Caduceus

I said this earlier:

… and I feel like I write about this a lot:

This reversal is a familiar reusable big Kirbytech device in science fiction. I’ve written about its use in Aztec Century and The War of the Worlds. TV Tropes calls it the “persecution flip,” and it’s ubiquitous. To do it well is to show truths that are obscured by ideology, and to make them stark and visible by turning history upside down; to do it badly is to paternalistically justify that history, for example by presenting enormity as benevolent (Childhood’s End) or by presenting the reversal of enormity as even worse (Farnham’s Freehold).

… if only because of its ubiquity. I think of this shit as a kind of anti-life, a counter-sf, because it’s as intimately entangled with its other as the snakes of the caduceus.

the particular framework that I want to think and write through: the idea that the core tradition of science fiction is a literature of resistance to empire―a tradition with its early roots in, say, Kylas Chunder Dutt and Martin Delany―which refuses the hegemonic formal constraints of the mimetic novel, and eventually builds a toolkit of refusals against the three great constraints of realism: location, selfhood, and physics. And of course, the mirror-tradition with which it is inextricably entangled, the counter-science-fiction of using those same tools to magnify empire and domination instead.

Caduceus_on_Mauryan_coin
Caduceus symbol on a coin of the Maurya Empire, 3rd to 2nd century BCE (source)

The two traditions were born together, two sides of one coin. So to talk about the coin’s face instead of its repugnant ass for once, consider “Human Pilots” by J. B. Park (Strange Horizons, August 2017) for a minute, a story I had the pleasure of editing and publishing a year ago. What drew me to it is how it depicts the hollowing-out of the social role of the “war hero,” and the absence of all the things you associate with war in sff, i.e., the ways in which such stories are normally cartoonish and ridiculous, or imperialistic and jingoist, or grimdark and deathporny, or combinations thereof. I liked that “Human Pilots” instead has something to say about alienation from two angles—

First, how soldiers are used as raw material in an industrial process that they aren’t expected to understand.

Second, how it extends the separation of actor from action (and the distancing of both from mere victims) that characterizes the history of modern war.

The latter is the gap that automatic weapons, bombers, missiles, and drones have all been methodically widening over the last hundred and some years. The titular human pilots are even more alienated from the consequences of their actions than the real-life pilots of drones or bombers:

The pilots flew at such great heights they were incapable of discriminating between a Cambodian village and their targets, North Vietnamese supply lines

… so much so that in the story, they literally can’t remember what they did and what they’re responsible for.

In real life, of course, war is all about these structural unseeings, refusals to acknowledge, naked denials. Forgetting is strategic for the war criminal in front of a truth and reconciliation commission. It need not be the literary strategy of choice for the writer of war. Military science fiction is not formally required to be a litany of pathetic, awful failures. Otro mundo, as they used to say, es posible.

if a cure for these dire ills he know

Recent publications: short story “Ruin’s Cure” in Big Echo.

The title of the story is a reference to a line from The Persians by Aeschylus (472 BCE, rendered in the title above as given in Anna Swanwick’s 1873 The Dramas of Aeschylus.) This is a play which is propaganda taking great pleasure in the military defeat of an enemy, like the Mahavamsa—but even more smug, if possible, for being written from the point of view of the defeated enemy, the royal family of Xerxes, so that their tragedy may delighted in by the Greek audience. Like schadenfreude, but more intimate still. The ghost of Xerxes’ father Darius is summoned to ask if in the wisdom of death he knows of some remedy for this ruin. But Darius fails to come up with an alternate history: he has only lamentations and curses to offer.

flaxman
A sheet of preliminary sketches for John Flaxman’s c.1793 illustrations for The Persians; at top, the Dream of Atossa, Xerxes fallen from the chariot with Darius bending over him in pity; below, the Persians slain by the Greeks, who hurl rocks and darts from above; and at bottom a faint graphite sketch of Cassandra prophesying. (source: British Museum)

 

High Thermidor, CCXXVI

Recent publications: short stories “Terminus” in Three-Lobed Burning Eye and “Heron of Earth” in Clarkesworld, and “Rupture & Complicity”, my review of the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist, in Strange Horizons.

Reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun recently:

I’ve been thinking about how we construct personal calendars as an emotional terrain for navigating loss. How much more useful this is than, for example, the tired Kübler-Ross stages of grief, which aren’t even a real thing but somehow still persist as a meme, perhaps because it’s so anachronistically gamified and well-suited to life in the neoliberal ascendancy, positing this return to productive social behaviour after processing the inconvenient deviation. Grief as a calendrical regime, however, is cyclic, not linear. It mingles with the rains in their season: expected, torrential, dangerous, fruitful. I’ve come to expect a certain harvest from Fructidor and Vendémiaire—and Germinal too, though one feature of a calendrical system is that the past recedes faster than the future approaches—pain, of course, and memory, but also a kind of unhomely restlessness, a potential energy. This is what appeals about the idea of a calendrical regime as a machine for doing work, rather than only for painful remembrances. Something vast and rotating, grinding the teeth of its gears, pulling, pulling gleaming bones out of the dark water.