Notes from the Geek Show
... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer and carnival freak, Hal Duncan
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Friday, February 15, 2008
Patrica Russo's "The Oracle Opens One Eye"
In a couple of previous posts I tried to unpack some of the dynamics at play in two of the stories in the latest issue of Lone Star Stories -- Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One" and Ekaterina Sedia's "The Disemboweller". The third story in that issue is Patricia Russo's "The Oracle Opens One Eye", and it's also a neat little story, well worth a read and illustrating another facet of strange fiction. Where "The Disemboweller", I think, has this interesting interplay of subjunctivities that illustrates the overlap between "SF" and "Fantasy", and "The Frozen One", in its nested first-person/second-person narrative, is a good illustration of where strange fiction meets with (post)modernism, in "The Oracle Opens One Eye" we have a story that downplays the dissonance and shows how slim the distance might be between "genre" and "mainstream".
With the opening there is nothing to take this out of the subjunctivity of "could have happened". Instead we're offered a sentence describing events that could well have taken place, that have, in fact, probably taken place all too many times in humanity's history:
"For her sins, they stripped her of her shift and bound her hands to the post in front of the men’s house."
Somewhere, somewhen, it seems quite certain that such events have taken place -- a (nameless) girl judged by a (faceless) group of moralists, stripped and bound to a post before some seat of patriarchal power, ready to suffer a rough retribution for her transgression of society's mores. Over and above the context of (crude) corporal punishment required (which probably immediately dislocates it, for the majority of readers, to elsewhere or elsewhen), only the specificities and implicities of "the men's house" and "her shift" limit the potential application of this statement in the detail -- albeit sparse detail -- that they add. And with a tone stripped of sentiment, the narrative an act of observation without comment, this sentence, taken from its context in a work of fiction, might well be read as straight reportage, with a subjunctivity level of "did happen".
It is this very flatness that hooks the reader, confrontational precisely because it is impersonal. The actions we are shown require empathic and ethical judgements that are virtually absent from the narrative. We are left to decide for ourselves between a boulomaic modality (the modality of desire, wishes, emotional imperatives) of "should not have happened", attached by empathy to the nameless girl's suffering, and a deontic modality (the modality of duty, obligation, moral imperatives) of "should have happened", attached by ethics to the faceless crowd's judgement. We might read into the fronting of "For her sins", I think, a subtle emphasis that hints of ironic quotation, a highlighting of the inadequacy of justification represented by a cliche constructed from three tiny words. There is, I think, an unspoken challenge here that is implicated further with the following sentence:
"Jokla’s father and brothers watched as the priests laid fifty stripes on her bare back."
The abstract is now made specific, the impersonal made personal. The girl has a name, a family, an individual humanity. At the same time, though, she is denied the agency of humanity -- is twice removed from it, in fact, in a sentence where her kin (her male kin) are the subject, and the predicate is their passive observation of another agency (the "priests") acting upon an individual reduced to the status of object. Power is the point here -- the power abrogated by Jokla's male kin, the power exercised by a religious (and implicitly patriarchal) institution, and the power denied the victim of those circumstances. With little justification attached to the whipping as described, and with details of vulnerability seeded to elicit sympathy for the weak and defenceless (the lashing of "her bare back", the fact that she is "slight, with little flesh between skin and spine"), we are invited to see the action as little more than a reification of male privilege, to critique it as an exercise in dominance. This "should not be happening" we decide, boulomaic modality overruling deontic modality.
A human being should not be stripped of dignity and physically abused like this, should not be spared death only from pragmatism, because "the boy who tended the oracle had died just a few days before, and another caretaker was needed", should not be dragged to a new life of misery and servitude for scant reason. ("She had long since given up asking who had accused her, or what she was supposed to have done.") The injustice of it all is cemented in her sentencing having no set term, no hint of release.
In all of this, there is nothing that is strange in terms of breaching our nomology, the reference to "the oracle", with no demonstration of prophetic power, only sketching in more cultural detail. We could still be in the real world, in ancient Greece or some contemporary analogue. Even as a touch of the uncanny enters with the introduction of that oracle, a note of dread drawn out by hints of hidden horror ("Within the cave, something stirred..." "shuffled slowly out...") and a lexicon of disgust ("stench", "hot breaths from a mouth dark with decay"), it is that wider form of the uncanny wherein the creepiness ratchets up our sense of wrongness from contingent assertion ("should not happen") to imperative insistence ("must not happen") to the edge of absolute denial ("could not happen") even if that denial is irrational, even if there is nothing actually at odds with our nomology.
Here then we find, in place of a shift in subjunctivity level, the ratcheting up of a negative boulomaic modality, tension built through a sentence-by-sentence progress towards the revelation of the oracle, that sense of denial manifested in an act of denial ("She flinched and shut her eyes"), acceptance coming step ("then forced herself to turn") by step ("and look"). Interestingly, the horror, when we finally confront it, invokes no shift of the subjunctivity level to "could not happen" as we come face to face with the supernatural. Instead we almost get the opposite -- a shift of the subjunctivity level to "did happen" (or at least the simulation of that shift) as the narrative up till now is re-presented to us as the past facts of history:
"That had been five years ago."
From here on in the story stays in a mode that sits on the edge of the strange but is driven more by the naturalist aesthetic of mimesis applied to the domestic, the socio-political, the impact of mores upon the disempowered individual. In the next scene, we see a supplicant arrive, seeking a reprieve for some crime that has made an exile of him. The oracle's answer doesn't quite read as a breach of nomology; when she says, no, he has another seven years of exile to suffer, we could rationalise the oracle's abilities as psychological insight rather than predictive foresight, a knowledge less of the future than of what needs to be said. It is, perhaps, a moral judgement in the guise of prophecy. Only in the oracle's interruption, answering the supplicant's question as Jokla is only just about to relate it to her, do we have the suggestion of a potential breach of nomology, and even here it is ambiguous. Are we entirely certain that the oracle has not simply overheard? Artifice or anomaly? Ultimately, I think, the story refuses to resolve so simply.
That refusal may well be part of the point. From this scene on, the story traces Jokla's desire for such an oracular judgement on her own part, the way that desire shades into an attempt to convince herself that it does apply, a hope that countermands suicidal fantasies:
"But seven years of anything can be endured, she would tell herself. People have endured worse than this. And she would step away from the edge."
To what extent, it seems we are being invited to ask, are these judgements artifices of desire? As the oracle grows sick and Jokla comes to simply answer supplicants with reports of her condition that are nevertheless taken as prophecy, that question becomes more pressing and more central.
"Surely the visitors to the cave would catch on; surely they would realize that the oracle was neither seeing nor speaking, and these brief reports that came booming and hollow out of the darkness were no true prophecies. But the people accepted them, bending their heads under the weight of the unhappy news, departing with their own groans and lamentations."
The willingness of supplicants to accept these false prophecies on faith, and the fact that Jokla herself can only carry on living through a similar act of self-persuasion even as she herself is participating in a sham that might lead her to question it, refers us back to the opening scene, to the passive acceptance her father and brother's display towards the judgement of the priests. We are being shown authority in action, the extent to which it is not just a brutal imposition and violation (as in the whipping), but also as often a subtly corrosive force, an abrogation of ethical judgement, a surrender to received wisdom. The sense of illegitimacy that attaches to this reinterprets everything we have seen with a deontic modality of "should not happen", subverts the mores of this society, challenges us with the implicity that they are unethical.
It would not be quite right, I think, to say that the imagery of decay and disease attached to the figure of the oracle represents this corruption, that the sickness of the oracle is crudely symbolic of the wrongness of the society as a whole. The oracle, after all, as an avatar of the Other, is in a situation of exile/imprisonment sufficiently analogous to that of Jokla that such a symbolism would tend to generate an emotional validation of Jokla's outcast status by association, our disgust at the oracle playing against our sympathy for Jokla. In the creepiness of the oracle we might attach the "wrongness" to the victim (the Other) rather than to the society that has victimised (Othered) them.
So instead, I think, the boulomaic modality "should not happen" that we associate with the oracle's sickness and spite becomes an undercurrent which binds with and reinforces the sense of "should not happen" that we attach to Jokla's imprisonment. It adds to it in making Jokla's situation more horrible. It comments upon it in the parallel it offers in the oracle's imprisonment. There may even be some transference -- a growing sympathy for the oracle as prisoner, a growing horror at the degradation of Jokla -- but the two threads remain discrete even as they interweave, even as they fuse into a single, deeper sense of wrongness. The oracle's decay and disease is not a token of that wrongness; rather it is a dark mirroring of Jokla's dehumanisation, active spite in place of passive despair, physical weakness in place of psychological weakness.
Still, the othered states of Jokla and the oracle are comparable enough that as the oracle seems to near death, we might well begin to wonder if the story will play out the comparison as a direct parallel. A potential resolution may be predicted: Jokla's false prophecy is accepted by supplicants, ultimately, because the oracle's is also false; the oracle reveals this as she dies, telling Jokla that she was once, like Jokla, the servant to the oracle; we end with Jokla assuming the vacant role of oracle, gaining (limited) power but losing her freedom forever, the knowledge of this planting a seed of bitter despair that will, one day, sicken her as it did the oracle. Alternatively we might predict a subversion, where Jokla has this opportunity but refuses it, walks away into freedom upon the oracle's death. Either way the interwoven threads of their different types of Otherness are tied neatly together into a loop where Jokla is the oracle's past, the oracle Jokla's future (a future to be accepted or rejected).
It is an obvious resolution that emerges from the archetypal roles the characters map to -- "innocent maiden" and "uncanny crone" -- and a conventional transformation between them -- young becomes old, apprentice becomes master. There are hints of it in Jokla's growing hatred of the oracle, her loss of empathy for the oracle ("Any pity Jokla had ever felt for the old woman had been extinguished long ago.") and humanity in general ("She could feel no compassion for the supplicants... Ill-tidings were all she had to offer them.") suggesting an ultimate end-point of pure misanthropy. And the conventionality of the roles and the relationship written into them, the archetypal quality to this pattern, generates a sense of epistemic necessity (even if only just a sense). The logic of story-as-myth seems to tell us that this is what "will happen" even if we think it is only doing so in order to surprise us.
But neither resolution is to be. Jokla is not simply the "maiden" to the oracle's "crone". Reality does not follow the route of transformation written into these archetypes of anima. Such roles and relationships are, after all, essentially projections of the male psyche's constrained and constraining view of what women should be rather than what they are. From a feminist perspective the maiden/crone projection is as dubious as the virgin/whore projection, the process of binding women within these roles just another mechanism of patriarchy, the refusal of a woman's humanity in the act of rendering her a cipher. Given the critique of male power and female disempowerment carried within the story up till this point it is not surprising that it rejects a resolution that would ultimately reify and reinforce the transformation of women into ciphers. Even the rejection of this, in an ending where Jokla refuses to become another cipher, where she walks away, would be... unsubtle... simplistic.
So the archetypal pattern, the logic of story-as-myth, is refused, and instead we are given the logic of story-as-realist-narrative. The divergence from the obvious path comes with the introduction of another Other, another female victim of society's mores as mechanisms of male power, a physically-handicapped girl whose deformity fuses Jokla's weakness and the oracle's grotesqueness, and whose presence in the narrative instantly disrupts the simple duality and the narrative path it suggests.
The girl is brought by a group of supplicants, a man in front, leading his wife and (female, of course) slave, seeking a validation of his desire to rid himself of this "wretched creature... whose life is a misery to herself and a grief to all who must gaze upon her". The wife and slave, of course, have no say in this matter, but their opinions are not difficult to reconstruct. The slave winces at the father's cruelty. The wife expresses bitter hopelessness even in her silence:
"Slowly, the mourning woman raised her head; her face was a mask of despair, her eyes black pits of hatred."
Empathy and ethics, boulomaic and deontic modalities, combine now in direct opposition to the mechanisms of moral authority. And a conflict that has been emerging with the very notion of epistemic necessity, in the potential prophecy has to falsely validate moral authority, is brought to a crisis point. In this world of priests and oracles, a judgement of epistemic necessity (an oracular judgement) is being called for that would go against everything we think "should happen" and that could overrule it with a wrongful assertion that it "must happen".
Pointedly, there is no sense of horror attached to the child in the description. While the father dehumanises her in his speech, representing her as a "creature", the narrative renders her as a "child" or "young woman", a "her" rather than an "it". In the conflict between these two representations, and in the way other characters relate to the girl, the narrative becomes a depiction of dehumanisation, of Othering. The father dehumanises the girl. The slave and the mother do not. Jokla does not directly express empathy, but her own position is ambiguous. On the one hand she is by now so unsympathetic to the supplicants in general that she seems entirely ready to validate murder:
"She tried to think of what to say. The oracle gushes forth tears like a waterfall? Would that suffice, would the young woman’s father take those words as permission to drown her?"
On the other hand, an indirect empathy is established via an association of the expression on the face of the girl's mother with that shown by the one sympathetic member of Jokla's own family when she was in the situation of judgement that opened the story:
"So her second-eldest brother had looked when the priests had dragged her before the men’s house to be whipped, his expression one of raging helplessness, while her father turned his head and her other brothers stared at the ground."
If Jokla is only associating herself indirectly with the girl, for the reader that link is nevertheless compelling, highlighted by the reference back to a cardinal scene of the narrative. The narrative coheres towards resolution, this textual binding making the girl's role in the narrative integral, restating the core conflict (authority versus the individual), concreting the theme that runs through the entire narrative.
The outcome is a rejection of epistemic necessity in favour of contingency, a rejection of authority in favour of humanity, the oracle falsely prophecying a great future for the child -- " I see great deeds in her future..." -- but doing so with a caveat of uncertainty -- "but my vision is clouded now by age. The gods are leaving me." -- which makes this ultimately a stalling tactic -- "You must return, when the next oracle is chosen, to learn more." So judgement is postponed for an indefinite period.
This postponement of judgement, as much as it saves the child, becomes a bleak three-fold rejection of any artificial hope on Jokla's part. Denial following denial following denial, the tale strips away any patterning the logic of story-as-myth has imbued it with. Jokla asks if the oracle knows when she will die. The negation refuses us one predicted ending with Jokla liberated by the oracle's death. She asks if she knows who the next oracle will be. The negation refuses us the alternative ending with Jokla as the new oracle. Stripped of these easy and self-deluding myths, there is only the crucial question left, the reality to be faced. And so Jokla asks if the oracle knows when she will be set free. This final act of negation is a hammer-blow to both Jokla and the reader.
If the element of prophecy throughout the story in any way constitutes an element of strangeness, if it situates the story in a liminal zone where we're not quite sure of the subjunctivity level -- "could have happened" or "could not have happened" -- this ending solidly positions the story in a realistic idiom. It spurns all the desire-born delusions of the fantasy story as a story-of-fantasy. It drags us back to, and abandons us in, a reality barren of mythic patterns and magical empowerments of the disempowered, the reality of social politics, cruelty and empathy, played out on an entirely domestic level.
Is this a "fantasy" narrative, then, or is it simply a "realist" narrative played out against an exotic backdrop, one that might as easily be an elsewhen or elsewhere of our own world as any invented secondary world? Ultimately, that question is, I think, a tangential taxonomic issue, the degree to which the fiction can be labelled strange in direct proportion to the degree of strangeness within the text. In this story that strangeness is slight, a single breach of the subjunctivity level that we are, in fact, quite capable of reading as not a breach at all. In terms of publication though, even to play with strangeness in this way is sufficient to render the story publishable within a market like Lone Star Stories -- which says much for the range and diversity of the field. And in terms of critique, it is also sufficient to make the story of interest as an example of where and how fiction becomes strange, or where and how it might border on strangeness, why it might ultimately refuse to cross over.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
A Follow Up
Here are two aspects to the problem of rival applications of the label "Fantasy", viewed from Clute's side of the coin, where he distinguishes it from the "fantastic fiction" of writers like Kafka, Borges or Marquez:
1. [T]o call so much of 20th-century literature fantasy is radically to misunderstand the enterprises of Modernism and Postmodernism...
2. ... and thereby to strip the term "fantasy" of any specific meaning.
This is to say that (2) the term "fantasy" has a narrow (specific) meaning which we stand to lose if we fail to (1) disassociate it as an enterprise from (post)Modernist texts that could be (mis)labelled as "fantasy". Which is, in turn, to say that Fantasy is an enterprise with its own set of purposes, strategies and tactics distinct from those of (post)Modernism.
This is directly opposed to the argument that fantasy is a technique (and, by extension, any form of fiction using that technique), applicable within a range of enterprises, each of which may have a quite distinct set of purposes, strategies and tactics. That contrary argument sets out an open definition of fantasy entirely opposed to Clute's closed definition (but essentially identical to his definition of "fantastika" or "fantastic fiction").
Actually neither of these definitional approaches are solutions to the problem; they are in fact the source of the problem in the opposition they set up, the conflict of open and closed definitions. Deciding between them is a matter of aesthetics (the elegance of the model), pragmatics (the applicability of the model) and politics (the actual ramifications of applying the model). From a critical view I recognise the utility in Clute's closed definition, the problems of indistinction and overload that emerge when we throw the term fantasy about with little specificity. But as a writer working within the marketing category of Fantasy who is engaged on an enterprise with a set of purposes, strategies and tactics that overlap with those of post(Modernism), and aware as I am of the number of my peers engaged on similar enterprises, I think that ultimately Clute's closed definition (a) does not reflect the diversity of enterprises within the field, and (b) reifies and reinforces a prejudicial stereotype with a palpable negative impact in artistic, practical and political terms. In short, it is inaccurate as an act of description and inequitous as an act of prescription.
Clute seems to implicitly acknowledge the nature of his approach where he suggests, by way of Attebury, the possibility that "fantasy is inherently best described and defined through prescriptive and exploratory example" (my italics). However worthwhile this approach may be in practice, I would argue, there is an inherent danger of generating a feedback loop between prescription as dogma and exemplification as cherry-picking -- where a preconceived theory results in a narrowing of focus which highlights appropriate examples and neglects exceptions, this in turn validating and reinforcing the theory. The result we can expect to see under these circumstances is a closed definition of fantasy at odds with an open definition which, in contrast, attempts to describe without prescription and to incorporate exceptions to any limiting theoretical model.
This is, I think, exactly what we find in Clute's closed definition of fantasy, in its conflict with the open definition used by many within the community that coheres around the term ("fantasy" readers, "fantasy" writers, agents who deal with "fantasy", editors of dedicated "fantasy" magazines and imprints, publishers producing and marketing works as "fantasy"). I do acknowledge the possibly irresolvable problem that arises from the conflict of this open definition and the various closed definitions of Fantasy (naturally born of critical and commercial pressures toward specification). For this reason, and to avoid confusion, I prefer to substitute "strange fiction" for either "fantastic fiction" or "fantasy" in my own open definition. But on the flip side -- also to avoid confusion, and to counteract the negative impact where this essentialist view reifies and reinforces the stereotyping of work conventionally labelled as "fantasy" -- I feel we must also acknowledge the narrowing of focus at play here, the fact that Clute closes his definition to a degree which requires a modification of his nomenclature. The alternative is a deliberate or unconscious marginalisation of works which don't fit the stereotype.
How then, specifically, does Clute's use of the term close his definition? And what modifier(s) might function, in light of this, to make explicit, to acknowledge, the narrowing of focus in an easily and widely comprehensible way?
Clute's principal narrowing of focus reflects his distinction between fantasy and post(Modernism):
A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative.
Self-coherence is the key quality by which Clute distinguishes fantasy from the fantastic, projecting the notion of story onto that of narrative. His basic contention, as I read it, is that the former has an identifiable structure, a grammar which requires the coherence of causality within the setting (the "world"); there is no subversion of the connectivity of cause and effect, events and consequences. A conventional shorthand way of saying this would be to say that fantasy has story and story is plot-driven. An open definition of fantasy, in contrast, would take the latter (i.e. narrative) as its basis, contending only that fantasy has an identifiable process, a dynamics which allows, in the end, for a sense of aesthetic rather than causal coherence; the progress of events may be made sense of less as a chain of consequences and more as a pattern of scenes which develops in accordance with its own abstract or affective logic. In conventional shorthand, a narrative may lack story, being "held together" by character and theme rather than "driven by" plot.
When we look at Clute's definition of "Story" we can see the extent to which he sees it as permeating the fictive world. The end-point and purpose of the narrative here is the "unveiling of an irreducible substratum of Story, an essence sometimes obscure but ultimately omnipresent". The fictive world of (Romantic) Story is imbued with a layer of meaning in a way that the fictive world of (possibly Rationalist, Modernist or Post-Modernist) narrative is not; it is essentially a construction which embodies an aesthetic sensibility -- the systematic notion of internal or external reality which we project upon it in our own variant of the Pathetic Fallacy. To a very large extent I agree with Clute here; this is exactly what I'm focusing on in the post on sub-genres, in the idea that we can identify idyllic, baroque and grotesque flavours of Romantic aesthetics which set up a world with boulomaic modalities written into it, a world already disrupted or primed for a disruption (c.f. Todorov) which will trigger the narrative.
Where I would differ from him is in the degree of overlap I see between baroque and grotesque aesthetics and (post)modern aesthetics, and the potentiality these have, along with neo-primitivist and modern archaic aesthetics, for refocusing a narrative on Satire or Critique rather than Story -- i.e. on deconstructions of Story. In opening up the Romantic narrative in this way, these aesthetics force us to open up our definition of fantasy. Where they render the fictive world intrinsically too complex, too repulsive, too incoherent, too bereft of meaning, or too mystical to be grasped and accepted in a moment of narrative unveiling, they defy the restoratory end-point of Story. Works which do so are often subject of category disputes -- labelled as horror, slipstream, cross-genre, interstitial or what have you rather than "pure" fantasy (a term which Clute revealingly applies directly to the Secondary World Epic form he is narrowing his focus upon) -- but it is with the exclusion of exactly these texts that, I am arguing, Clute's "Fantasy" becomes limited to the subset of "Romanticist Fantasy". This is precisely where a plethora of fiction which is conventionally labelled fantasy by readers, writers, agents, editors and publishers is wrongly excluded from the model in order for that model to function accurately (and prescriptively). You cannot restore the idyll if the world of the story was not constructed as an idyll in the first place. The end-point of a narrative based on a world of baroque, grotesque, (post)Modern, neo-primitivist or modern archaic aesthetics are just as likely to be the "revel" or "conceptual breakthrough" Clute ascribes to Horror and SF.
This projection of story onto narrative, moreover, has ramifications for character and action as well as setting, plot requiring agency as well as causality. From Clute's definition of story a clear picture emerges of how he sees character and setting as being bound into the story, the one being conveyed through the other by way of a narrative composed of "sequences which hearers or readers understand as consecutive and essential moments in the telling of the tale", structured as a quest towards the restoratory end-point. It is at this point that his narrative grammar ceases to describe Fantasy, or even Romanticist Fantasy and comes to describe Heroic Fantasy.
Depending on the nature of the setting, the narrative trigger, the protagonist, and the dynamics of boulomaic modalities that emerges from those factors, the Story may play out as Epic, Adventure, Mystery or Thriller (or any "combination" thereof), but the role of the protagonist within all those flavours of fantasy is essentially still heroic. We can and should distinguish the Heroes of monomythic Epic from the Heroes, heroes, anti-heroes and reluctant-heroes of Stories less grand in scope, but in doing so I think we begin to see where Clute's narrative grammar of Fantasy merges into those of SF and Horror, how he is focusing on the more grandiose incarnations of the hero when it comes to the former, sliding his definition of it towards the Epic / Adventure end of a sort of spectrum of narrative structures in order to map that spectrum onto the three genres.
Ultimately, his focus on the quest structure is what closes his definition in this respect, attempting to bind Fantasy within a plot-type at one end of the spectrum where the protagonist is an active agent with a crucial mission who will succeed (overcome the "thinning") because they must. The more active the agent is, the more Heroic the fiction. The more crucial their mission is, the more Epic the fiction. We can compare this to plot-types where the protagonist is a reflexive agent forced to engage with a disruptive event through actions that may lead them deeper into the disruption (mired in the "thickening") to eventual failure, or that may in fact lead along them a more complex path through encounters with enigma ("estrangement"), to a more ambiguous "conceptual breakthrough" in the end.
While there is, undoubtedly, a predominance of Epic / Heroic Fantasy within the genre labelled as fantasy, my contention is simply that there is enough fiction within that genre employing narrative structures best labelled as Adventure, Mystery, Thriller or even Horror (and better described in terms of "thickening" or "estrangement") that to map this spectrum of narrative grammars to the genres is descriptively inaccurate even as a broad generalisation and prescriptively inequitous as an essentialist definition. Remove the labels and apply this model of narrative grammars across the genres of strange fiction, and it becomes a profoundly powerful tool for critiquing narratives, many of which will have Story at the heart of them. But applied as a direct mapping of the genres I think it creates significant issues.
Underlying the closed definition of fantasy which makes this mapping sustainable (and, it often seems, widely accepted) despite those issues is, I think, the misleading notion that a single subjunctivity level is attached to a text and constant throughout it and can therefore be used as an essential identifying feature of a genre. Thus we get Fantasy as representing events that are "impossible in the world as we perceive it" or taking place in a secondary world that is itself apparently "impossible" though the events "may be possible in its terms". And, in contrast, we get SF tales "written and read on the presumption that they are possible -- if not yet".
I've argued elsewhere that this is not actually how we write or read fictions of either genre, that impossibility and possibility are judgements of subjunctivity level, that this switches from sentence to sentence within a text, and that the resultant flux renders any narrative a discourse of subjunctivity levels, with the reader often in a state of tension (Todorov's "moment of hesitation"), unsure of whether an incredible event, an item of strangeness (which includes the technical, temporal and often theoretical impossibilities of SF), is to be read as artifice or anomaly. I won't regurgitate that here, but I will say that if this an accurate model of how strange fiction works it requires a more complex view of the three genres in terms of narrative dynamics, one which sits nicely, I think, with the notion of narrative grammars applied without closing the definition of fantasy. Conversely, an essentialist approach in which stories are either "possible" or "impossible" factors up neatly to the generalisations about genres, the mapping of SF to "possibility" and Fantasy to "impossibility", which is necessary if one is to characterise SF as a Rationalist enterprise and Fantasy as a Romantic enterprise -- if we are to claim that each can be identified by a discrete (and incompatible) set of purposes, strategies and tactics.
In Clute's definition of fantasy this association is not explicit but we do find the argument that the genres of Fantasy and SF must be understood in this context. There is much within pre-Enlightenment that the contemporary reader would consider fantastic. Before this era of Enlightenment Rationalism, however, it is impossible to be sure of the degree of belief that readers of any given text might have had when confronted with narratives portraying events we now consider utterly incredible. We cannot, in fact, be certain that they would view those events as impossible at all in the context of the time. Though fantasy would have existed "whenever stories were told which were understood by their authors (and readers) as being impossible" we cannot be certain, "before the rise of science" that this was an aesthetic purpose, that "they stood as counter-statement to a dominant world-view". In this positioning of fantasy as antagonist to the scientific world-view (and the following association of SF with that world-view), I think the association surfaces as an implicity.
There is an issue here of how strange fiction might have had that technique of breaching nomology as an aesthetic purpose before our scientific worldview redefined not just the terms of that nomology but the basis of how we construct it. Actually I think there is scope here for investigating nomology as a non-scientific sense of possibility, investigating the way beliefs in Natural, Social or Divine order might also have functioned (and might still do) to construct "laws of reality" -- looking at the ancient concept of "miasma" as a breaching of those laws, for example, and a breaching that is integral to the narratives of Greek Tragedy. But I'll leave this question aside for now, as I'd basically agree with Clute that SF and Fantasy are better understood in an Enlightenment context. I do think these genres, along with Horror, are better understood as emergent features of a dialectic between Romanticism and Rationalism.
However, ultimately, I'd argue, these genres, in their present condition, are best understood as emerging at a point of synthesis in the Modernism of the 20th century, with Rationalism and Romanticism as potential aesthetics within them, but with a huge proportion of the fictions involved fundamentally taking the technique(s) of strange fiction and applying them in enterprises which, if we break them down into purposes, strategies and tactics, are entirely understandable as Modernist or Post-Modernist. SF is immediately understandable that way, with a deep interpenetration of Rationalist and Romantic aesthetics blatant throughout. But the very fantastic fiction which Clute excludes from Fantasy (from Kafka up to Carter) -- and much of what he includes -- is also profoundly (post)Modern, equally so and sometimes more so. In fact, I'd argue, the most interesting work in the field today (Kelly Link, Jeff Ford, etc.) is deeply rooted in a multi-threaded tradition of fantasy traceable back through the indie presses of today, mainstream movements like Magical Realism, genre traditions of slipstream and interstitial fiction, magazines like TTA and early Interzone, the New Wave and on, right back to the roots.
Where contemporary Fantasy in its post-Tolkien Epic / Heroic form may appear to be entirely Romantic (validating the false Rationalist/Romanticist dichotomy of SF and Fantasy by sheer weight of numbers), I'm not convinced that even this is actually more than an ersatz Romanticism, defined more in opposition to Modernity and Modernism than to Rationalism in and of itself. (There is much, I think, in the world-building of this type of fantasy that incorporates the Rationalist approach of data collection and organisation, exhaustive mapping and chronicling as ends in and of themselves.) Either way, Clute's closed definition of Fantasy, I'd argue, narrows his focus onto this form in a way that leaves many readers, writers, agents, editors and publishers sitting in a swelling tide of fantastic fiction that they happily refer to as fantasy but which is quite at odds with Clute's idea of what Fantasy is and how it works.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
For UK Citizens
Sent: 11 February 2008 19:59
To: John Malam
Subject: PLR petition -- please sign, then forward this email
Following the announcement that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport plans to reduce Public Lending Right (PLR) funding, I have initiated a 10 Downing Street e-petition to protest at the cuts.
Public Lending Right is the right for authors, illustrators, photographers, translators and editors to receive payment under PLR legislation for the loans of their books by public libraries. More than 23,000 people are entitled to receive payment under this scheme, and for many the annual PLR payment is an important part of their income. PLR is particularly valuable to those people who receive little or no royalty on book sales - their books are more often borrowed from libraries than bought in shops.
Please spare a minute to sign the petition. Click the following link (or paste it into your browser window) and add your name.
Please do not delete this email. Instead, forward it to as wide a group of people as you can. It is in everyone's best interests to support the work of Britain's creative talent.
Thank you for your time.
Friday, February 08, 2008
Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One"
In the previous post I wittered on about Ekaterina Sedia's "The Disemboweller", viewing it through the filter of me own musings on what strange fiction is and how it works. The entry turned out rather longer than I expected (what's new?), but I still want to take a similar approach to the tow other stories in that issue of Lone Star Stories, so I'm going to give it a bash, but see if I can keep it a bit shorter. (Hmmm. We'll see.)
So, next up is Tim Pratt's "The Frozen One".
This is probably my favourite from the story because it's pulling some tricks which push my buttons because it's not that usual to see them done, never mind done well. Here's the first line
"Wait, don't run away, really, it's okay. "
No, there's no inverted commas there in the original. That's right; it's a direct address to the reader, to you. It's an imperative and a reassurance, a plea, and as such, well, it immediately puts us into interesting territory, into something that fucks with our idea of what narrative essentially is. Narrative as we're used to it is either third person, with the narrator as a disembodied voice recounting the action, or first person, with the protagonist themself as the narrator. In this story, there's a narrative contained within the monologue of the first person of the story, the "I" who's telling "You" to "Wait, don't run away", but there's also a narrative that contains it but is not present. This is the speech of one character (I) to another (You), stripped of all the surrounding context that tells us who and where those characters actually are, what action is taking place other before, during and after the speech. All we can do is infer from the content that there are two characters, I and You, that You has made some sort of a move to run away, and that I is, in response, trying to stop him with this speech. We can and do infer this much of the absent narrative, though.
The question is, what's the subjunctivity level of a narrative that is merely inferred? Well, that's rather hard to decide until you've inferred enough of the containing narrative to know whether the events it is... well... not decribing could or could not have happened. So we have a hook which makes us read on, needing to know all the details of who's speaking and who's listening and where and when and why in order to decide the subjunctivity.
Two extra features factor into this, though. First, we know this is a story because we're reading it in the context of an online magazine. For the sake of that story we have already suspended disbelief, playing the game that there's a narative here that "could have happened" (or, in present tense because the speech is simply present, playing out in the reading, a narrative here that "could be happening"). We're making believe that it is. Second, however, the artificiality of the convention, the fact that we, in reading that speech are being placed in the position of You, addressed directly through the text, confronts us with its own wrongness. We were not in fact about to run away. We have not been waylaid from that act by this speech. We are actually sitting down (probably), reading a story on a computer screen. We're not really that You. You doesn't exist. The narrative metafictionally reminds us of its own pretence then, reminds us that all of this "could not be happening".
This is an inherent effect of second person narrative that makes it difficult to pull off, so often alienating, distancing. "You do this," the writer tells us, "then you do that." No, we say to ourselves, I bloody well don't. Who are you to narrate my actions? I don't like being told what to do; I'm damn well not going to have you tell me what I'm actually doing. The fact that in this instance the speaker begins by addressing us in the imperative might well add to that effect, but in its appeal to wait it is also a direct addressing of that impulse.
Wait, don't stop reading, really, it's OK.
So, we don't. OK, we say. I'll hear you out. Let's start with who the fuck you are.
Actually, in this story our response, though absent, is immediately reconstructable:
"No, I don't come from the future. The future isn't a place."
A number of things happen here. Into the gap between first and second sentence we project the question that elicits the second sentence as response -- "Are you from the future?" or some variant thereof. That we do so makes a second act of reconstruction necessary however, Grice's Maxim of Relevance forcing us to question why this strange question would be offered in place of more obvious options like "Who are you?" or "Why not?" We imagine that somehow in the context of the narrative this question is relevant. We ask ourselves why.
Meanwhile, that very denial has invoked the very narrative it is rejecting, that where I is a time traveller and You some individual they are encountering. The subjunctivity level of "could not be happening" is invoked even as it's negated by the denial of that narrative, the I of the text telling us that this impossibility is not an actuality. Not knowing what that actuality is, the mere fact that You would suggest this impossibility implies that at least something about the situation is very strange. We can infer that You is in some comparable situation, confronted with a nameless stranger, strange enough to merit this wild question.
As this strange I of the text continues their monologue (his monologue? hers?), we're given hints and clues that explain at least why this question should arise. The speaker is, we learn, identical in appearance to the listener; (we're even given details suggestive of that appearance -- "blemishes and nose-rings"), has been made that way on the bequest of "bosses" who thought it would somehow help in some sort of mission they have apparently sent him on. This is presented as a deliberate strangeness -- "if we showed you something straight-up impossible right up front, it would save time trying to convince you I'm telling the truth" -- a twisting of nomology in order to demonstrate a seriousness of intent. The very point of the strangeness is that it "could not be happening".
But we're not sure what level of impossibility is at play here. Without a context, without a narrative other than that which we have inferred, there's no way of knowing whether this doppelganger is artifice or anomaly. If the stranger is not from the future are they nevertheless from some elsewhere/elsewhen in which this constructed appearance is achievable by natural means, an artifice? Or are we dealing with something that requires a complete revision of our nomology, an anomaly? We simply don't know. The nearest thing we have to an explanation is the rejection of one in the denial of time travel.
What we do learn, however, is that this is important. At the end of the first paragraph, while we're still trying to fit the few details we have into a suggestion of an outline of a potential narrative, a note of menace is introduced, jarring with the stranger's tone which, up until this point, has seemed casual in its informality. They won't try the doppelganger thing again next time, the stranger tells us. There is a period, a pause for effect, to separate out and thereby stress what follows. "If there is a next time". We know suddenly that whatever the stranger is attempting to achieve, if they fail that attempt may be unrepeatable. Into the ambiguity of the narrative, the absence of explication, we project an inchoate threat which is all the more threatening because it is inchoate, a formless peril. That peril could be any negative consequence, up to and including the End of Everything, the most negative of negative consequences and the one we can be certain would mean that there could be no "next time". Unarticulated, that peril is not something we can even begin to know how we might deal with it. It is too unknown. It is, essentially, the unknown -- the uncanny, we might well say -- loaded with a boulomiac modality of "must not happen" that drives us forward into the story.
The story carries on in this suggestive mode, sketching in details of setting (a "park bench") and character ("you don't need to get back to class, you were planning to cut class all afternoon and hang out smoking in the park"... "the pimple on your forehead and the weird hair"), hinting at a rational explanation while refusing to give it ("Like, ten semesters of intensive lecturing just to give you the background, and we don't have that kind of time"). All that we learn, all that we will learn is that the stranger's mission is... to tell a story, a "parable", a "a story about some little thing that's supposed to teach you something about a big thing."
Needless to say, we're immediately reminded of the strange mode of this story, that it is presented as a direct address to a You whose position in the reconstructed narrative we are occupying for the duration. There's even, perhaps, a knowing little nod to the actual context of the story as a work of "genre", most likely being published in a "genre" venue and read by a "genre" reader, a reassurance that the parable will not just be some tedious lesson, that "it's got monsters and heroes and swords and shit, because we know you like that stuff". As a result, we may again be distanced from the fiction, this metafictional highlighting of the textuality of the story (and the story we are about to read within the story) refusing us the very immersiveness we tend to associate with the most conventional "Fantasy" narratives dealing with those monsters and heroes, etc..
Or maybe not. In genre fiction, I think, there is an aspect to metafiction, or to fiction which uses quasi-metafictional devices, where the effect is not to distance the reader but rather to draw them further in. Developing, perhaps, from that tradition of representing a text as a found article (from Edgar Rice Burroughs's presentation of his Barsoom stories as transmissions from Barsoom by John Carter, up to Mark Z. Danielewski's presentation of HOUSE OF LEAVES as a text found and edited and reconstructed on too many levels to detail), the trick used in genre fiction is actually to break down the barrier, to draw the reader in through the levels, such that we are, in the end, suspending disbelief in a character first, then suspending disbelief in a story that character is reading or hearing along with that character. Which is to say, deepening our level of identification with that character because, for the duration of the nested story we are in their place.
So it is here, with us as readers in place of the unnamed You of the absent narrative, a narrative which, in its absence from the text, is essentially outside it, in the world, a weaving of possibilities around the focus of our invested and immersed imagination, surrounding it, surrounding us. It is we who are being told the parable, we to whom it is directed, we who are, we should realise, being told this because somehow, in some way, it is crucial that we hear it. We are reticent for the same reason the You of the story is; didacticism is something to be suspicious of. But there might be no second chance if we, in failing to listen, make the stranger's mission a failure. There might be negative consequences, the most negative of negative consequences. This "must not happen".
And so we listen, even if we are dubious as we do so.
The nested story tells us of a great city, a city so great it requires the majesty of upper-case as "the City". It is not just described like Peake's Gormenghast, as on a scale that renders it of dubious possibility ("Nobody had ever seen the whole of The City, because you could start walking from one end to the other and die of old age before you explored every basement and tower."), but in fact posited as a breach of nomology at the most basic spatio-temporal level ("Inside some of the oldest buildings, space and time didn't work the way they did elsewhere"). Anomaly is the explicit base-line here, then. The laws of reality are themselves inconsistent. The more mundane "monsters" of the mountains around the city, the "Halfway People", are not really necessary for us to know that the subjunctivity level here is "could not have happened".
Not that this matters. We don't have to totally suspend our disbelief in this story-within-a-story; it is, after all, presented to us as a fabrication. No, we are meant to be looking for the meaning of this parable, the moral, the message. Parables are direct that way, stories with plain, didactic meanings, intended to be obvious. Primed like this we might well attempt a reading of the Halfway People on this level:
"They looked like ordinary people, most of the time, except when they attacked you, and then they sort of grew extra arms and legs and wings and claws and sometimes even tentacles, and that's when you realized they always had those teeth and spines and stuff, you just hadn't been looking at them the right way before."
Is this a warning of monsters masquerading as men and women, of people who appear to be just like us but actually have secret aspects, hidden inhumanities, bestial, predatorial qualities?
There is much in this nested story that plays with familiar tropes of traditional Fantasy ("craftspeople and artisans and engineers and magicians and thieves"), with the odd mundane incongruity thrown in ("schools and restaurants and great dusty warehouses full of ancient stuff, magic and technology and cursed things and treasure"). There are airships because, hey, airships are cool. And there are heroes from various genres ("swordsmen and fighting monks and necromancers"), including comics ("this one woman with green skin who could shoot fire from her eyes and fly...") but offered with more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek ("... but only for short distances.") The casual tone of the stranger's narrative constantly undermines any sense of gravitas, lending an air of pastiche and parody to the tale. When the core image of the titular "Frozen" One is introduced as the hero encased in a block of ice used to keep beer cool in a bar, we know not to take him seriously. This Arthurian "Chosen One", subject of a grandiose prophecy that one day, when the City is in its deepest peril, the ice will melt and he will save the day, doesn't seem terribly... realistic.
A prophecy is, in a sense, another sort of a story. And if we are wary of the parable (as the stranger of the story, perhaps, actually makes us, raising the doubt in us by trying to quell it in the listener), then that wariness now attaches to the prophecy. It's all faintly ridiculous, just a little silly. This isn't how reality works. So the laws of reality emerge again within this story-within-a-story. Prophecy is a thing which inhabits that subjunctivity level of "could not have happened", and in the casual tone of the stranger, the anachronous details and turns of phrase, even in the vaguely contemporary context we have reconstructed for it, or in the reality of the here and now in which we are the addressee, we are invited to see through the artifice, to ask ourselves if the claimed epistemic necessity of the prophecy -- that it "will happen" -- is even remotely plausible. Actually, I'd say, we're pushed by the satiric aspect of the tale towards the epistemic necessity of it not happening that way at all.
Given that what the prophecy says "will happen" is the saving of the City, we are in fact faced with the "could actually happen" of the City being destroyed.
The tale plays out in this way, with a war bringing refugees to the City, the people of the City refusing them entry until it's too late, until they've forced their way in out of desparation, the Halfway People amongst them, and everything goes to shit. And all the while the supposed heroes sit in the bar, waiting for the ice to melt and the Frozen One to save the day. There's a further level of storification when a traveller between worlds arrives and tells them a parable within the parable, an entirely naturalist tale of the mugging and rape of a woman called Kitty in New York, and neighbours who did nothing to help. Why not? The traveller refers to real-world experiments, real-world psychology. "They discovered that, when people are alone, they usually rush to help a person in distress. But when people are in groups, they don't rush—instead, they seem to expect that someone else will do the rescuing, or the calling for help." Finally, he reveals the utter phoniness of the prophecy:
"It's written on the back of a restaurant take-out menu."
All seeming lost through the complacency of the herd mentality, the City in the thrall of a Mayor who is himself one of the Halfway People, the heroes in hiding, a hint of hope is offered though, at the end, in a call to arms.
"The heroes despaired, but finally the green woman rallied them—they might die, but at the very least they could kill the Mayor, and hope that without his guidance the Halfway People would lose their grip on The City. And so they steeled themselves, and went into the office, and did battle."
It's not, perhaps, the most subtle point (I don't think it's difficult to see a certain relevance to America's current political climate), but maybe it's a point that doesn't demand subtlety, that demands bluntness instead. The brute force that comes from smashing the reader up against the naturalist narrative of Kitty -- the subjunctivity level of "could have happened" -- right at the point where the narrative is at its most obviously fanciful -- at the subjunctivity level of "could not have happened". The directness of face-to-face, first person to second person, monologue with the reader stuck in the position of the listener. The teasing, hinting suggestivity drawing the reader in through layers of fanciful imagining only to smack them in the face with reality.
And as we are brought back out to the stranger and the listener, the I and the You, that sneaky genre twist on metafiction is still at work. Now it (finally) offers us a solution (and a resolution in that) to the mystery of the stranger in the notion of parallel worlds:
"I'm from . . . someplace else. Sort of a kingdom next door."
And as it does so it opens out the meaning of the parable, slipping away from a crude political interpretation in which this could, I think, be read as a sledgehammer call-to-arms against the Bush administration, and offering us a wider reading:
"And there's some bad stuff happening there, way more complicated than heroes and Halfway People, but there might be some . . . refugees, you could say. Things might spill over here, to this world. And if they do, and if you're in the right place at the right time—you might be, but we're not sure, it's not like you've got a destiny, you're just some guy—we hope you'll try to do the right thing."
That wider reading, in its suggestion of a vast multiverse, rejects heroism in labelling the listening You, and the reader with them, as just another little everyman,a point driven home by the revelation that this is not an isolated incident ("So we're coming over, talking to as many of you as possible in the few moments we have."), but it nevertheless comes with more than a hint of wonder, of that boulomaic modality of "this should happen". That wonder is there to be co-opted into the service of the affirmation, to make us feel that this we are, or might be, or could be, part of something bigger. The sense that it "should be happening" is there to feed into that sense that this "could be happening", that it "could be happening" now, to fuse them in an affect of passionate resolve, a fierce determination that in any such circumstances -- political, personal or whatever -- we should and could and will be ready to act.
I rather like the story for that alone, never mind the rest of it.
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.