Sunday, April 30, 2017

From Alice Shrugged

An extract from a novel.

The Feminist's Wife

It was approximately one year after the GOLEM incident – as it happens, on the same day that Apple announced that it would be rebranding its integrated, one-stop iOS digital value manager app, the app which united into one slick intuitive interface everything from bank accounts, to credit cards, to cryptocurrency, to loyalty cards, to concert tickets, to really cool concert tickets, and would be quietly discarding the app’s original name, which was ‘Passbook,’ and trumpetingly giving it its new name, which was ‘Wallet’ – that Sozen Nishikawa remembered what it was like being a root vegetable.

It was a remembrance so sudden and so vivid that it caused Sozen Nishikawa to spread out his arms, like the curling tentacles of potatoes in the darkness, a Christful gesture which made the young engineer who was sitting beside Sozen in the coffee shop loudly remark, ‘Varo! Sinä melkein vuotanut juomani!’

Moreover, Sozen’s reminisces of his one-time root-vegetably-ness seized him with such suddenness and vividness that Sozen did not even notice that he had spread his arms, let alone what or whom he had spread them like, and did not hear the woman beside him as she exclaimed, ‘Varo! Sinä melkein vuotanut juomani!’, except perhaps as a kind of roaring contour of noise without sense.

Nor did Sozen even notice how many customers in the coffee shop, understandably startled by the soundless and violent expansion of Sozen’s  upper body and his companion Satu’s near-simultaneous exclamation Varo! etc., craned their necks to observe the pair, tugging the many headphone cords that grew from their laptops into their many ear cavities, as if a strange wind were blowing through the coffee shop from Sozen’s wide hands and tugging its strange varicoloured vegetation to and fro.

Or more accurately, whereas Sozen did not notice that he and Satu were getting some looks, Sozen did notice that he had spread some arms, only the thing was that, just as a very violent and real-feeling nightmare can often weave the real squirming of the sleeper into its unreal narrative, also by the way making pillows and blankets into the crumpled surfaces of wolves and murderers, in a similar way Sozen simply assumed that he had spread his arms in the past, but not spread them in the present.

Sozen remained in this large pose for an unreasonable amount of time. So long, in fact, that by the time that the root vegetable was eventually Sozen once again, the young engineer Satu Sjöström, who regarded Sozen as a bit sketchy and weird but would not have gone as far as ‘insane mid-level yakuza boss on the run’, had managed to completely solve the problem which they’d come into the coffee shop to talk about.

Sometimes, people plunge into reveries and return with responses to problems. But often it’s those who are left behind, forced to wait for the fairy-adventurers to uncross their eyes, who unravel rightly what ought to be done.

The point is not really what the particular problem was, nor what solution Satu Sjöström proposed. The point is what happened next. What happened next was that Satu explained to Sozen her solution, and in her mild excitement about the solution, and discomfit about the arms, she explained it a little badly, although not that badly. Sozen, being slightly still in his potato nature, and moreover battling to get by in autotranslation Finnish, mistook Satu’s solution for something else, something which would never have worked. This renegade resolution, however, this supposed suggestion which was as it were only a trick of the light, or a mondegreen of the lyrics, this complete and utter solution to nothing proposed by absolutely no one, just happened to knock Sozen’s brain cogs aswirl, so that his brain swiftly begat a far more ingenious idea, an idea which happened actually to be the same idea that Satu had just seconds ago actually explained to Sozen.

A common enough occurance. So it is that those who have been away with the fairies often misattribute, to their own adventures at that seelie and lootable Court, creations of mortals who have labored in their absence.

On this occasion Satu wisely chose to clarify the fairy fruit’s supply chain. But because Satu was an engineer and devised solutions all the time, whereas Sozen was a financial patron, and for all Satu knew had never solved anything before, and also to be honest because Sozen had just now yelled ‘Aha!’ and then, while everybody stared, had frozen for about a full minute with his arms at full stretch, and also because of other asymmetries at play, Satu did not stake a very forceful claim to the solution. All she did was sigh, ‘Kyllä, tarkoitin sitä,’ or something of that nature.

At which sigh Sozen, who was a committed feminist – something Satu was even less likely to have guessed him than an insane mid-level yakuza boss on the run – vociferously conceded and apologized to Satu, even somewhat profusely apologized to Satu, for having inadvertently taken credit for what had definitely been her idea all along, conceding and apologizing so vociferously and profusely that he took Satu by surprise, escalating the emotional tenor of the conversation so disconcertingly that it never occurred to Satu to suspect what was actually the case, which was that Sozen hadn’t actually understood her at all, and in fact still thought the idea had been his idea.

For Sozen had interpreted Satu’s hesitance as that hesitance by which we commonly tell our listener that the words now on our lips, although they may be the truest words with which our thought can at this juncture supply those lips, are alas words much more wonkily aligned than usual to whatever invisible inner pattern must be those words’ source and test, whatever kind of agitated shapelessness there is that never settles into either a thing we do nor a thing we are, and to be whose equal must be the work of all our words. And because by that kind of hesitance, which was seriously not at all what Satu was going for, we commonly license our listener to speak on our behalf, or we invite our listener to sit quietly and inhale our language with long, untangling ears, or if reliably untangling ears are not among the ears which our listener is equipped to prick, then it is to listen with speculatively deranging ears that we invite our listener, with long, beautifully labyrinthine ears like like the plumbing of bongs, or if our listener has no wonderful ears to prick whatsoever, then it is only that they clamp their mundane ears to the sides of their head like ear-muffs and venture into the unknown with us, for however far as they can, that we we meekly ask them, that they smilingly accompany us a short way into the frozen wintry wastes of the inexpressible, where, of a necessity, they and we will part ways – or whatever, something like that, but basically because that kind of hesitance is basically weird, or whatever, Sozen was pretty convinced it was basically still him who’d nailed the solution, and that what Satu was trying to say, but at this time couldn’t quite find the words to say, was that she had basically come up with the idea, or at least that the unworkable non-solution which she had proposed had haphazardly contained the rudiments of Sozen’s real solution, the real solution to which, if Sozen hadn’t so gauchely and manfully butted in first, most probably Satu would have gradually fumbled her way, although now they’d never know for sure, right?

And so it was that, as Sozen and Satu gathered and sorted black scarves and coats and hats during their myriad preparations for their triumphant exit from the coffee shop, rising from their leather armchairs prepared in principle to transact dark wool to and fro indefinitely, if necessary, in order to establish what was what and whose was whose, though in practice expertly landing hats on heads and tucking chins in scarves all correctly all within a few breathless seconds, Sozen and Satu each believed, with an absolutely settled inner conviction, that they were the sole inventor of the solution to the little problem which, half an hour earlier, they had nipped into the coffee shop to discuss, a belief which in Satu’s case was correct, and for Sozen as wrong as wrong can be.

So committed a feminist was Sozen that when he returned to his apartment that afternoon he did not boast to his wife of five years about the solution he devised, but instead looked at what lay upon their chopping board and quipped quirkily: ‘I don’t know if I am a man who dreamed he was a potato, or a potato who dreamed he was a man!’

His wife froze, and then continued to chop. Her train of thought had dramatically switched tracks.

As it so happened, Sozen had a more pressing problem, although he did not yet know it, which was that he had not yet done anything good, and this was the very last day of his life.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2016 genre roundup

Originally published in Interzone 268.

Didn’t read much new fiction in 2016. Two bookend books, Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself (Gollancz, late 2015) and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (Tor, early 2017), both come recommended.

I did also really like Yoon Ha Lee’s debut Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, actually 2016). Ninefox Gambit can be enjoyed as a highly accomplished military space opera. There are points of comparison with Ann Leckie, Iain M. Banks, Frank Herbert. It ticks all the boxes vis-à-vis exciting set-pieces, gee-whizz worldbuilding, political intrigue, tension and conflict, sly little twists, and so on.

Thing is, Lee has also arrayed all those ticked little boxes into a strange sigil, a strange sigil of abhorrent and enthralling eldritch leakages. There are points of comparison with, say, Angela Carter. This impression of potent excess may have something to do with gaming, since Lee’s novel is absolutely saturated with the the aesthetics and the logic of gaming.

Ninefox Gambit is packed with vivacious, suggestively intermeshing lore, in the game design sense. Lee’s best incidents gratify like superrare drops. Lee’s sorcerous space conceits – ever enchantingly-baptised, ever partly-occulted – don’t seem to be bothered whether or not I favour them with my suspended disbelief, or with my genre-savvy negative capability. No, all they ask is that I affix them to the edges of my imagination, like new green leaves unfurling on a tech tree, or like bizarre buffs or badass armor upgrades.

The novel's particular form of violence, the way things fly apart in it, suggests games. Even the form of solidity the novel accomplishes often feels like that of games. The critic Carl Freedman suggests that one characteristic of SF is its ‘cognition effect.’ Freedman’s idea is roughly that, as a genre, SF’s solidity is implicated in a kind of rationalist rigor and constancy, which gets supported by a rhetoric of technoscientific plausibility. But I wonder if the equivalent, for Ninefox Gambit, is less about immersive plausibility than immersive playability.

More generally, I wonder: might playability function as a kind of rationality? And if so, how might the rising influence of gaming on genre fiction impact on the complex but enduring distinction between science fiction and fantasy? Perhaps Ninefox Gambit captures a watershed moment.

Pondering such questions takes me to one piece of required reading in SF-related criticism in 2016, Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird’. If you’re a current Interzone reader you’re familiar with what he can do: in this article, which appeared in the second issue of Big Echo: Critical SF, he does it to the New Weird, fantasy, SF, reason, radicalism and reform, political commitment, and the US and the UK, all supported by deft archival work.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s New Weird anthology features prominently in this history. And in 2016 a new VanderMeer omnibus came crashing through the omnibus-sized hole in the door where the letterbox used to be. The Big Book of Science Fiction (Vintage Books) costs twenty quid new. For a project on this scale, choices about how to construct the object itself, the codex, can be high risk and high stakes. Word is Ann herself katana-sliced millions of sheets of paper to optimum thinness while Jeff haphazardly waved the leaf-blower. But kudos to Stephanie Moss and whoever else was involved in making these 750,000 words readable.

The VanderMeers are “less concerned about making sure to include certain authors” than they are “about trying to give accurate overviews of certain eras, impulses, and movements” (xxix). There is a global outlook, with a pragmatic focus on the USSR and Latin America. The introduction is substantial and useful, with heartening idiosyncracies. It is standing squarely inside Anglophone writing, but en pointe, VanderMeerkattishly peeping over the horizon.

I did wonder if perhaps a few subject specialists could be scouted for the second edition? And there are also gestures toward literary modernism, and speaking selfishly, I would have loved an anthology in which those gestures were a bit more vigorous and flappy. But I can fully appreciate the presiding spirit of mild progress and gentle correctives.

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert . . ."

The Big Book of SF aims to discard an unhelpful distinction between genre and mainstream literary fiction, yet it makes a point of preserving a distinction between SF and fantasy. Why? The reason that the Big Book invokes – roughly, SF is about the future – definitely has some legs. (Actually, it probably has steadier legs than ‘cognition effect’). One leg (tentacular) is encased in spacesuit polymers; the other (cloven-hoofed) slips into its mithril chausse, chausse, poleyn, etc., and the VanderMeers wield these fantastic trousers deftly. Besides, editors must impose some arbitrary constraints, and there’s a strong hint of a Big Book of Fantasy in the offing ...

Still, I felt there was something faintly unresolved about all this … until I read Jonathan’s New Weird article, plus a post by Ethan Robinson to which it links. That made me wonder: perhaps a monumental retrospective like the Big Book is unlikely to break down the SF/fantasy distinction, precisely because that would spoil the fun for all the billions of contemporary sfantasy authors (?), who need the the SF/fantasy distinction to have something to heroically break down in a sort of pseudo-radical transgression. It is like actually murdering the villain in a cartoon show: who do you overcome next episode?

But perhaps more to the point, the stories that are here translated into English for the first time are stonkers, certainly the best short speculative fiction I’ve read this year (sorry, alive writers). Yefim Zozulya’s proto-dystopian (?) tale ‘The Doom of Principal City’ and Silvina Ocampo’s ‘The Waves’ are my pick of the bunch. Jacques Barbéri ... Burroughs-ish, Ligotti-ish, Clive Barker-ish?

I thought Karl Hans Strobl’s ‘The Triumph of Mechanics’ is the only one whose interest is perhaps primarily merely as a fragment of a larger history? – but even that one has its moments: an opera singer digs in her cleavage and draws forth a robotic rabbit, from whose dugs dangle nine robot rabbit kits, then screams operatically, so there.

2016 may also be a watershed year for the penetration of AI into cultural production. The Twitterbots whose imbrications I have most enjoyed are @dreamhaver, @magicrealismbot, @speculativecash, @fantasticvocab, and maybe also Sarah Nyberg and Nora Reed’s troll-baiting honeybots (e.g. @arguetron).

Two noteworthy short films, both available online [UPDATE: can't find Skies?], that feel SFnal by virtue of their makers: In the Robot Skies was shot entirely through autonomous camera drones; Sunspring was written by a LSTM recurrent neural network fed on SF screenplays. Sunspring felt hampered by strict fidelity to a narrow constraint (unlike In the Robot Skies). Why not shift the constraint just a little bit, and let humans write the stage directions (aka ‘action’)? But it is a fascinating thing, not least for how it reveals SF’s obsession with epistemology, with what is knowable, and how, and why. The film’s dialogue, for all its fragmenting, splicing, garden pathing grammars, keeps coming back to trust, belief, knowledge, understanding. The other big theme is sex.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit involves calendrical magic. But let’s end with a jolly Christmas hex on calendars themselves, which entice us into impugning something called ‘2016’ for what we ourselves have wrought.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Names in SFF interlude: Scott Lynch

An expression I like, particularly on the lips of young parents on their first infant, is: "Shall we put him down?" It is much better than, "Shall we put him to sleep?", which is presumably just hysterically hubristic to those in the know.

I also quite like this fragment of flameskirmish. Scott Lynch tells Jonathan McCalmont: "Ah, yes, the ever-classy 'people with reading habits different than mine only have them because of (insert contemptible moral or social failing here)' argument. But of course they do, Jonathan. Of course they do. Shhhh. Here's your bottle. It's full of scotch. Not a popular scotch, of course. A suitably obscure one. Shhhhh. Good little critic. Nap time."

(Presumably flameskirmish. I didn't encounter it in incarnadine crackling context. Maybe it's just incredibly good-natured banter).

This series is of course about names in science fiction and fantasy. What I like in Scott's comment is that, by a sort of process of mashing and charcoal chip filtration and copper pot distillation, "Scott Lynch" becomes "Scott Lynch" becomes "scotch". Scott Lynch is, in other words, instinctively cramming himself into a bottle, not as a chibi jin, but as a full-bodied scotch. And not just any scotch, but a posh expensive scotch, immediately brazenly squandered into a milky New Orleans milk punch-type cocktail metaphor, as he pipes his frothy and fermented form like very extreme gripewater down the throat of the flytingly infantalized McCalmont critic-figure, in the quite probably forlorn hope of shushing it and, in at least three senses, putting him down.

Maybe there's even more in that metaphor of author as exhausted parent: after Bloom's anxiety of influence, something you could call anxiety of infants. The commercially successful author knows full well they have little to fear from these squirmy, super-needy little rugrats. Yet when the commercially successful author's thoughts stray to posterity, to legacy, well ... and anyways, it's not just any infant here, but the matri/patri-phagic kind: the uncanny whirring little bundle of joy that sucks in your life and poops and pukes it back out, and grinds your milk to bake its bones, and just grows and grows and grows. Truly spoopy.

1) I haven't read Scott Lynch's novels.
2) The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of ever-classy struggle.

SFF names #17: Boaty McBoatface interlude
SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie