Strange Fiction in the Marketplace
So I got an email through from Eric Marin, editor of Lone Star Stories, saying that he'd been reading the blog and wondering what short fiction markets I thought were supplying strange fiction as I define/view it, where would I suggest someone look for "intriguing examples of strange fiction in the short form". He didn't want to look like he was angling for exposure so he didn't post to the blog, but I thought it was a good question, so I reckoned it was worthwhile working me response up as an entry. And, actually, the latest issue of Lone Star Stories, it turns out, makes a rather good example, so I'm going to give him that exposure whether he wants it or not, goddamnit. Heh.
Anyway, so where to find strange fiction? Well, in truth, because my definition of strange fiction is fundamentally, well, “fiction what is strange” – i.e. anything that uses that shift in subjunctivity level from “could have happened” to “could not have happened”, regardless of what it does after that (the various optional approaches to the strange that generate our sense of a story being SF, Fantasy, Horror, cross-genre, slipstream, interstitial or what have you) – all the genre markets are purveyors of strange fiction, as I see it, by definition. So, to me, you have the Big Three digests – Asimov’s Analog and F&SF – and you have all the other print and webzines that self-identify as some genre or other of strange fiction. Hell, a list on my part would just be a Locus market report. In any and all of these, you might find some flavour or other of strange fiction to take your fancy. The only problem is knowing where to look for the most intriguing. I’ll come back to that, I think.
There’s also though, I think, two overlapping markets that I wish I was more clued up on, two mainstream markets that both publish strange fiction in amongst the contemporary realism.
First there’s the literary journal market – like the Missouri Review in the US, Granta in the UK, both of which I know published Guy Davenport – where high-end, uber-literary strange fiction is published as modernist or post-modernist or just plain experimentalist literature. They don’t like the smell of pulp that goes with overly traditional approaches, and sometimes that carries through to a disdain for anything remotely strange, but there is that point where a Calvino or Borges or Marquez style of approach breaks the association strangeness has for them with trashy sensationalism.
Second there’s the market that I vaguely think of as “indie” fiction -- McSweeney’s and the like – where I think we’re seeing... I dunno... call it the Chabon-Lethem Effect. A new generation of writers is coming to the fore, bored with contemporary realism and recognising the potential of strangeness. Grounded in a culture saturated with genre, in fact, they not only have no shame in using genre techniques (so don’t feel the need to intellectualise their fiction into the ivory tower of pomo, to eradicate any hint of sensationalism) but actually have a deep respect for the pulp genres where those techniques are dominant. The market reflects that too, it seems, with the 20-35 year-old hipster crowd digging weirdness and eclecticism in their fiction in the same way they dig it in music or movies. So... indie music, indie movies... indie fiction. Think Palahnuik or MacCarthy.
I’m not, to be honest, as boned up on those markets as I’d like to be, so rattling on about this to a zine editor feels a bit like teaching yer granny to suck eggs, and rattling on about it to readers... well, I reckon there's probably readers out there more clued up than me. So I thought I'd open this to the floor, ask people what you think are good examples of these sort of markets, assuming what I say makes sense to you. Hell, this would be as useful for me as for anyone else.
So, in so far as, strange fiction is an inclusive term that covers all that non-realist stuff branded as "literature" or "general fiction" rather than genre, where d'ye go to find it in the short form under those labels?
But, OK, in addition to that, there’s also a more specific angle to Eric's question which makes it juicier -- where to look for intruiging examples of strange fiction in the short form. That kind of begs the question of what I find intruiging and why, and I guess it sorta makes it about... strange strange fiction.
That’s a whole ‘nother question which it’s important to distinguish, for me, because I’m trying to keep the term “strange fiction” from slipping into another “slipstream” or “interstitial” style label for a specific type of approach; I don’t want it to exclude the purely generic or even the utterly formulaic, not at all. I really don’t want it to be narrowly applied to a subset of strange fiction where there’s a particularly “literary” sensibility.
That said, I’ve got me own tastes and I do think there are markets out there that reflect them. So I guess Eric's question becomes: what short fiction markets are purveyors of strange fiction that isn’t locked into a particular (generic) mode, traditional to the point that it becomes, perhaps, less cognitively dissonant, less [a/e]ffectively strange?
I’d have to throw in a caveat right off: my time for reading’s pretty limited these days so I don’t think I’m the best person to ask, in many respects; I’m just not boned up enough on the magazines to say how much, say, F&SF is hitting the mark these days or how much the traditionality might make it generally a little more old school than I’d prefer. And with the other print and web zines, again, pretty much all I can offer is an impression gained from sketchy samplings. Strange Horizons has a good vibe. Postscripts seems to be pretty edgy. Interzone’s starting to look more interesting, now that Andy Cox is at the helm with Jetse de Vries helping to navigate. Fantasy? Clarkesworld? Shimmer?
And the more you dig down into the small press scene, the more interesting I think it becomes. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Electric Velocipede. All those anthologies and anthology series you find in the dealer’s room at WFC – Paraspheres, Polyphony, Leviathan. All the chapbooks and collections – I mean, anything by Kelly Link or Jeff Ford is a must-buy, but there’s a huge wad of writers like Ben Rosenbaum or Ben Peek who have small press gems to be dug up on those book tables. There’s whole sodding presses -- Small Beer, Wheatland, Night Shade, PS, Elastic, and on – that really excite the fuck out of me at the moment because they’re working within the genre culture – industry and community, taxonomy and nomenclature – but basically putting out strange fiction that’s much less bound to traditional notions of what this genre or that is or should be. Ultimately that’s what makes it intriguing to me.
So how exactly is it doing that? What precisely is the source of interest here? What have the stories here got that makes them float my boat more than traditional genre stories (or more than some traditional genre stories)? Here's where I thought I'd completely disregard Eric's reticence and use the stories in the latest issue of Lone Star Stories as examples, to detail what exactly this type of fiction is doing that makes it interesting to me (the Tim Pratt, in particular, I really dig).
So, there are three stories, here, all nice and short so it won't take you that long to read them if you want to do so now. Just follow the link at the top of the page. How, then, do these stories catch my interest with their gnarly strangeness? In what ways do they fit with my model of strange fiction? And are those ways the same in each story, or is each one taking a different approach? Well, I'm just going to look at "The Disemboweller" for now, and leave the others for later, cause this could take some time. So here's a link for ya:
So we open right off with a sentence that smacks us in the face by not letting us know what subjunctivity level it has, "could have happened" or "could not have happened":
"Someone was killing the cars in the neighborhood."
On one reading, the literal, this "could not have happened"; cars are not alive, so they can't be killed. But on another, the figurative reading, this is just an extension of the idiom we use in daily speech, when we talk about a car having "died". Taken in that sense we can read this is just a punchy way of saying that someone is sabotaging or wrecking the cars; the sentence has a subjunctivity level of "could have happened". The tension between these two readings, between these two potential levels of subjunctivity, is what makes the sentence a hook. It draws us into the text to see if that tension is decided one way or the other. In the next sentence, we're offered an opportunity to decide for ourselves, but we're also offered a suspension of that tension:
"Glenn read about it in the papers—how the owners found their disemboweled vehicles, nuts and gaskets strewn on the ground hard with frost, their sinews and muscle frozen and dead."
With the word "disembowelled" that tension is extended -- is this a literal or figurative use of the term? -- and with the "nuts and gaskets" we suspend it just that little bit longer, open to a reading where these are simply metaphorised as entrails. But with the imagery of flesh that enters right at the end we're confronted with evidence that this is meant to be read literally. Even if we can force a reading of "sinews and muscle" as mechanistic innards, that metaphor jars; these are flexible cable structures that don't mesh with the imagery of interlocking engineered parts. Moreover, removing the innards of a car does not change the state of those parts; they have no warmth and life to lose, so it makes no sense to specify that they're now "frozen and dead". But then again, this is all quite subtle. It could just be an over-extension of the metaphor, the author pushing the figurative use of a biological lexicon past the point where it would seem natural. We might decide here, then, or we might remain in that tension of subjuntivities.
We might remain in that tension even through the rest of the paragraph, except that now it is revealed that no-one understands the reason for this crime but that one option is "cruelty". In all likelihood, we become almost certain here that the subjunctivity level now is that of "could not have happened" because one simply cannot inflict suffering on a non-sentient object. But the resolution only truly comes, I think, with the concrete image in the following paragraph, of Glen's own car "eviscerated":
"Its large red heart lay among glittering metal... "
Bang. Suddenly we have something which pretty damn certainly "could not have happened". Suddenly we have a heart -- red to signify that, yes, it is a real, biological, actual heart -- lying among metal -- glittering and being, well, metallic, just to drive home the point that the heart is not. The strangeness is placed centre-frame here -- literally -- the apparent impossibility of the car's heart surrounded by the mundane mechanisms.
Is this anomaly or artifice? As genre readers we know that this sort of strangeness may have a rational explanation, may not be an actual breach of our nomology. The car could simply be some sort of biomechanical creation of the future, a hypothetical artifice of "SF". But we also know that a rewriting of that nomology may be required. Given the lack of background novum in a "neighbourhood" still defined by "papers" and "cars", the low-level tech of "nuts and gaskets", even the trade-name "Peugot", it seems just as likely that this living car is of a basically contemporary elsewhen where the laws of reality are different, a metaphysical anomaly of Fantasy.
When we learn that "the spirit of the car had not yet departed", see it as a "small smoky shape", the decision is made that this is an anomaly -- assuming at least that one is not besotted enough with New Age hokum or beset by schizoid delusions to the point that seeing spirits floating in the air seems credible (an assumption that will be challenged later in the story, I should add). We know now that applying a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" to the text was valid. And as the spirit of the dead car can only tell Glen that a "Bad man" did this to it, before it fades, "losing its form wisp by wisp, with nothing to hold it together", we are forced to face the tension of boulomaic modalities that has been rising with that tension of subunctivities.
There is a certain wonder to the possibility of a living car, you see, something alluring about the idea of an inanimate obect invested with life. This is part of the appeal of pantheism (which we'll come back to later). In making literal that figurative use of the word "dead" to describe machinery, Sedia is playing with a conceit many of us use constantly, ascribing the quirks and foibles of will to the mechanical. This is the way, a part of us thinks, the world should be. Maybe we want the ease of an anthropomorphic explanation for malfunction, the ability to project blame onto "this bloody computer" or "that damned television" which is "refusing" to do what we want it to. Or maybe we want the comforting reassurance of a sense that the world we live in is itself alive, the objects around us not uncaring, unfeeling, cold, but rather filled with that same life we value so highly in ourselves and others. In filling the world with life, we fill it also with wonder. Either way a boulomaic modality of "should have happened" enters the picture with the investiture of cars with spirit.
Or rather, to be more accurate, a boulomaic modality of "should not have happened" enters the picture with the notion that the soul can be wrenched out of such objects in a brutal act of murder. We're faced with the death of these beings here rather than their life, after all. There is, I think, a little uncertainty as to what that sense of wrongness attaches to. It may seep out from the criminality of the act and adhere to the world itself. Is it right to invest a car with spirit in the first place if it can then be killed? Is there a moral or ethical dubiety to the world itself then? Does the image of those "sinews and muscles frozen and dead" invest the world itself with a hint of the grotesque, a tinge of the horrific in the body-shock of it? Does it make the world just a little... darker?
The story does push us in that direction. We might well empathise with Glen as "[t]he sight of displaced, busted gaskets flooded his mouth with bitter saliva, the harbinger of sickness and despair, just like the sight of his own blood did.". In fact, we will learn, the link between car and spirit is not natural but man-made, perhaps even anti-natural, unnatural: "Several of the willows were blackened and dead, and Glenn suspected that the car lot owners were not always paying for their spirits. He hoped that they would not plunder the grove into oblivion."
But we're not, I think, deeply disturbed, not really so immersed in the conceit as to be affected with dread. Where Glen regrets that he will "never see the lopsided grin of the open trunk" the sheer quirkiness of it all distances us just a little. And the story also balances the brutality of murder with hints of the same reassurance we find in religion, that the sprit itself does not die: the soul of a broken coffee-maker can be housed in a new vacuum cleaner; we do not know where spirits go when their vessel is broken; the murderer, in the end, is only acting from a lack of soul and can fundamentally be made whole. The story is driven more by curiosity than fear:
"Glenn wanted to know why the disemboweler disemboweled, what possible secret lurked in the shiny machine guts. He decided to watch first and consider how to act later."
This complexity, this ambiguity, means we don't read the story as Horror or Crime, regardless of the acts of evisceration running through it. Or, at least, I don't. Rather it reads... strangely. The focus on small appliances like coffee-makers, vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens, their insignificance and domesticity, lends the whole thing a touch of the absurd, a touch of whimsy. But at the same time that very whimsy feeds into a sense of unease, because such little things with spirit are kinda cute, inspire affection and to destroy them... well, that's just... cruel. The vacuum cleaner's whistles, gurgles and purrs make it kin to R2D2, a pet cat, a childhood stuffed toy, all the little things we cherish for their "character", real or projected. And who would harm such little harmless creatures? Why?
Is there perhaps even a sense of the idyll here, and of the elegy that goes with it? This is a pantheistic world of little sprites housed in mechanical vessels. The murderer, it turns out, is a robot, in direct contrast to these magic machines, one of those "soulless machines, built in the time before people learned to harness the power of nature spirits and infuse their appliances with souls of trees, rocks and small bodies of water." For me, this is more than redolent enough of archaic and ludic worldviews that when the murderer takes Glen's bait, destroying the coffe-maker that was its former home, and the spirit of the vacuum cleaner lets out "a lone, sad note like a breath caught in a flute" I can't help but think of the intimate association Pan, the god of little woodland things, has with the flute, how the flute, in turn is profoundly linked with the constituents of nostalgia -- sorrow and joy. How it is an archetypal symbol of the idyllic and the elegaic.
But there's more going on in that reference to the dryads and nymphs of the archaic world than just a conjuring of the boulomaic modalities of "should have happened" (idyll) and "should not have happened" (elegy). This also functions as an explication of the strange by rearticulating the metaphysical conceit as a hypothetical. It follows right on the heels of the strangeness of the Disemboweller when we finally meet it -- it's "awful" voice with its petrifying (as "the gaze of a basilisk") effect, its clanking, hissing and spitting -- and right on heels of the revelation that it is a robot -- which immediately, of course, flips the subjunctivity level of this strange thing from "could not have happened" to "could have happened", decides it as artifice rather than anomaly. Now we're also suddenly confronted with precisely the technique of justification used with the hypothetical of "SF" but applied to the spirit-inhabited appliances of "Fantasy" -- the presentation of that conceit as a potential future development.
A Hard SF reader or writer would no doubt baulk at the magic, the spiritualism, of the pantheistic world-view, but Philip K Dick had some wackier ideas in his beliefs about reality (at times, that is), never mind in his fiction. We might still insist that the whole concept of machines invested with nature spirits is a breach of the laws of reality, a breach of nomology, that these events "could not have happened", but we must be pretty rigid in our scientific nomology -- maybe even rigid to the point of scientistic -- to deny this any rationality at all.
No -- we are being implicitly reminded in this seemingly innocuous piece of exposition -- our nomology can be changed radically, has been in the past. People used to believe -- and many outside the monotheistic faiths and atheistic rationalism still do -- that these are the laws of reality, that this is exactly how reality works. If we take that "archaic" nomology as a starting point, all of this story functions on a subjunctivity level of "could have happened". And this is exactly what we're being invited to do in the presentation of the inspirited machines as a technological advancement beyond that of the soulless robot. Maybe they are not anomalies, after all, we're being told, but artifices just as much as the robot... just better ones.
This explicatory approach to the strange continues with the revelation of why the robot is disembowelling its victims. Again we're referred back to the archaic, to the ancient practice of the reading of entrails:
"The word was haruspex, not disemboweler, the robot told Glenn. From Hittites to Babylonians to Etruscans to Romans to robots it went."
The robot goes on to detail how this all works in an act of exposition that wouldn't be out-of-place in an SF story if it were only about, say, the techniques and transmission of interstellar travel through the cultures of the future rather than the techniques and transmission of entrail reading through the cultures of history and up into the future. And there's an interesting little detail here:
"Haruspicy, the robot told him, unlike many other forms of divination, did not reveal future or any past secrets; it did not concern itself with knowledge. It told you only whether you were right."
There is a potential for that practice to serve, in and of itself, as a source of strangeness. Leaving aside the whole question of nature spirits with machines for vessels, prophetic knowledge of the future would be another breach of nomology for many (if not most), potentially invoking another shift in subjunctivity level to "could not have happened". But this potential is explicitly rejected. All that is offered in this form of divination is a sense of certainty. For some readers, certainly, this may be sufficient to breach nomology. But others might well see a get-out clause in that limitation. What are we to make of a divination which offers only... the affirmation we're seeking? There is a reading there to be taken in which the robot's faith in its divinatory technique is mere wish-fulfilment. I think we're invited to take that reading here:
"The signs are clear—I mustn't aid my own demise. Believe me, I think of it every day. I ask the machines and their entrails, was I right to survive another day? And they always say yes."
Of course they do, we might say, given that this is what you want them to say.
One aspect of this reading, I think, is that the projection of desire this implies humanises the robot. It answers a question initiated by the lack of soul ascribed to the robot: how we are meant to approach this soulless machine in terms of empathy? "Robots do not have spirits," we are told with Glen, and with Glen we might then reason, if it does not have life, then its disassembly by the police, should they catch it, would not technically be a death. Why should we have empathy for this unliving machine:
"The robot's eyes watched him, dull and empty of expression. "You know it is the same thing.""
But do we know this? Without a spirit, is it the same thing? Glen seems to sense it is, to accept the robot's assertion even as he tries to justify refusing it shelter, refusing it empathy. And if we read the robot's divinations as self-deluding projection maybe this is a sufficiently human trait for us to also accept it, proof enough that, in seeing what it wants to see, the robot must in fact want..
Where does this leave us in the story then? At heart, like Glen, I think we are in a state of ambiguity that needs to be resolved. We could go either way on the question of anomaly versus artifice as regards the spirits and the divination, but either way the robot's plight is something we have to face; if we leave things as is it will go on doing these things that "should not happen". In its very nature as a sentient thing without a soul, it is itself a thing that "should not happen". However we think of it, we're boxed in. If we reject the nomology in which the spirits and divination are part of reality, it seems we're left with little reason to deny the robot empathy; in a materialist world we're just the meat versions of it. If we accept that nomology, however, we're also wrong to deny it; Fate is telling us the robot has a right to live (and to kill, it seems, hinting to a bloodier and more honest paganism under the idyll of sprites). Which reading do we go for? Or are we caught in a tension between the two? We're suspending our disbelief anyway; we know that this strangeness is all a conceit and therefore "could not have happened" (we can hardly ignore the clear literalisation of the figurative that the story is built around, that " dead car" metaphor of daily language), but we are playing the game of all fiction, strange or otherwise, pretending that it "could have happened". The strangeness is only heightening the tension between those two subjunctivities.
The resolution follows logically from the simple fact that if the robot is given a spirit it ceases to be the locus of that tension; then we need no longer concern ourselves with the question of empathy, or the double-whammy of (1) a sentient but soulless machine in (2) a world of machines with souls. The resolution follows also from the indications of what "spirit" represents in this context, what actuality that conceit is being used to symbolise. Another nugget in the robot's exposition might well suggest to us that what the robot lacks is essentially the empathy we're not sure we can deny it:
"Robots do not have spirits, the robot contined. They are not like microwaves. Neither they have the knowledge of right and wrong, or any other reliable moral compass, like people do. They only have the desire to be ethical."
Note that when Glen suggests they find it a spirit so it "won't have to kill anything", the machine's consideration is voiced with a sort of distanced curiosity, a cock of the head and a casual "I suppose". Without a "spirit" -- without empathy -- it's not entirely sure why it should care about not having to kill. (And why should we care about it? Well, if we don't and it is indeed sentient, aren't we just as callous?) Essentially a psychopath, all it has to go on is the pragmatics of survival. As much as giving it a spirit is a thematic solution though, (by doing so Glen will make the robot worthy of the empathy involved in the act; the story becomes an affirmation of that empathy), it is also a pragmatic one (for all involved) which makes sense even to the soulless machine.
So, in the final scenes, we see Glen purchase a soul for the robot, the soul of an iron mine to be exact, apt in its grandeur, in that awe-inspiring sense of the sublime as "terrible beauty", of "subdued fire and brimstone, ancient anger and secret knowledge of gods so old even the Etruscans had no memory of them." (Is there a significance, we might ask, to the fact that the man-made artifact of a mine is also, in some sense natural enough to have its own soul? Is this a contradiction of the nomology in which spirits can be stolen from trees and bound into automobiles, or an enrichening of it?)
We see the somewhat wondrous strangeness of the robot taking itself apart and rebuilding itself as the engine of Glen's new car, the mechanical marvel just a little eery ("Its faceted eyes spat forth narrow light beams that illuminated the shining chrome of the car's and robot's intestines mingled together."). And finally we see the spirit -- delicate, ethereal, a "faint ochre-colored cloud", a "thin wisp", "motes of dust dancing in the narrow beams of the robot's gaze" -- put into the robot/car, merged with it and transforming it into a deeply strange fusion of robot, automobile and rock. It is a moment of apotheosis in the old sense of the term, an ascent to divinity.
"The... innards of the car twisted, growing dark, knotted flesh and sulfurous deposits. A vein of marble bisected the vehicle's interior... Stalactites sprouted from the roof, the exhaust pipe breathed out a pungent cloud of foundry fumes... The car engine and the robot snorted with a single breath smelling of oil and hot metal and howled in a single furious metal voice, nothing like the gentle gurgling of the regular spirits."
No little dryad or nymph this, then but a Promethean spirit of fire and rock, metal and rage, a trinity of man-made things (robot, car and iron mine), fusing the archaic and the modern, binding mythic past and futuristic trope together within a mundane product of contemporary reality. So the story becomes about completeness in the end:
"He wondered if the oracles of old knew that, if to them too the spilling of the entrails was only half of the story, if their hearts were somehow filling the empty spaces they had created."
All the conflicts of subjunctivities and modalities are released in that apotheosis, or bound together rather into a single note ("a single furious metal voice"). As a thing of pure awe this both should and should not be. As a metaphor it both could and could not be, is and is not true. Balance is achieved, a harmony of opposites in concord rather than discord (c.f. the robot's voice and clanking). Our technological relationship to nature, guttiing it for iron to make machines (the iron mine), gutting it of spirit (the barren trees) is transfigured by our "putting heart" into it (Glen's affirmation of empathy). It becomes a sacred ritual by which we recreate the mythic within modernity.
So this is what this short work of strange fiction is, I think, doing. This is what interests me about it. Not that theme, I mean. I'm not reading the story for a "message" and nodding appreciatively because I think it's profound and/or agreeable (though I do appreciate what the story is saying). And it's not the basic plot of a Mystery about cars being killed that turns into a Redemption story about a robot being saved (which basically works for me, except for a minor niggle about the robot conveniently choosing Glen's apartment to hide in). Rather it's the dynamics underneath that I find intriguing.
And it's when you look at those dynamics in detail, I think, that you realise labels like SF and Fantasy are just spurious distractions for this story. The robot is an old SF trope. Does that make this SF? Divination is an old Fantasy trope. Does that make this Fantasy? In this story that decision is entirely dependent on your reading, I'd say, and dependent on a decision to decide, one that doesn't actually fit with the way the story is driven by the ambiguity of potential readings, the tension of subunctivities; and it's really just a question of which term serves as the catch-all for those undecided fictions. Thirty years ago I suspect this story would have generally been labelled "SF"; now I suspect most people would see it as "Fantasy". Who cares?
And it helps demonstrate, I think, that genre is not defined by its tropes but rather it creates the tropes we come to identify with the genre. The inspirited machines are not really that conventional as tropes in either genre (they might have been done before somewhere but the nearest I can think of is Herbie), not in the way that aliens and elves and such-like are. They're a neat little conceit which is novel enough -- or at least not conventional enough -- to me to not feel like a trope. What this points us to, I think, is the fact that it's these sort of conceits, in this story or that, which become the tropes of genre in later stories which pick up on them, turn them into symbols to be clunk-clicked into plot structures.
So, yeah, that's the kind of strange fiction I'm looking for. The other two stories in the issue are quite different, and after all that blathering I think it's time for a break, so I'll have to deal with them in another post, if I have the time. Hopefully, I will, because I think they're both worth looking at in this way. But I'll leave it at that for now.
Oh, yeah, and of course, all of this started as a question about where to find this sort of strange fiction. So suggestions are more than welcome in the comments.