Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: A Year in Review

My Stories

I wrote a few, and continued submitting many more for consideration for publication. Three were published this year:

  1. "The Assassination of Alexis Tsipras" was so near-future that it may already be out of date. Why bother assassinating someone when he has already suicided all the ideals for which he claimed to stand?
  2. "The Joy of Sects" was my favorite of my stories that were published this last year, though it is certainly not above critique. If you, reader, are eligible to vote for awards such as the Nebula or the Hugo, I would love it if you would give it a read and half a thought.
  3. "After the New Dawn" is, even more than "Tsipras," the most Greek of the stories that I have published to date.

In addition to these, a fourth story, "Caribou: Documentary Fragments," was purchased by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for publication at an as yet undetermined date in the future, likely some time in 2016.

I have another story that has been provisionally accepted by another publication, though I will not publicize which until I have the contract and the editor's proposed changes. While I think the editors I have worked with to date would likely testify that I am fairly easy-going about making changes and responsive to criticism, the story in question is the most personal I have written, and thus one on which I will be more careful about accepting edits.

As of this instant I have 16 other stories out for consideration.

Other People's Stories

The sale of "Caribou" made me eligible to join the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which I did. This makes me eligible to nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards, something I am actually taking fairly seriously. My list of Nebula nominations is nearly finalized, but I will not be posting it until it has been completed and submitted. Also, since I was a WorldCon member last year, I am eligible to make Hugo nominations this year, and I will. (Whether I bother paying for a WorldCon membership this year is an open question, largely contingent on whether I end up selling any more stories before then.)

According to Goodreads--which I am back to using regularly--I completed 77 books this year. Of these, my favorites (in order of when I read them, not of preference) were:

  • Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank (literary novel with historical and speculative elements, about which I posted back in January)
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (themed poetry collection that proved all too topical for the year)
  • Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem (as far as I can tell, the best science fiction novel published in English in 2014)
  • Richard Lange, Sweet Nothing: Stories (damn it I wish I wrote like him)
  • Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl (non-fiction oral history by the winner of a well-deserved Nobel Prize)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (the best science fiction novel published in 2015 that I have read so far)

The Stories of My Life and Others

Both my kids keep getting bigger and smarter. Some trying things have happened in my personal life which I am not prepared to share, and which will likely express themselves (or have already done so) in transmuted form in my fiction.

Politics (or, The Stories We Tell Each Other)

The events of this year, domestic (e.g. racial), international (e.g., military and migrational), and global (e.g. climatic), have nudged me out of my past demoralization, though in ways not yet ripe for broad dissemination.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Not Even Heinlein: Is SEVENEVES the Worst Book of 2015?

In a year in which Chuck Tingle prolifically described various ways of getting pounded in the butt by implausible objects, it may be beyond the ability of any one human being to choose a worst book from the year 2015. Yet a strong case can be made for Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, which was without doubt the worst book published in 2015 that I have read to date.

Ordinarily I do not make time for bad books, and decide within the first few pages of a novel whether I should just return it to the library as something not to my taste. So it is at least arguable that Seveneves, having caught my attention in its first sixty pages with the fundamental physics of its conceit, is superior to the many books that I set aside. It is likewise arguable that the subsequent 800 pages of mounting disappointment, its incapacity to logically describe the implications of the initial event--a mysterious astronomical event has shattered the moon into seven pieces, setting in motion (according to Newtonian mechanics) a series of events that could portend the end of the human race--are so colossal in their failures precisely because they vitiate the book's early promise.

Seveneves is a retreat to a kind of "science fiction" in which the only "science" that matters is, first of all, physics, and secondarily, computer science and robotics. I am inclined to call this "Not Even Heinlein," as in, not even Heinlein could write something so ignorant of psychology, sociology, linguistics, biology, geology, and even chemistry.

The psychological failings are the most obvious. Characters function either as thinly veiled glosses on public figures (Neil DeGrasse Tyson as Doc Dubois; JBF, a harpyish fusion of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carly Fiorina as POTUS; "Camila" [sic on the spelling], a Pakistani girl who resembles not so much the real Malala Yousafzai with her actual bravery and complex opinions on world politics, as the whitewashed media-friendly image of her that is used to sell books in the West) or embodiments of ethnic, national and occupational stereotypes: Dr. Ivy Xiao, the Chinese-American physicist and captain of the ISS, whose voice, whenever she speaks about science, reveals "a little-nerd-girl sense of wonder" and "goes into a vaguely Mandarin singsongy lilt"; Dinah, a robotics engineer who is more or less the heroine of the first two parts of the book, the Scots-Irish all-American problem-solving shitkicker; Tekla the brutish, inscrutable Russian Olympian athlete, out-manning half the men around her. I could go on with more of these examples, but I will spare you. Worse even than the caricatures are the ways in which the characters' thoughts and actions are bent beyond any imaginable plausibility to accommodate absurd authorial musings. Stephenson has Doc Dubois, finally making love to his new girlfriend the night after humanity has learned of its grim fate, "already thinking about the videos he was going to make to teach his baby about calculus when he climaxed." Dinah, as one of two surviving members of a risky expedition, looks at her surviving yet doomed comrade's eyeglasses and wonders how long it will be before humanity can once again "support an eyewear industry with different styles." Ivy, when she realizes that her Naval officer fiancé has nuked some hapless Venezuelans, the first thing she can think to say is, "I guess what sucks is that all I'm going to have of him is memories, and I was trying to cultivate some good ones to carry with me." To which Dinah replies, "You know he had no choice. The chain of command is still in effect." It's as if Lena Dunham were on the sidelines of the Nuremburg Trials.

The nuclear incident brings out the absolute worst of Stephenson's characterizations, since he cannot imagine anything that would shock these characters out of their banality, going on to describe another character who "had walked in aspiring to somehow re-create the experience of breakfasting in a sidewalk café in Europe and instead been treated to half an hour of nuclear warfare, mass incineration of protesters, and serious ethical discourse, mixed in with a suddenly keen sexual tension between her and Tekla. Like quite a few other people on the Cloud Ark, she hadn't had sex since she had come up here." Thus we go from nuclear warfare to lesbian sexy times in a single sentence!

The psychological absurdities distract from the story, but the sociological ones render key elements of the plot fundamentally implausible. We live in a capitalist society where the vast majority of humanity engages in productive yet alienated labor, with the threats of unemployment, homelessness and starvation as their primary motivations. What would you do if you got the news that you and everyone you knew were doomed to certain death in less than two years? Continue oiling the machine in hopes that it might contribute in some way to saving the lives of a minuscule fraction of the allegedly best and brightest? While the answer may be yes for some fraction of the population, I very much doubt it would result in a large enough volume of human labor-power to create something as grandiose as the Cloud Ark. Since that presumption underlies the transition from Part 1 to Part 2, the larger portion of the plot has all the structural integrity of a space elevator anchored in sand.

It gets even worse in Part 3, whose premise I will describe in detail since it is impossible to "spoil" something that is already terrible. By the end of the Cloud Ark expedition, only 7 women of childbearing age have survived, and no men. Fortunately, one of these is Moira, who happens to be Ms. Nuclear Sexy Times from earlier, but more importantly is a genetic engineer. Why she doesn't just create X-chromosomed sperm cells and use them for in vitro fertilization of the Eves' eggs is a biological mystery. Instead, Stephenson has them repopulate humanity via a more convoluted method of modified parthenogenesis, at least for a few generations until Moira and her descendants manage to synthesize Y chromosomes. (Heaven forbid we should conceive of a society without men!) Yet even though all 7 Eves, despite their varying levels of biological literacy, are aware of the need to maintain heterozygosity (i.e., avoid too much inbreeding), we are somehow to believe that their descendants, once they had the option of old-fashioned heterosexual procreative sex, maintained endogamy so strict that, 5000 years later, resurgent humanity in its billions is composed primarily of 7 distinct "races" lineally descended from each of the Eves, with the occasional racially-mixed "breeds" being not only rare but mistrusted. It is as if Stephenson had set the whole thing up in order to reconstruct a biological basis for "race" and have it be the motive force in the plot, yet not be accused of old-fashioned 19th/20th (and 21st) century racism. Except each of the Eves is herself an ethnic caricature. I've already mentioned JBF, Ivy, Dinah, Camila and Tekla; there's also Aïda, the hot-blooded Italian. The only one who doesn't fall into caricature is Moira, a Londoner whose West Indian heritage I half-suspect was a late addition to the manuscript in order to avoid creating a future without black people. (Instead, her descendants manifest a kind of "epigenetic" sensitivity that suggests major misunderstandings of what epigenetics is on Stephenson's part.) So the biological and sociological idiocies combine into a toxic ideological swamp of scarcely disguised Rassentheorie.

To avoid having this review resemble the book in its long-windedness I will summarize the linguistic, chemical, and geological absurdities more briefly. Linguistic: Somehow, 5000 years into the future, three mutually isolated strains of humanity, upon meeting each other once again, have undergone so little linguistic change, or retained enough working knowledge of the phonology, grammar, and vocabulary of pre-impact English, that they can understand one another with minimal effort. Geochemical: Despite water being one of the most stable compounds in the universe, and thus likely to have survived the Hard Rain in the form of atmospheric water vapor (with some evaporative loss due to atmospheric expansion), re-terraforming the Earth apparently requires slamming comets into it for their water. Instead of just waiting for things to cool down enough for it to start falling out of the sky again. (On this critique, there may be a geophysical explanation that is beyond my ken, in which case I wouldn't have minded if Stephenson, who provides lengthy descriptions of so much else, had given it. It would have been better than his absurd detailing of why a space-based civilization would have electronic communications inferior to our present state.)

Yet even the things he gets mostly right, i.e. the physics, are told in a boring way. The most immediate contrast, among this year's science fiction, is to Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, which manages to evoke sublime beauty and high drama from Newtonian orbital mechanics. But it is not just that I have read more entertaining descriptions of orbital mechanics than Stephenson's in science fiction, where one would expect it: I have read more entertaining descriptions of orbital mechanics in physics textbooks, grant proposals, and NASA technical papers. Beyond his sins against science, Stephenson is just a bad writer, as evidenced also by the fact that the book does not really end so much as run out of propellant.

As the five pages of acknowledgements at the book's end make clear, Stephenson is well-connected to the subculture of West Coast billionaire techbros, so if nothing else reading this book has given me insight into dismal banality of such people's worldview. And as a science fiction writer, I now have an excellent example of what to avoid doing if I am ever possessed of the desire to write a novel that could double as a doorstop.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Agatha Christie as Science Fiction Writer

My wife is engaging in one of her obsessive, completist projects, attempting to read all novels ever published by Agatha Christie. She just completed The Big Four, first published in 1927, and then asked me when lasers were invented.

"The 1960s," I answered while peeling a carrot. (To be precise, the LASER was invented in 1960.)

She then showed me a passage in the book which, to her mind, sounded much like a laser: "some powerful wireless installation--a concentration of wireless energy far beyond anything so far attempted, and capable of focusing a beam of great intensity upon some given spot." Given that the theoretical work on optical coherence that led to the laser was completed in the early 1950s, this is not unlike H. G. Wells speculating about atomic weapons more than two decades before physicists had figured out that the atom could be split--which in fact he did.

Yet Wells is widely regarded as a precursor of science fiction as a genre, whereas Christie is most commonly associated with crime fiction, and specifically the subgenre of detective fiction. The reasons for this differentiation are probably better speculated upon by someone with more comprehensive knowledge than mine of the early 20th century landscape of popular fiction from which the genres we now tend to regard as distinct, established fields first emerged. In such an investigation, The Big Four would be necessary source of data.

Whether it is worth reading as literature is more debatable: My wife also informs me that the book uses the word "chink" multiple times, in connection with untrustworthy Chinese people rather than weaknesses in armor. Whatever her insights into future directions of physics, when it came to human biology she shared her time's and continent's obsession with now discredited race theory.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Note on Reading Louise Erdrich

What could be worse than to never outgrow the tastes and preferences of your 15-year-old self?

As an early college freshman, I was made to read something by Louise Erdrich. I don't remember exactly what. Perhaps an excerpt from Love Medicine, or a short story, included in the sort of anthology that is designed for expanding the literary horizons of college freshmen. I didn't like it. That was to be expected. I was on a High Modernism kick that never really ended, and I had little experiential basis for having a sympathetic reaction to women characters of any age. Add to that the default white supremacy of anyone raised in the United States, especially in the developmental stage of "callow youth," and this was a bit of mid-1990s mandatory multiculturalism that was doomed not to have the desired effect. Erdrich's prose was too mimetic for my taste, and its comprehension dependent upon a metaphysics which I was predisposed to regard as "inferior" to my own half-baked ideologizations. And it was for chicks.

Appreciation of a writer's work depends upon the reader encountering it at the right moment in life. Freshman year is so rarely the right moment in anyone's life. Fortunately for me, I was predisposed to recognized my dislike for Erdrich as stemming from my own inadequacies rather than hers, by the fact that people whose tastes I respected seemed to like her. No, there was no young Anishinaabe woman in my circle of friends to show me the error of my ways: Among the many unfortunate after-effects of genocide is that its survivors tend not to be well-enough distributed to be solely responsible for the enlightenment of others. The Erdrich fans in my circle were my friend K., and my friend-later-girlfriend-later-fiancée-later-wife D. Both young white women, K. perhaps predisposed to appreciating Erdrich's depiction of the upper Midwest geography and culture of her upbringing, D. by the kind of liberal Judaism that continues to identify--half a century or more after it having ceased to be the case--Jews with the oppressed and dispossessed share of humanity. Their appreciation of her work alone could not convince me that it was good, but it was enough at least to implant the seed of doubt, to consider the possibility that there was something of value that I was missing.

I have only taken up the reading of Erdrich in the last couple of years. Not yet Love Medicine, her first and still canonical novel, but The Round House and Tracks and various short stories and excerpts published in literary magazines to which I subscribe, the sort of backdoor route into an author's work taken by bibliophiles and amateurs rather than students in a survey course. And I have found without exception thus far, as a more experienced, less prejudiced reader in his mid-30s, consistent brilliance both at the level of the individual sentence or paragraph and in terms of narrative structure and characterization. Which I would have missed entirely had I remained in thrall to the critical judgment of my 15-year-old self and never so much as started reading those pieces.

To never outgrow the judgments of one's adolescent self, it would be necessary to have so little respect for the judgment of others that it would be impossible to ever entertain the possibility that one may ever have been wrong. To be incapable of any kind of metacognitive judgment of one's own limitations, sealed off permanently from any kind of learning. The only thing worse than that would be to be capable of learning, and yet have to endure the dominance of minds permanently stunted by their partial, relative access to temporal power.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

On aging and the relative attractiveness of men and women

One does not read Michel Houellebecq for the progressiveness of his politics. As it happens, if one is me, one does not read Michel Houellebecq very often, for any reason at all. But the current issue of The Paris Review included an extract of Submission, and I read it, to see if I might be interested at all in reading the book. (Spoiler: I am not.)

The extract is of a subgenre that has been all too familiar, ever since Henry Miller: Heterosexual man writes from the point-of-view of his penis. Being possessed of a penis, I perhaps do not find this type of writing quite as tiresome as most non-penised readers might. But being bi- or pan-sexual (depending on the light of the moon and how much I am willing to sacrifice ready comprehensibility to straights for the sake of precision), I come at it slantways.

Consider, for example, this sentence: "In short, I benefited from that basic inequality between men, whose erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age, and women, for whom the collapse comes with shocking brutality from year to year, or even from month to month." This is not an especially original observation. In fact, it is a cliché. I am sure I can find parallel sentences in the works of other straight male literary writers with an erotic edge, whether Kundera or Nabokov or the aforementioned Miller. Most clichés become clichés because they have an element of truth. This one, however, I am confident in saying, is an outright falsehood.

It is not just any kind of falsehood, but specifically, an ideological falsehood, an example of the type of self-interested lie that a man tells himself to justify an unjust state of affairs from which he personally benefits. That a man may find women far too young to be appropriate mates more attractive than women roughly his own age reveals little more than his emotional immaturity. That he may occasionally succeed in acting upon such desires is also unremarkable, particularly in literature, which gives ample room for wish-fulfillment. For this phenomenon to be inflated into a general law of the relative attractiveness of the sexes as they age is absurd, particularly as the straight man, in judging the attractiveness of men, has no sample, only a single data point, narcissistically measured: Himself.

On the contrary, I can affirm, as someone who has long been attracted to women and men in roughly equal measure, that on average, women age far better than men. Nor is it a matter of women, attempting to keep pace with patriarchal norms of beauty, working harder to maintain their attractiveness. Certainly this plays into it, but there are too many counterexamples, not the least of which is my own wife, who has never worn a bit of makeup and whose most rigorous workout regimen is some occasional yoga. It is men who are far more in need of regular intervention to avoid a catastrophic collapse in their desirability, even as, because of a relative lack of social pressure, they are far less likely to practice such interventions.

Of course there are men my age and older whom I find attractive. Without exception, however, they are not straight. It will be interesting to see, as the social experiment of extending legal marriage to same-sex couples takes root, whether gay men in state-sanctioned long-term relationships will allow themselves to "let themselves go" as their heterosexual counterparts long have. That does not appear to have happened yet, but it is too soon to tell.

That a judgment like Houellebecq's is allowed to stand, and persist, and replicate, nearly unchallenged, without impairing his critical reception as a putatively insightful author, shows only that the literary apparatus of publishing, translating, and reviewing remains dominated by people more or less like him, straight men of middle age or greater who affirm its truth not because it is true, but because they would very much like it to be so.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I Lied: A Few More Words about the Hugos

I rarely watch movies. The last time [spouse] and I saw a film in the theater together was before she even got pregnant with our first child. That child is now seven-and-a-half years old. Rarely, also, do I feel moved to seek them out on DVD. I don't even have a Netflix subscription. The only reason we have cable is that, where we live, Time Warner has a monopoly on passable internet connections. When [spouse] lost her job, we cut back our cable subscription to the minimal 20 channels. One night recently, when an earache robbed me of my concentration, I could neither read nor piss about online, so I watched the local access channel's coverage of our most recent town council meeting. I was genuinely interested in it. More interested than I am in most Hollywood blockbusters.

So when the Hugo ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) was announced, the only nominees in which I had the slightest interest were Edge of Tomorrow and Interstellar. The interest was slight enough that I did not feel particularly moved to attempt to obtain either one. Nick Mamatas's nagging prompted me to get Edge of Tomorrow (it's based on a Japanese science fiction book, available in English translation from Haikasoru) via interlibrary loan, and I was pleased that I did. A Google search tells me that I am not the first person for whom the phrase "Groundhog Day meets Full Metal Jacket" came to mind. Since those are two of my favorite movies of all time, however, I don't mind. Watching Tom Cruise die in various humiliating ways is all it's cracked up to be.

My conceptual interest in Interstellar dissipated as soon as a library catalog reminded me that Matthew McConaughey stars in it. Not only can't he act, it is as if he is a negative quantity, an anti-actor, who manages to annihilate all trace of talent in those performing with him.

My Hugo ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):

  1. Edge of Tomorrow

Among the other categories in which my interest barely rises above nil is "Best Graphic Story". So when [spouse] and [daughter] had Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 checked out of the library and were reading it, I did not even recognize it as a Hugo nominee, nor did I ask to look at it. After they had returned it, they noticed the Hugo ballot in a copy of the Sasquan Progress Report that I had left lying about and started lobbying me to vote for it. But I can't in good conscience vote for something I have not read and enjoyed myself, and I am not interested enough in graphics as a genre to ask them to check it out from the library again. If it's a close vote and Ms. Marvel loses, feel free to blame me.

As more people post their ballots and/or their critical response to the items on the ballot, I have been surprised at how critical judgment on Kary English's "Totaled" has lined up. People who fault contemporary SF for leaving too little room for ambiguity have criticized it for unclear, unreliable narration in the early sections. (To which I respond: As if a recently revived brain-in-a-jar would be a reliable narrator.) People who have a habit of calling for "good stories" in the whiz-bang mode of military SF have praised the story for its emotional trajectory. It has scrambled the factional lines, and that, I think, suggests a few points in its favor. There is room for dispute over it, and is worth being revisited and debated on aesthetic grounds.

What I think is indisputable, unfortunately, is how thoroughly English herself stumbled over the politics of this year's hyper-politicized Hugo. She went months after the announcement of the ballots before disavowing both the Sad and Rabid Puppies slates on which she had been placed: Long enough that most of the anti-canine wings of the Hugo electorate had already dismissed her as a fellow traveler, but not long enough to avoid the wrath of the Rabid Majordomo himself. I take this as an object lesson in how the center-right, quasi-depoliticized "common sense" that passes as "moderation" in the U.S. context can succeed, in a global context, only in pissing people off, whether in small matters (e.g. the Hugos) or in big ones (e.g. Guantánamo, drone bombings).

Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Last Word on the Hugos

Best Related Work: I'm not even going to bother reading the materials in the voter's packet. Because this is not an aesthetic category, but an opinion category, in my opinion there are no aesthetic considerations that could override the political imperative to slap down the canine slates.


Best Graphic Story, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine, Best Fancast, Best Fan Artist: I don't care about these categories enough to even NO AWARD them. Someone try and convince me that I should.

Best Professional Editor (Short Form & Long Form): I either have not heard of these people, or detest them, or simply have not been impressed enough by their work to care about them.

1. NO AWARD (in both categories).

Best Semiprozine: I still do not understand what a "semiprozine" is. I am judging this category solely by the frequency with which I feel compelled to check out the nominees, and the frequency with which I am pleased by my decision to do so.

  1. Lightspeed
  2. Strange Horizons

Campbell Award for best new writer: This is the category about which I am angriest, and not primarily or even secondarily because this was my first year of eligibility. Remember that "in addition to myself, I have also nominated Usman T. Malik (to whom I would be honored to lose), and Benjanun Sriduangkaew (who is in her second and final year of eligibility, and who I fear is unlikely to win due to some ridiculous drama)." And for a bit more about the latter, see this entry. Puppies aside, I have to question the legitimacy of a ballot with neither Malik nor Sriduangkaew. They are simply out-writing most everyone else in the present cohort.

I know I have read and enjoyed some short-form pieces by Wesley Chu. So I was mystified when I opened the Hugo voters packet, looked at the first page of The Deaths of Tao, and read this Bulwer-Lytton Award-worthy sentence:

The lone black car slunk through the dark, unlit streets, a ghostly shadow creeping past the decrepit warehouses and abandoned storefronts along the South Capitol at the outskirts of Washington DC.

Contrast that to my enthusiastic response to "Totaled" by Kary English. As for the rest of the nominees, they either have never reached my notice, or never merited it. Ballot:

  1. Kary English
  2. Wesley Chu

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hugo Short Story Ballot

"Totaled" by Kary English is too good a story to be tarred with the brush of a slate. It makes good use of not-as-far-future-as-those-unfamiliar-with-the-field-might-think neuroscience to explore the mind-body problem, the relationship of emotion to cognition, and the furthest limits to which careerist self-sacrifice can drive a person. I wish it had first appeared either in a free online venue, or a magazine with broader circulation than Galaxy's Edge.

Lou Antonelli's "On a Spiritual Plane" attempts to cover similar ground, but there's a crippling contradiction between the short story form, which requires some measure of crisis for the protagonist, and the author's evident desire simply to set up a world that is confirmatory of the narrator's Thomistic metaphysics. The confirmatory bias wins out, and the result is a flat piece of message-fic.

The remaining three nominees--"The Parliament of Beasts and Birds," "A Single Samurai," and "Turncoat"--are laughably bad, at the levels of conception, characterization, plotting, sentence-by-sentence execution, and even all the way down to individual word choice.

Short Story Ballot:

  1. "Totaled"

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Novelettes, Novellas, and Fan Writers

The Hugo "Novelette" category is an example of one of my least favorite phenomena in the superstructure of science fiction and fantasy as genres, the tendency to invent arbitrary classifications and in-speak nomenclature to refer to them. Despite being married to a librarian with a BA and MA in English literature, as well as having (briefly) attended a graduate program in literature myself, I never encountered the word "novelette" until I started to follow contemporary science fiction. Definitionally, it refers to pieces of fiction between 7500 and 15,000 words. Practically, therefore, in terms of narrative structure, it embraces two distinct types of story: long-ish (sometimes that means bloated, but not always) short stories, and spare (sometimes meaning under-realized) novellas. It is as if biologists, studying the family Felidae, subdivided it into genera not according to lineage and structure, but by size, with everything larger than a house cat but smaller than a leopard being dubbed a "medium-sized cat".

To turn our attention from cats to dogs, on this year's Hugo Award ballot, this was one of the categories that was swept by puppies of various sorts, sad and rabid, until the determination was made that one of the nominees was ineligible. That allowed "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt on. Despite this, while I did not elect to vote a strict NO AWARD in the category, it was not for Heuvelt's sake.

Of the four remaining canine novelettes, three had first appeared in Analog. I like Analog. I subscribe to it. I have submitted stories to it, thus far to no avail, though I have two pending consideration at present. In any given issue, on average I read and enjoy half the pieces, and snort derisively and skip the other half after encountering some absurd barbarism. Of these three nominees, two--"Championship B'tok" and "The Journeyman: In the Stone House"--fell into the latter category.

I can pinpoint the moment I set aside "The Journeyman," because I mocked it on Twitter. One of the characters is introduced as "Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand". This name alone encompasses several of the linguistic absurdities one often finds in "hard" SF--gratuitous "q" (or apostrophe), check, inconsistent phonetic simplification to signify future degeneration ("sunna" but not "da"), check, borrowing of non-Anglo words or names in ways that do not fit with the world described, check. The appeal of Analog for me is the opportunity to read science fiction stories written by people who actually understand science. But linguistics is no less a science than physics, and when a writer shows no understanding of that, I find the results to be as irksome as standard sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

I don't recall "B'tok"'s sins, other than the cardinal sin of fiction--simply being boring. I set it aside after only 4 pages.

Of the Analog stories, that leaves Rajnar Vajra's story with the deceptively stupid title "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale". The title is clearly meant to pander to nostalgia for this-boy's-life-in-space military SF stories of the so-called "Golden Age," and insofar as it was selected by both sets of puppies for their slates, it succeeded. The title, however, bears little resemblance to the story itself, which can be read as subverting the tropes in which it superficially seems to glory. There is a valid argument to be had about whether subversion-of-tropes has not itself become a trope in contemporary SF, and a redundant one. I sympathize with that argument, but Vajra's story is at least a better-than-average exemplar of the type, which held by interest start to finish and left me with a smile on my face. I encourage Hugo voters to read it with an open mind, and those who are not WorldCon members to seek it out.

That leaves Heuvelt's story and Gray Rinehart's "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium". At least with both of these I was able to read them through to the end. Of the two, I slightly preferred the Rinehart. It had an interesting underlying idea and depicts a struggle against oppression. Unfortunately, the idea is revealed through page after page of clumsy expository dialogue. This is an example of a "novelette" that could and should have been of standard short story length. Heuvelt's was even more bloated, with a conceit that was obvious from the start. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it as a piece of flash fiction.

Novelette Ballot:

  1. "The Triple Sun"

If the Novelette category showed that there is space for aesthetic judgment beyond the simple canine/non-canine dichotomy, the Novella category shows how SF's revanchist right wing suffers for its sincere embrace of philistinism. I could not finish a single one of these pieces. Page 7 of Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry features a Monty Python reference and a mass lynching; I'm not sure which is worse. "Flow" by Arlan Andrews, Sr. at least gave me a line that I will use from now on as a synecdoche for bad genre writing--“Welcome to the Warm Lands, bird-rider!” And then there are the three (!) contributions by John C. Wright. "One Bright Star to Guide Them" put me in mind of Ray Bradbury in a particularly schmaltzy mood, during a bad drunk. "The Plural of Helen of Troy" read like an attempt at illustrating an undergraduate misunderstanding of atemporality. Having already TAed undergraduate philosophy classes--an experience that put me off any career path involving college teaching--I was not keen to relive it. And I have heard it said that Wright is actually capable of halfway decent writing, but this sentence from "Pale Realms of Shade" makes me doubt it: "Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders to the small of her back." How many metaphors can we mix at once.

Novella Ballot: 1. NO AWARD.

Like "novelette," the phrase "fan writer" is a particularly atrocious bit of in-speak. It seems to be the result of an attempt to avoid the negative-sounding but much more readily understandable word "critic". I suppose a "fan writer" gives voice to his or her enthusiasms, whereas a critic actually exercises aesthetic judgment, at times with praise but often with blame.

As such, the name of this category fits the sorry roster of nominees. In addition to 4 canine nominees, there is Laura J. Mixon, who appears to have made it through on the strength of George R. R. Martin's praise for her hit-piece against Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

This is a particular travesty, since Sriduangkaew is one of the best writers working in the genre-space now. Her crime, in the eyes of the likes of GRRM and Mixon, is to have formerly been the writer of the critical blog Requires Only That You Hate. In the latter capacity, she excoriated science fiction and fantasy writers for their exoticizing portrayals of non-European cultures, their blindspots for gender oppression, and for just plain bad writing. Often intemperate, and unwilling to give credit to an otherwise clumsy text for its author's identity, politics, or network of friendships, Requires Hate offended middle-class, middle American notions of propriety. Even if I did not always agree with its judgments, I loved it.

And I think it is best of all that Sriduangkaew, rather than resting content with criticism, took the chance on attempting to write stories that embodied her own implicit aesthetic. I can attest that, if you are a reader with high standards, the hardest thing about turning one's hand to writing is to create stories that are not utterly embarrassing. More than most, she succeeded. It is not surprising, given the relative power of those whom she had made into enemies through Requires Hate that she attempted to cover her tracks and hide the links between her writerly identity and the former blog. I think that was a tactical mistake, given its inevitable failure.

With Mixon spearheading the assault, 2014 saw a hate-campaign against her that overshadowed all her literary accomplishments. Despite widespread critical praise, her debut novella Scale Bright was not nominated in that now-blighted category. I suspect also that her presence in the table of contents of Phantasm Japan may have resulted in "collateral damage" to two excellent translated Japanese pieces in that collection, Dempow Torishima's "Sisyphean" (novella) and "From the Nothing, With Love" (novelette) by the late, great Project Itoh. We have to wait until the release of full nomination statistics to see if there is enough data to support the hypothesis.

The fact that Mixon is on the ballot while Sriduangkaew is not shows that the puppy campaigns were not the only problem with this year's Hugo vote. We will see, when the awards are announced in August, whether the pups are anomalous, or if science fiction gets the authors and "fan writers" it deserves.

Fan Writer Ballot: 1. NO AWARD

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hugo Novel Ballot

Let's get this out of the way quickly: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is almost everything a science fiction novel can and should be. Rigorous in both its physics and its sociology, attentive to the obscure moments in which everything can change. Both emotionally shattering and intellectually exciting, often on the same page.

In contrast, three of the remaining items on the ballot, I found unreadable--the Addison, the Anderson, and the Butcher. If I had to rank them, the Anderson would come out marginally ahead, in that it was the only one of the three in which I could push myself past the first page. But not far beyond.

The presence of Addison on this list shows that the divergence between science fiction fandom and literary taste is a problem not solely canine in origin or nature.

That left me with the decision of what to do about Ancillary Justice. As I blogged before, I found it readable, but not much more than that, and problematic in many respects. Ultimately, I decided that awards should be about more than not committing flagrant crimes against the English language.

  1. The Three Body Problem

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

WorldCon 2017 Site Selection Ballot

I do not know yet if I am going to vote on the WorldCon 2017 site selection ballot. It would require buying an Advance Supporting Membership for 2017. I want to sell some more fiction this year before I spend money on something like that. But I do know what my preferences are.

My first choice would be Montréal. Can you imagine a better site for a science fiction convention than the Palais des congrès?

Montréal is a short 5 hour drive for me, it is one of my favorite cities that I have visited, and I several Canadian friends whom I would want to visit while up there. My daughter is a bit of a Francophile and would relish the opportunity to hear French spoken in daily life. I have more reasons, and most of them involve smoked meat.

My last choice would be Washington DC. I go to Washington DC every year, at least once a year, for the main annual meeting of my profession (National Council of University Research Administrators - NCURA). It is the most slender of the application packages. The hotel that they have booked is huge, and hideous, in a relatively dull part of town. And August is the worst possible time of year to be in DC, which I know not only from having formerly lived there, but because August is when NCURA has its meetings. If it is guaranteed that I will spend some of August cooped up in an ugly DC hotel discussing research administration, I do not want to spend more of August cooped up in another ugly DC hotel discussing science fiction.

For the middle slots, it is a tough choice between Helsinki and Japan. On the one hand, Japan has some of my favorite science fiction authors working right now. A WorldCon in Japan could be genuinely interesting in a way that few other sites could. However, it is not in Tokyo but in Shizuoka, a city more than 2 hours by train to its south. Granted, that is a train ride that takes you past Mount Fuji, but the sight of Mount Fuji would just get me thinking, "why should I spend my time in Japan talking about science fiction in a convention center, rather than seeing Japan?" Helsinki, on the other hand, is the capital city, so it is more likely that attendees from a wide variety of countries would be able to get affordable flights. I know as little Finnish as I do Japanese, but the Finns are known for the high rates of fluency in English as a second language. And while Finland is not a country I might think to visit otherwise, that might be the attraction of holding WorldCon there. So for those reasons, Helsinki edges out Japan for me, narrowly.

Of course, for the outcome of this vote to mean anything for me hinges on three contingencies:

  1. For the Hugo award to not be rendered insignificant by Unhousebroken Puppies.
  2. For something Hugo-eligible to be published in my name in the year 2016.
  3. For enough of you people to read and enjoy that something and nominate it.

Whatever the outcome of all those contingencies, if you ever see me in Montréal, Worldcon or no, please let me know if there's any smoked meat grease dribbling off my chin.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Points of View: On 2 Hugo Nominees

The ranks of those who take science fiction seriously have been abuzz with discussion of slates and voting tactics. This entry will not be a commentary upon those events, not least because I, as author, am less qualified to comment than most who already have. If we analogize science fiction to a country, with its distinct political institutions and customs, then I am a recent migrant, drawn more by economic necessity than conviction (I write in all genres and none, but there are more paying venues for short fiction in SF-land than in most others), still bemused by the ways of this place and not yet certain I want to stick around. Whatever I have to say in passing about the Hugo Awards may be illuminating only in an inverse relationship to its authoritativeness.

Since SF-land, unlike most nation-states, erects only a slight barrier to entry and to voting rights ($40 for a "supporting membership" of WorldCon), I now have a dubious privilege familiar to me as a citizen of the United States: Making sense of a complicated ballot, most of whose options are unappealing.

My progress through the nominated novels has been deliberately slow. Not that they take a long time to read, but I have other things to read in between them. Two, in fact, I have already judged to be unreadable: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, and The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson, with the former putting me off within a page of narrative text, and the latter lasting, miraculously, eleven whole pages. You can see I have not prejudged things.

Thus far, the only book actually on the ballot that I have read in full is Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword. By the time I got around to Marko Kloos's Lines of Departure, he had already withdrawn the novel from consideration in order to avoid the taint of association with Vox Day and his "Rabid Puppies" campaign. A wise move that left me more favorably disposed to Kloos. But since the Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute, Indiana had already sent his book a thousand miles to Maine for my benefit, and I am still awaiting the arrival via ILL of its replacement on the ballot (The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin), I went ahead and read it.

It is the latter two books that I wish to compare. Superficially, they have much in common. Both are military SF. Both deal in the political aftermath of the far-flung human colonization of interstellar space. Both have, lurking on the margins, an alien threat that is both inscrutable and seemingly invincible. Both are the second installment in what seems to be the now-obligatory trilogy.

It is in matters political and aesthetic that they diverge sharply. Leckie's novel is like a plate full of skel--engineered for optimal nutritive value--with an occasional bit of steamed fish or dredgefruit for variety, washed down with some mid-grade, machine-picked, slightly underbrewed tea. Kloos's is a rare steak (non-soy), served with a loaded baked potato and frosty mug of cheap beer.

I like steak, even though I know it's bad for me.

Let us take it for granted that science fiction is no more "about" the future than high fantasy is "about" wizards and elves. Each book encodes, fairly translucently, the anxieties occasioned by an American empire that is at the same time hardly subject to any serious challenge and yet palpably in decline. Both books can be judged politically by the analyses they give of those anxieties and the paths they map for their overcoming. That is not the same as judging the politics of the authors. If you want to understand the mass psychology of fascism in the 1930s, the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline are far more useful than anything by Bertolt Brecht. That doesn't change the fact that, given the chance, I'd share a beer with Brecht and put a bullet into Céline.

I do not want to speculate on Kloos's politics. I suspect if he and I got to talking seriously about the subject, he would eventually say something I found offensive. Since, until recently, I would have positioned myself to the left of Nick Mamatas, who positions himself to the left of China Miéville, that applies to nearly everyone in SF to Miéville's right, and 99% of the population of the world's wealthier countries. At a superficial level, the ready narrative use of such phrases as "welfare rat" and "hood rat" likely attracted VD and would turn off some of the sensitive liberal types who might attempt to read the book. That is a shame, because such a reading is so superficial as to overlook the fact that the narrator and protagonist of the book, Staff Sergeant Andrew Grayson, was himself raised a "welfare rat," would be one still were he not enlisted in the military of the North American Commonwealth. There are other aspects of the world extrapolated by the novel that give life to long-standing fantasies of the U.S. right wing, such as overpopulation or a hot war with a "Sino-Russian Alliance". I am familiar enough with the exotic fauna of the far left, such as Deep Green Resistance or the various branches of the Global Class War Tendency, to know that these fantasies are not the exclusive property of the right.

Leaving behind the superficial reading method that would attempt to pigeonhole a book by assigning a spot on the political spectrum to the author on the basis of the words of his characters, what are we to make of the fact that Grayson calls himself and others "welfare rats"? Perhaps it indicates something about what it is like to grow up poor in America, how much that requires one to develop self-hatred and hatred of others with whom one shares that status. That Grayson only belatedly develops empathy for his own mother and her life choices, and is slow to generalize that empathy beyond her, rings true to me at least. Anyone who, like me, has had the opportunity to eavesdrop on diner-table conversation among working-class military veterans in Maine small towns--excoriating the VA on the one hand for lackluster delivery of benefits, and on the other hand echoing our governor's derision of all recipients of any form of government assistance--might recognize the voice of a character who has adapted cliché as a means of evading cognitive dissonance.

Leckie was similarly adventurous in her voicing of Breq in the first part of her trilogy, Ancillary Justice. Though the Radchaai have more than enough secondary characteristics to give aneurysms to the likes of John C. Wright--e.g. dark skin, gender-blindness, polytheism--their imperialist arrogance is more than recognizable to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human history. Though Breq ironizes heavily about Radchaai chauvinism in the first book, on several levels she still believes in it--as one might well expect from a character who is the last surviving fragment of a warship more than 1000 years old. Yet somehow, by the second book, though elevated to the rank of Fleet Captain, she spontaneously sides with the underdog--striking tea plantation slaves and the slum-dwellers of the Undergarden--taking seriously the rhetoric of the equality of all citizens in defiance of everything 5000 years of human civilization has taught us about the psychology of power. The result is like an episode of The West Wing in space, an enactment of every liberal fantasy about how, if we just got the right people, the good people, in charge, the state could become an instrument of justice.

Perhaps related to the suddenness of Breq's conversion into a benevolent military dictator is the way her status as Fleet Captain interacts with her remaining ancillary implants to give her a kind of quasi-omniscience, in which she can use ship and station sensors to maintain simultaneous awareness of not only the actions but the moods and thoughts of her underlings. No one gets anything by her, no matter how implausible her means of finding out. The centuries' old lament of the Russian peasant--"if only the Tsar knew!"--is given practical meaning. She is not quite the Tsar, but once she knows, she will do something about it. Where the first book made good use of her adjustment to being confined to a single perspective, a single sensing body, her partial reconquest of the means of surveillance voids the second book of narrative tension.

In contrast, though Grayson has access to a number of technological means of expanding his awareness, tactical displays and the like, he often does not know what is happening around him, and even voluntarily shuts off his access to data about events over which he has no power. In other words, he remains human. If his first reaction to being asked to shoot civilians was careerist--to get himself sent into space to fight SRA troops and the alien "Lankies" instead--it is not a sudden inexplicable wave of goodness that gets him to turn, but loyalty to a former superior. It is the limits of his knowledge that account both for his slowness to change heart about following orders, and the suddenness of his change when it does come. For anyone who has studied major uprisings in world history, such as the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution, this rings far truer. And the events described in Lines of Departure--riots, mutinies, military defeats, and strange ad hoc alliances--have more in common with what humans are negotiating on the ground in Syria today, and what will become more commonplace the world over.

The difference in perspective also makes itself felt in the language on the page. Long passages of Ancillary Sword consist of soliloquies in which Breq tells everyone else, at the time that it suits her purposes, just what the hell is going on. In Lines of Departure, Grayson and his comrades spar in vigorous, often profane dialogue to try and puzzle out what is happening and what they are going to do about it. As soldiers and other humans with their lives on the line often do.

Over on Goodreads I gave 3 stars to both these books, since they both fit in the broad category of "books that I enjoyed while reading, that are not to be mistaken for great or even good literature". But it should be clear from this review that I enjoyed Lines of Departure more. Both politically and aesthetically it is more plausible, more interesting, more useful, more enlightening. So I thank the "Rabid Puppies" for having called it to my attention, even as I think Kloos made the right call by removing it from consideration to the benefit of The Three-Body Problem. I look forward to reading the latter once I get it (and will, for fairness' sake, get around to opening Jim Butcher's Skin Game when I feel like it). And with this contribution, I suspect I have infuriated nearly everyone on both "sides" of science fiction's present démarche.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A New Story, & Critical Reception of Some Older Ones

A new issue of The Future Fire has come out, and my story "After the New Dawn" is in it. (Trigger warnings: fascist dictatorship, child abuse and neglect, Greeks)

Charles Payseur reviewed the entirety of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, including my story "The Joy of Sects":

It's an interesting story, full of human connection, and yet the main character finds that the most intimate touch is not one that they want to experience, that they are repulsed by the person they are joined to. Definitely not for those who don't appreciate a healthy amount of sex in their stories, this one is still well worth checking out.

Apparently he really liked it, because later in the month he recommended pairing it with "a Belgian ale". Go with a Trappist, at least until the monasteries get expropriated.

Phantasm Japan has been getting disappointingly few reviews, and disappointingly few of the ones that exist even mention my story. This one is an exception.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Little Red Hen: An Updated Parable

Once upon a time the little red hen found some seeds on the ground. She planted the seeds. The little red hen asked her friends, "Who will help me plant the seeds?"

"Not I," said the dog.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the duck.

"Then I will," said the little red hen. So the little red hen planted the seeds all by herself.

When the seeds had grown, the little red hen asked her friends, "Who will help me cut the wheat?"

"Not I," said the dog.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the duck.

"Then I will," said the little red hen. So the little red hen cut the wheat all by herself.

When all the wheat was cut, the little red hen asked her friends, "Who will help me take the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour?"

"Not I," said the dog.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the duck.

"Then I will," said the little red hen. So the little red hen brought the wheat to the mill all by herself, ground the wheat into flour , and carried the heavy sack of flour back to the farm.

Then the little red hen asked, "Who will help me make the dough?"

"Not I," said the dog.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the duck.

So the little red hen said, "FUCK THIS SHIT! I am a hen! How the hell do you expect me to make dough with these flimsy wings and skinny legs? I don't even like bread! It's a good thing I saved some wheat seeds. I'll just peck at them."

"But I love bread!" said the duck.

"Good for you!" said the little red hen. "Because those floppy webbed feet of yours would be perfect for mixing and kneading the dough!"

"Alright!" said the duck.

"I'll help!" said the dog.

"Not I," said the cat.

So the little red hen went to peck her stash of wheat seeds.

Later, when the bread was all baked, the duck and the dog sat down to eat it. They had eaten half of it when the dog noticed the pecking hen and asked, "Would you like some bread?"

"That's OK," said the little red hen. "Remember I said I don't like bread. You enjoy it!"

"What about you, cat?" said the duck.

"You all know I'm gluten-free!" said the cat. "Why didn't anyone ask me what I wanted?"

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Meta-Anthology 2014

As I did in late 2013, to some positive response from people whose tastes I trust, here is my meta-anthology for the year 2014. It does not pretend to represent the best stories from that year--not least because the stories are mostly if not entirely from the previous calendar year--but as a kind of meta-analysis of the already anthologized, selecting out from the "best" those that are actually good. This year's meta-anthology is drawn from the Best American Short Stories 2014 (series editor Heidi Pitlor; volume editor Jennifer Egan); the Best American Mystery Stories 2014 (series editor Otto Penzler, volume editor Laura Lippman); the 2015 Pushcart Prize XXXIX (short fiction items only); and The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 (edited by Rich Horton).

Megan Abbott, "My Heart Is Either Broken". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Dangerous Women

Though it has a bit of a "ripped from the headlines" quality, it is also a psychologically astute observation of the role healthy mistrust (of one's partner) can play in being a parent. Another thing I liked about it is that the narrative voice hews closely to the mind of the point-of-view character, who is a bit dense. So while there are no quotable flights of high lyricism, that is actually quite appropriate for the telling.

Daniel Alarcón, "Collectors". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in The New Yorker, July 29, 2013 Available online

Like the Alarcón story I shouted out in last year's meta-anthology, this is a spin-off of his novel At Night We Walk in Circles. There is more excellence in what he leaves on the cutting-room floor than most writers can cram into their most fully elaborated works.

Jodi Angel, "Snuff". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in One Story No. 179, republished in You Only Get Letters from Jail

An epiphany story with only tangential connections to the crime genre-space, but with much more blood than your usual Review-fare. The narration makes good use of both run-on sentences and fragments, evoking the blurred, racing consciousness of an adolescent. It did make me nauseous at points, though to worthy ends.

Russell Banks, "Blue". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. Previously published in The Yale Review and in A Permanent Member of the Family: Selected Stories by Russell Banks

A chilling story that encapsulates everything that is wrong with capitalism, the United States, and especially the state of Florida, focusing on a character subjected to dehumanization in triplicate.

Russell Banks, "Former Marine". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in A Permanent Member of the Family: Selected Stories by Russell Banks.

I think I have read this story three times already, and I still have not had enough of it. One of the more honest stories to emerge from the present, prolonged economic crisis. Set in a geography (the Adirondacks) that I know glancingly enough to find that it resonates.

James Lee Burke, "Going Across Jordan". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Southern Review 49:2

The prose verges on purple at points, but the strong characterization and interesting setting overcame my reservations on that score and kept me engaged with the story. You have to love something where an IWW organizer gets revenge on a Hollywood rapist and escapes by means of miraculous paths laid by our chthonic predecessors. Sorry, but the only way for this to get any clearer would be for you to read the story.

Peter Cameron, "After the Flood". From Best American Short Stories. First published in SubTropics No. 15

A minute archaeological excavation of the phenomenon of Midwestern niceness, which ends up, like many a successful expedition, uncovering a few skeletal fragments. Quietly devastating.

Nell Freudenberger, "Hover". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Paris Review No. 207

This story deftly incorporates an ambiguous bit of fantasy into what is otherwise a naturalistic depiction of contemporary middle-class American parenting practices, thus pushing the title into the realm of double-entendre. I enjoyed it, but it is not recommended for those who, unlike myself and the author, are not contemporary middle-class American parents.

Roxane Gay, "I Will Follow You". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in West Branch no. 72

Roxane Gay just keeps causing all kinds of trouble in my house. You see, my daughter is seven years old, but she reads well beyond her grade level, and shows a healthy level of curiosity about nearly anything she comes across. Not least of which would be, any book that I might happen to be reading when I am home with her. I do not usually mind that. But when what you are reading is Gay's novel An Untamed State, or the story "I Will Follow You," the former about a brutal kidnapping and gang rape, the latter about the abduction and sexual exploitation of two young girls, that results in the following sorts of scenes:

Reader/Father, noticing approaching child, rapidly shuts the book: "You are NOT going to read this story."
Child: "Why not?"
Reader/Father: "Because it is NOT for children."
Child: "Why?"
Reader/Father: "I would rather not have to explain to you, I just want to finish reading the story. If you can't respect my privacy, you will have to leave the room."

Some smart-ass may comment, why not just wait until after your kid is in bed? This is why: Because it is Roxane Gay. Because her mastery of language, psychology, dialogue, suspense, fear, plotting, everything, puts me immediately in thrall, from the first sentence to the last.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. Originally published in Asimov's.

With the U.S. having been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 13 years now, it is political cowardice for a writer not to address the realities of war and occupation in some fashion. To do so in the style of American Sniper, from the point of view of a murderer, is genocidal propaganda. To do it otherwise, the story must be told from the point of view of a victim. Within the limits of contemporary realism, there are two ways this is possible: for the writer to have fluent knowledge of the cultural settings of the victimized, or for the writer to begin after the soldier has returned from the war, working through his dual role as perpetrator and victim. (I have attempted the latter in two of my published pieces to date, "Moose Season" and "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," and one can see an example in another story in this meta-anthology, "Evie M.") In speculative fiction, however, it is possible to set the occupation in one's homeland, wherever that may be, which is what Alaya Dawn Johnson accomplishes superbly in this story. Along the way, there is also nuanced meditation on the role religion can play in social cohesion and the ways in which traditionally minded men can unwittingly serve the ends of a foreign enemy.

O. A. Lindsey, "Evie M." From Best American Short Stories. First published in Iowa Review, vol. 43, no. 1

A rare example in literary fiction of a story with a working-class protagonist, depicted in the workday grind, without an exotic job description to justify her depiction. (Though, natch, she is a lesbian veteran, both aspects of background being turned to good effect.)

You must adore digital cable. The search options have revolutionized me and everybody. Technology marches, no matter. You can be groped inside the hot metal gut of a troop carrier, or you can see things die and see pieces of dead things. I promise you it will not affect the remote control.
That's just one of several passages that the author should stuff and mount on a wall as trophies.

Ken Liu, "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel". From The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Imagine how the 20th century would have played out had the imperialist powers--the U.S., Britain, Japan and Germany--patched up their differences without a second World War, at the expense of the Soviet Union, the Communist movement, the working class, and the "lesser races." That is the speculative basis of this story, but told at Liu's characteristically human scale.

Brendan Mathews, "This Is Not a Love Song". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Virginia Quarterly Review 89/3

About a third of the way through this story I started feeling as though false memories had been implanted in my mind, that I had played a few of the protagonist's songs on my college radio station back in the mid-90s and had recently discovered her on Spotify. Perfectly captures the atmosphere of indie rock scene of the first two-thirds of that decade, before everything got disruptively innovated. I estimate that the author is 5-10 years my senior, so those younger than 35, older than 55, or attuned to different subcultures may not feel all the love.

"The Ice Committee" by David Means. From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Zoetrope: All Story.

In a literary landscape overloaded with faded mimeographs of the Joycean epiphany, this story stands out by actually reading like "The Dead," though the characters seem to have stumbled out of a piece by Beckett and the setting is Duluth, not Dublin. The perfection of the synthesis is captured in the final sentence: "It was a clean, open grace that appeared and disappeared with just enough regularity to keep them together, and it would end when the world ended, or perhaps it wouldn't."

Ottessa Moshfegh, "The Weirdos". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First appeared in The Paris Review

A story of love, meth, mysticism, and other psychological imbalances, told without the exoticization found too often when contemporary realist fiction speaks of the lives of those presumed not to be in such fiction's audience.

Matthew Neill Null, "Gauley Season". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in West Branch no. 73

First person plural is not for every story, but it works for this one, in which culpability is ambiguous and the crime seems almost intrinsic to the setting. Its many perfect sentences, fully realistic in context but almost science fictional when taken in isolation, capture the violence done by extractive capital to bodies, places and minds.

K. J. Parker, "The Dragonslayer of Merebarton". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Fearsome Journeys (Solaris)

A knights-and-dragons story as told by a narrator out of a John Cheever story. Deceptively conventional trappings hide an implicit burlesque of warlike masculinity.

Annie Proulx, "Rough Deeds". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in The New Yorker, June 10&17, 2013. Available online.

With its deep woods and harsh climate, Maine is an excellent setting for the crude violence of rough men. (Of my two published crime stories to date, both are set in Maine.) It was even more so 300 years ago, just after the Wabanaki peoples had put up their last successful resistance to conquest and the white settlers started pushing back. And who better to tell the tale than Proulx, whose prose has captured stark beauty in so many of this continent's less populated places? Just as Alarcón's shavings from At Night We Walk in Circles whet my appetite for the full novel, this selection by Proulx has me eager to read Bark-Skins. (By the way, when did she drop the "E." from her name?)

Karen Russell, "Madame Bovary's Greyhound". From Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Zoetrope: All-Story vol. 17, no. 2

This is the sort of thing that writers who are also avid readers (which should be most if not all writers) wish they could get away with publishing more often, an investigation into, "what was that minor character thinking? what ever happened to them?" In this case the minor character is a dog. It would fit in well at The Toast, but I suspect they wouldn't be able to pay well enough to get Russell. Were I a dog lover, I might adore this story more than I already do. (I suspect my mother would love it, if she remembers enough of Bovary to get the references.)

Scott Loring Sanders, "Pleasant Grove". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Floyd County Moonshine, Vol. 5, no. 2

At half the length, this would have been a perfectly satisfactory story with a classic ending. Instead it continued, found its way to an even more sinister conclusion, and became something wild.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Clockwork Phoenix 4, and available online

Collective, enhanced consciousness is an uncanny phenomenon, difficult to capture and recount through literary forms that emerged, historically, as part of the construction of individualized bourgeois subjectivity. Sriduangkaew puts language to the test to be able to accomplish this, and along the way calls into question such crude concepts as family and humanity.

Karin Tidbeck, "A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. Originally published in Lightspeed and available online.

A pleasantly twisted way to turn the fourth wall into a hall of mirrors.

Lavie Tidhar, "The Oracle". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Analog.

Someone smarter than me--I'm not sure who, but I suspect it was Samuel Delaney--said that science fiction is not about the future, but about the present, more particularly, about the hopes and anxieties of the present. Tidhar has an uncanny knack for encapsulating all those hopes and anxieties within a brief (in this case, 18 page) story, uncovering or poking holes in several of them at once with each paragraph.

Shawn Vestal, "Winter Elders". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Ecotone

The hostile, potentially homicidal current that lies at the core of certain kinds of paternal love finds a fitting target in the form of an obnoxiously persistent missionary.

Howard Waldrop, "The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Old Mars (ed. Martin & Dozois, Bantam, 2013)

Effectively extracts drama from archaeological uncertainty, with bonus points for appropriately sardonic footnotes.

Peter Watts, "Firebrand". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in MIT Technology Review's Twelve Tomorrows.

Though it may result in scientifically illiterate people who are nervous about genetic engineering enriching their vocabularies with the word "plasmid," it also had the more beneficial result of convincing me to definitively trunk my own less well-conceived spontaneous combustion story.

Monday, February 9, 2015

More Theses on Feuerbach

My story The Joy of Sects is now available in The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (aka Unlikely Story No. 11). It has cultic sex rituals, proletarian revolutions under siege, and detailed references to French and German philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, so of course you want to read it.

Also, keep your eyes open next month for the next issue of The Future Fire, which will include my story "After the New Dawn".

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Song of the Shank

"Truth often has to masquerade as falsehood to achieve its ends." So the narratorial voice of Jeffery Renard Allen's Song of the Shank summarizes the inner self-justification of a con man, but so also it ellipsizes its own relationship to a largely forgotten history. The geography is not of this world. The sequence of events is not as one would find in a well-researched biography or documentary film about its putative subject, Thomas (Blind Tom) Greene Wiggins. Devilish miracles happen at the tabernacle of the Lord. Through such complete re-ordering of facts, Allen gets at the brutal truth of the genesis of an American national identity. That what for black men were and are matters of life and death were and are the most uproarious of entertainments for the white. That the only character who preserves his freedom is the one most thoroughly enslaved to the cupidity of others, but only because his blindness and autism isolate his mind from awareness of his metaphorical chains. That the threat of genocide seethes just under the surface of any city (even "the City") or town.

Is it an alternate history, then? No: There is no fork in the road that makes the world other than it has become. Whatever is different differs only to the point that it shows that nothing, ultimately, changes. Rather I would call it a speculative history, in the etymological sense: A mirror (speculum) that shows the present its imminent (immanent) future in a past masquerading as falsehood.

The text name-checks Hegel and even has prolonged indirect quotations of Marx, but its basic ontology is the "racial realism" of Critical Race Theory: Whiteness as property, racism as ingrained, the counterstory as resistance. Thus a philosophy even more distinctively American than pragmatism, underlying a novel even more American than Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. And every few pages, one encounters a passage as stunning as this:

Stories splinter in all directions, the hurt Tabbs doesn't see far away. Black bodies burned. Black bodies hanging from trees and telegraph poles. Africans pulled off random streetcars and mobbed to death. Bloated black bodies floating in canals, rivers, and ponds. Blood in every eye. Such stories become commonplace. Tabbs bears these facts with equanimity, nothing so barbarous that the human mind cannot accept it.

(Because of its fantastic elements, I will be nominating it for the Hugo, though I suspect I am the only person who will.)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

News from the Near Future and the Recent Past

Three brief notes in lieu of a substantive entry:

1. In a year which she assesses as "lackluster" overall for science fiction, Lois Tilton singled out "Bonfires in Anacostia" for praise in her review of 2014.

2. Sirens is a new project featuring journalistic dispatches from the year 2022. You may want to check it out, as I expect there will be some interesting news soon that I "compiled".

3. I remembered belatedly that Alice Sola Kim's "Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters because They Are Terrifying," first published in the Fall 2014 issue of Tin House, is a brilliant story that deserves to be read and lauded far and wide. Unfortunately, its word count is, per ASK herself, about 6600, so to nominate it for a Hugo Award in the short story category I had to bump Vajra Chandrasekera's "Dharmas," which is also brilliant, just not quite as.

Monday, January 26, 2015

SYRIZA, KKE and the "Workers' Government" Slogan

Credit: Great Moments in Leftism. Reproduced with permission.

The challenge in writing about Greek politics for an Anglophone audience is explaining all the parties, groupings, maneuverings, cliques, vendettas, and outsized personalities in understandable terms, sacrificing just enough nuance for someone who can't read all the original speeches and policy statements in the original language, let alone discern the cultural signaling taking place underneath the surface meaning of the words spoken, to be able to discern the broad outlines of who is who and who stands for what. Under ordinary circumstances no one who is neither Greek nor resident in Greece has any particular reason for knowing Greek, so on the rare occasion that something happens there of global import, it's on those of us who know the language and culture to explain the significance. As a U.S.-born Greek-American, I can just barely drag my way through written language and my grasp of the cultural nuances is unreliable, so I am glad that Theodora Oikonomides has already done the basics for me. There are some aspects of her presentation that I might quibble with, but I have no disagreement with her conclusion, and so will begin there.

I am incensed – INCENSED – that SYRIZA chose to go for a coalition with Independent Greeks instead of repeat elections. I believe that people like Panos Kammenos – the raving, racist lunatic who said last week that that “Buddhists, Jews and Muslims don’t pay taxes” – should never, ever be given positions of power. Furthermore, accepting people such as Kammenos in a left-led government is playing with fire because it gives public and political legitimacy to his xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, homophobic views and Greece doesn’t need more of that when it already has a neo-Nazi party as its third largest political force.

So everything I wrote above is not arguments I agree with. I can see the reasons why SYRIZA chose this alliance, and I can see why it was the only possible alliance, but I think that, in the long term, it will prove to be the wrong choice.

With Theodora having drawn such a comprehensive picture of the political scene, I want to focus on the aspect that is proving most perplexing to leftists abroad, the unbridgeable chasm between SYRIZA and the KKE, the Greek communist party. As it happens, this is the area where I have the most disagreements with Theodora's summary. She writes, "To KKE, SYRIZA is public enemy number one, because they are a left-wing party that supports parliamentary democracy and participation in the European Union and the Eurozone." There is an apparent omission here of SYRIZA's reversal of their past opposition to Greek membership in NATO. This has been the aspect of their disagreements with SYRIZA that KKE has, wisely, emphasized in their English-language communications drawn up with an eye to the international far left. It is possible for sincere leftists to have differences of opinion on the tactical or strategic role of parliamentarism in the struggle against capitalism. It is possible, rightly or wrongly, for leftists to believe that the EU and the Euro are faits accomplis, given structures of the capitalist order within which we can struggle for the interests of the working class. It is impossible to believe that a reversal of position on NATO, from opposition to support, is anything other than a capitulation to imperialism.

So if, in the argument between SYRIZA and KKE, one wishes to judge things on the basis of judgement usually employed in schoolyard spats, of "who started it," then in the court of international left opinion KKE would appear to have the upper hand over SYRIZA, who have plainly betrayed fundamental principles for the short-term advantages of not alienating pro-NATO Greeks, and not immediately picking a fight with the U.S. and allied imperialist powers. (In reality, there are not many pro-NATO Greeks. To the extent that anyone outside the former governing elite favors NATO membership, it is out of a paranoiac fear of the Turks.) If one's knowledge of Greek political history extends no further back than the day before yesterday, one could erroneously draw the conclusion that KKE is a paragon of revolutionary intransigence, holding true to internationalist principles. This is not the place to recite the litany of historic betrayals that would disprove that view.

Suffice to say that, for Greek activists who have been protesting austerity, the KKE is largely seen as an enemy. They use their extensive trade union organization to keep the section of the organized working-class that is under their influence separate from any mobilization that is not under exclusive party control. On the rare occasion that their contingents do intersect with others, it is to crack the heads of so-called "provocateurs" in de facto alliance with the riot police. But let's be fair: The only reason no one lobs similar accusations against SYRIZA is because its activists do not make as credible goons as the KKE's. Consider what Paul Mason, a British journalist who is broadly sympathetic to the party, wrote on the eve of the election:

Syriza is not a mass activist party. In 2011 I saw some of its people – some of whom are now senior politicians – station themselves, arms linked, in the middle of a vicious fight between the riot police and anarchists.

It was a visible symbol of what the party is good at: passive resistance and the moral high-ground (and messaging). (Five last-minute thoughts about the Greek election)

This is a political approach familiar the world over, that of the "peace police". There is a difference in style: SYRIZA links arms, while KKE cracks heads. But in substance both strive to serve as the last line of defense between the militants and the cops.

So it is safe to say that, having entrenched themselves into a parodically pugnacious sectarianism, KKE would have rejected any coalition offers from SYRIZA. It's just that the about-face on NATO gave them an excuse that would sound plausible to non-Greeks. When the KKE claims to stand for a "workers' government," it needs to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a squeeze of lemon and plenty of olive oil and garlic. As with the most bitter of horta, that's the only way they're palatable. When they say "workers' government," they mean "government of us, and only us."

One possible way around this for SYRIZA could have been to act as though they took the KKE at their word, and issue a public statement address not just to their leaders, but to the party as a whole:

"OK, you guys, you say you're for a workers' government. Look now: We can have one, just you and us together. We don't trust any of these capitalist parties. They're all crooks and half of them are fascists. You and we have had our differences, but the workers want unity. Let's find a way to work together."

Of course the KKE would reject. Probably. Personally, I think if the Tsipras leadership of SYRIZA had the combination of socialist principle and tactical nous to pull off an approach like this, they'd be a very different sort of political leadership, e.g., the kind who wouldn't have sold out to NATO in advance. Perhaps in that case the KKE leadership might not feel so secure in their splendid isolation, and there might have been a greater chance of success. But suppose they did reject, the next step would be to tell KKE:

"OK, you guys, then I guess we'll just have to call a new election. And you've just shown who the obstacle to unity is. And we're going to campaign hard in every neighborhood or village where you got even a single vote, and that's what we're going to tell them, that the KKE was fine with handing the power back to the crooks and the fascists."

I suspect that, just as this first election spelled the near demise of PASOK as a parliamentary party, a second round under those circumstances would have spelled the end of KKE, and SYRIZA could very well have won an outright majority. Is there a chance that it would not have worked? Yes: Theodora's post lays out some very plausible reasons why. Politics is risk. But I agree with her that even defeat under those circumstances would have been better, less dangerous in the long run (and perhaps the not-so-long run) than handing a portfolio to a hard-right pigfucker like Kammenos.

There have been many variations on the "workers' government" slogan in the last hundred years, but "workers' and pigfuckers' government" is an innovation that deserves to die rapidly in practice, before anyone dares inscribe it into theory.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Revised Hugo Nominations Ballot, version 2

After Nick Mamatas explained to me that Hugo nominations are tallied according to ranked-choice, instant runoff voting, and thus that multiple nominations would not dilute one's top choices, I started revising my nominations ballot. (That is a good thing, or otherwise I might not have learned from the Sasquan folks that a "known bug" had deleted some early ballots. If you submitted your nominations early, you may want to double-check.)

So far, the only category in which I have filled in all five slots is the Short Story category, in part because two of those slots are taken up by my own work. Here's my ballot for that category thus far:

  1. "Bonfires in Anacostia"
  2. "Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self" from Phantasm Japan
  3. "Resurrection Points" by Usman T. Malik, from Strange Horizons
  4. "Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion" by Caroline M. Yoachim, from Clarkesworld
  5. "Dharmas" by Vajra Chandrasekera, from Shimmer

Of course now I'm agonizing that I may have missed something even more worthy. So readers, tell me: If those are the sorts of things that I like, what are some stories I may have overlooked that are worthy of my attention?

The same goes for the other categories. In novels, I still have Station Eleven at the top, and put Hisaki Matsuura's Triangle as my second choice. While the Matsuura is basically noir, in the genre-spanning way of much good Japanese fiction, it has more than a few fantastic elements along the way. Anything else that I read and enjoyed in the last year is not Hugo-eligible. In the Novella and Novelette categories, I still have only Phantasm Japan pieces: The excellent "Sisyphean" (novella) and "From the Nothing, with Love" (novelette), as well as the not-quite-excellent but still intriguing "The Last Packet of Tea" by Quentin S. Crisp (novelette). What am I missing?

For the Campbell award, in addition to myself, I have also nominated Usman T. Malik (to whom I would be honored to lose), and Benjanun Sriduangkaew (who is in her second and final year of eligibility, and who I fear is unlikely to win due to some ridiculous drama). Who am I missing?

Friday, January 16, 2015