with her hips when the run-run-run chorus came on."

One need not know much about the music of Fela Kuti for this passage from early in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah to be evocative of college love affairs, for the run-on sentence to call to mind the running together of amorous recollections.

However, if one recognizes the "run-run-run chorus" to which Ifemelu is making her swift and vulgar hip motions as coming from a song entitled "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," which Fela had written about police violence in general--and a brutal police raid on his family compound in particular--then one is left with a sense of Ifemelu and Obinze (the "he" who is remembering) as people all too capable of taking their pleasures in abstraction from the social context that gave rise to the Afrobeat sound.

I have not finished the book yet, but already I have a sense that it is the sort of book that will be reprinted 30 or 50 years from now with an apparatus of scholarly endnotes, and deservedly so.

Everybody run run run
Everybody scatter scatter
Some people lost some bread
Some one nearly die
Some one just die
Police dey come, Army dey come
Confusion everywhere
Seven minutes later
All don cool down, brother
Police don go away
Army don disappear
Dem leave Sorrow, Tears, and Blood
Dem regular trade mark

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


'It is interesting how a historian of [modern Greek], Peter Mackridge..., argues that the use of quotation marks in Greece around any comment that strays too far from the literal is a noticeable stylistic feature and demonstrates an estrangement from metaphor. Others, too, have shown how bouts of authoritarian rule in Greece, not least during the last dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, were vitally opposed to the dangers of metaphor.... The early 1990s also elicited a form of literal reading as a way of controlling the ways others read the self. Foreigners who were keen to mock Greek sensitivities over the name "Macedonia" were told in no uncertain terms to "study history" and to learn "the truth"....'

I can't recommend the book from which I took this quote. (Vangelis Calotychos, The Balkan Prospect: Identity, Culture, and Politics in Greece after 1989, pp. 52-53) Among its several flaws, it is one of those academic books so heavily buttressed with an armature of footnotes, bibliography and parenthetical citations that one could never falsely accuse its author of having had an original insight: Each of my ellipses above elides over a citation, for the sake of readability and to draw out the essential point.

That essential point is that the authoritarian and nationalistic streak in modern Greek culture and politics expresses itself in the form of a deadening literalism that suppresses the self-contradictory metonymy at the core of modern Greek identity: That is, the notion that today's Greeks are the direct descendants and continuation of ancient Hellenic civilization, yet at the same time, the vanguard protectors of Orthodox Christianity. The illusory nature of this metonymy has been exposed by historical scholarship which Calotychos quotes in a later passage, showing that "contra the nationalist paradigm... Phanariots [a Greek-speaking Christian elite under the Ottoman Empire] were transnational before nation-statism: Greek was the dominant language for them, even though many had been raised as speakers of Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, and Armenian. Indeed ... many Balkan Christians saw Hellenization as a way of achieving social mobility in the mercantile classes or advancing in the ranks of the clergy." (124-125) Just as Zionism was premised upon the "invention of the Jewish people" (see Shlomo Sand's book of that title), ellinismos forged a modern nation-state through a series of metaphors which could not be recognized as such. Neither of these forms of nationalism is particularly unique in that respect; it is just that the antiquity whose heritage they claim is particularly distant, and thus the metaphors are especially strained.

This was an insight of which I had an inchoate sense from direct observation, but had not been able to put into words until I read the first passage quoted. It was an insight which had already guided me in the writing of an as-yet-unpublished story, set in Greece in a hypothetical future dictatorship, which opens with the young protagonist/narrator searching for a set of metaphors in which she can tell her story, a search in which she is often frustrated by the internalized notion that something she wishes to say is something she "must not say."

In some of the subsequent rejections, I have received praise for the quality of the writing of the story, coupled with complaints that the "plot" is slow to start. As it happens, the process by which the narrator finds a voice by which she can tell the story by way of metaphor is an act, a subversive act, on her part. It is thus part of the "plot."

Note that this is not a complaint about said rejections: I may not have executed it well, or the story may not have been well-suited to the venues in which I tried to have it published. It is intended only as an apology (in the original Greek sense of the word) for the type of writing I prefer, and the type of writing I try to execute: A writing that recognizes its metaphors as such, calls attention to them, and thereby casts doubt upon the literal truth of the events described in the telling, challenging the reader to uncover the deeper truth that is revealed by the mode of its telling.

On a somewhat related administrative note: It occurred to me recently, when I was trying to reference a recently read story in conversation with my wife, that since I stopped using Goodreads (after their acquisition by Amazon) I have been reading a great many good and interesting stories, but losing track of their authors and titles. I will therefore be posting more reviews on this blog than in the past.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Can Class Consciousness Be Accelerated?

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics has been going viral in radical activist circles. It deserves to be read, and it deserves praise, if for no other reason than this: It articulates, far better and more concisely than I could manage, the type of politics toward which I have been bumbling and fumbling for the last two years. (For example, in "Toward a Politics of Urgency" a few months ago.)

Yet it does not address, and thereby unconsciously founders upon, the same antinomy for which I could find no satisfactory response: In a context of accelerated catastrophe, accelerated communication, accelerated data, can (class) consciousness also be accelerated?

Another way to state the problem is this: With a given set of initial subjective conditions (i.e. an international radical milieu that is highly fragmented, ideologically confused, and with more or less tangential links to the sections of the working class directly engaged in productive labor) is it possible to contend for power in a short enough timeframe that we will inherit from capital the potential for abundance, rather than the certainty of scarcity?

As my post from Tuesday makes quite clear, I have already answered that question for myself with a "no". But that is not proof.

One point would seem to speak for the accelerationist approach: The very fact that I and thousands of others have read it within days of its publication, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable when a certain other manifesto was published 165 years ago. Yet even if everyone who read the manifesto were ultimately convinced of it, and even if they numbered in the thousands, that would represent only a shift in a series of individualized (bourgeois) consciousnesses. It would not be the creation of a new mass consciousness, i.e., proletarian class consciousness.

There is a difference between how individual consciousnesses change and how mass consciousness changes. Put in the most schematic, deliberately provocative of terms: individual consciousnesses may well be changed by reading a manifesto; mass consciousness changes through dialogue and the experience of shared struggle and risk. The Communist Manifesto did not create the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but the revolutions, and the engagement of communists therein, created the mass audience for the manifesto. Can that process be accelerated?

Yes, up to a point. As Lenin once wrote, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." In a certain sense, mass consciousness changes only in those accelerated weeks in which "decades happen." Yet I will dare to differ with Lenin on one point (knowing that if I had to I could very well cite several points at which he contradicted himself on this issue): That a great deal happens in those decades during which "nothing" seemed to have happened, and those are the decades in which the preparatory material is collected for the great improvisations of the accelerated weeks in which everything seems to happen.

Thus consider a historical event that would seem to contradict my pessimism: The Bolshevik Revolution. Within the span of 15 years, the Bolsheviks went from being a faction of a faction to leading the conquest of power. This was possible only as a result of a series of revolutionary uprisings (1905, 1917) in which history accelerated rapidly.

What this account neglects is the extent to which that achievement in Russia was built upon some rather boring preliminaries elsewhere. Lars T. Lih has shown quite conclusively that, as far as Lenin was concerned, he was just templating the German Social-Democratic Party of the Erfurt Program, Bebel and Kautsky, with some necessary adjustments for Russian conditions. This is one of those many fruitful misunderstandings which the historian finds scattered throughout the archives. And the fact that it was a misunderstanding proved to be a flaw that was ultimately fatal. With no open polemic against the orthodox "center" of the Second International (aside from Luxemburg's occasional sallies in the SPD) until the outbreak of World War, the revolutionary left proved incapable of securing a majority anywhere other than Russia. And with the revolution isolated to one country, the path was set for degeneration into Stalin's autocracy. That is not a misunderstanding we can afford to re-enact like cargo cultists.

Thus, if we were to grandiosely compare ourselves to Lenin in 1902, we would find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma: We know that it is not enough to "build a party" in a national framework, that we need a revolutionary international. And yet there is no international, at all: At best only the phantom traces of one in a series of networked interactions.

To the extent that historical analogies serve us at all, a better one would be to the state of proletarian forces in Europe and America on the eve of the formation of the First International. (An organization that made effective use of the most advanced communicative technique of its day, the telegraph.) The technical aspects of overcoming this absence of an international could well be hastened through today's technology: The identification of revolutionary forces, the sharing of information about working-class struggles in all corners of the globe, the propagation of debate and polemic.

Yet can the struggles that give life to those debates and polemics and bring fresh forces and subjects to the fore be similarly accelerated?

Again, the answer (seemingly undermining my basic thesis) is yes. But only to a limited extent. It is no longer necessary for an already radicalized proletarian militant to await the arrival of unrest in his or her particular province to learn from experiences of struggle: If sufficiently attentive, one can draw knowledge and inspiration from Quebec, Greece, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, Bangladesh and China even in a small town in Maine. But vicariousness will not crack the shell of indifference or cynicism among the much greater masses of the not-yet-convinced.

Shifts in mass consciousness necessarily play out on a generational scale. If anything, the longer life expectancy in most countries in the 21st century mean this may be even more true now than it was in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Memories of past defeats and the false lessons learned therefrom linger and "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living," and bureaucratic apparatuses erected to contain past uprisings retain their demoralizing legitimacy.

Any attempt to short-cut around this persistent feature of human political life defaults into an elitist and idealist misconception of the motive forces of political change. It becomes a matter simply of convincing the greatest possible number of the already-convinceable to adhere to the "correct" program. Thus, in form (though certainly not in content), the Accelerationist Manifesto is homologous to the recent "open letter" from the "Revolutionary Communist International Tendency": A gauntlet thrown down, an impatient stamp of the foot, an imperious slap with an empty glove.

I'm sorry, accelerationist comrades: I wanted to be convinced. I don't want to believe that barbarism will win the day. I want some day soon to survey the transformation of our social relations, and be astounded. But the one thing that cannot be accelerated is that of which we are most needful: class consciousness.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

End of an Epoch

That the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide measurements have crossed the 400 ppm threshold is a fact whose significance is more psychological than scientific. Yet it has been of great psychological significance for me, in that it has forced me to look squarely at some hitherto inconceivable realities.

Even a quick glance at the Mauna Loa data shows that, despite seasonal fluctuations, the overall, year-over-year trend seems to be linear. Since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of the interaction of several complex systems--the global economic system, technological developments, forest and aquatic ecosystems--to have an output that is so, pardon the pun, straightforward is hard to explain without a means of comprehending those systems as a totality.

How is it that, despite two decades of scientific consensus, international summits, and the like, we proceed at a steady pace toward a threshold whose significance is more scientific than psychological: 450 ppm, at which point several irreversible climate changes will likely be triggered? Mainstream social science and journalism point to partial causes or vagaries: political will (or rather, its absence); the collapse of the Soviet Union counterbalanced by the industrialization of China and the other BRICS; European conservationism overwhelmed by the tar sands and fracking gluttonies of North America; etc.

The fundamental cause, however, is that capital, in its prolonged phase of imperial monopoly, is too heavily invested in the exploitation of existing fossil fuel reserves to be able to swallow any large-scale disinvestment or devaluation of those reserves through state action. The fundamental motive force driving the seemingly inexorable rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is capital accumulation. It is fundamentally a social rather than a natural phenomenon. That it is linear and not--thank capital for small favors--exponential is a symptom of a fundamental contradiction of capital that Marx diagnosed over a century ago: The tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Thus, in 55 years of rigorous scientific observation, we have seen a global increase of 80 ppm: A linear rate of increase of about 1.45 ppm per year. If that rate remains constant, we can expect to hit 450 ppm within about 35 years, by 2048.

There are many natural processes that could accelerate it: For example, the saturation or destruction of natural carbon sinks (e.g. oceans, permafrost, rain forests). The science explicating those dangers is either too tentative, or too poorly understood by me, for it to factor into my presentation at this point. On the other hand, the social phenomena that could slow the increase are things I have given some thought to: Either a global economic crisis that temporarily halts capital accumulation, with all the human suffering that would entail, or a political decision in one or more major industrial nations to dramatically reallocate human labor away from the maintenance and operation of existing, carbon-spewing capital stocks and infrastructure.

Since such a decision would be tremendously destructive of existing capital values, it would, in fact, require a revolution. And so the question becomes: Is there any chance at all, in the next 35 years, of those who are consciously opposed to the organization of human life on capitalist lines being able to carry out such a decision?

If the answer to that is no, or at least a probability of negligible measure, then the science requires a dramatic re-evaluation of political priorities. 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, 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--and those may well be preferable in respect of the equity with which sacrifices are shared--but they would not be what historical figures like Marx or Engels or Luxemburg or Trotsky had in mind. The conclusion that I must reluctantly draw from this is that humanity had an epoch, a window of opportunity lasting about 100 or 150 years, in which it could have taken the necessary political steps to become more truly human. And instead, we squandered those years on genocides and purges.

A further conclusion that I have reached, that I am not able to derive as rigorously but that seems to follow from the foregoing, is that the main tasks of the moment are neither political nor economic, but ethical or moral. We can only aspire to rule the world if we can aspire to understand it. With the natural processes that will delimit the range of possible political actions so hard to predict, politics remains the domain of the tactical and particular, and universality returns once more to the form of the maxim.

Here are a few such maxims for consideration:

  1. Be Welcoming to the Stranger: Island nations will be inundated, as will low-lying regions (e.g. most of Bangladesh). Much of the tropics will become uninhabitably hot. Continental cores will become inhospitably dry. There will be mass migrations of humanity. Will those migrants be met with razor wire and bullets, or food, water and shelter?
  2. Do Unto Others as You Would Have Done Unto You: Not least because, what befalls one place and people could soon overtake others. Enlightened self-interest is the motivating factor.
  3. Heed the Scientists: The level of specialized knowledge necessary to predict the climatic results of increased carbon forcings is far beyond what any one human mind can encompass; that is why we have computers. The point is not to place scientists in a position of unquestioned authority, as if they were some new priesthood, but to cultivate a valid understanding and healthy respect for the often contradictory and agonistic process of scientific investigation and debate--an understanding and a respect that are largely lacking in many world cultures, including the U.S.
  4. Minimize Further Damage: Beyond the obvious, this means not trusting blindly in the possibility of a technological fix. For example, there has been some speculative talk of distributing aerosols or nanoparticles in the upper atmosphere to increase its reflectivity, and bounce out some of that warming sunlight. That could be wonderful, if and only if it is established first of all that it will not tip the global climate over into a new ice age, and that the compounds in question will not be toxic to existing life forms, etc.

This is as far as I have been able to take it. Crises de conscience are never very pleasant to endure; still less endurable are real crises of the lived environment.

Very well: It’s not my burden alone to carry. As Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not on you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."