Love, Lies, and Brevity

I’ve been reading what one might call the Marriage Triptych: three unrelated books by writers who are part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, each with “marriage” in the title and each about, among other things, the Sri Lankan civil war. They are: Love Marriage (2008) by V. V. Ganeshananthan, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (2017) by S. J. Sindu, and The Story of A Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasam.

The titles are perhaps deceptively mellow, in the same way that you can’t tell just from the title of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that it’s a gothic horror. The titles’ echoes in each other seem resonant, too: the books are not very alike, but of course they are brought into the same frame by their connecting theme, in much the same way that communities—ethnicities, diasporas—are imagined and re-imagined.

Love Marriage was published a year before the war ended, and is set, I believe, during the same timeframe. The other two are more recently published, but Thousand Lies is set during the second Obama election in 2012, and the reason the titular Brief Marriage is brief is because it’s set in the holocaust at war’s end in 2009, which has shaped the decade since: the decade that ends today, the tenth Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day.

For the first half of that decade, Remembrance Day was called Victory Day. That tells you a lot about the Sri Lankan state, but what it doesn’t tell you is that the change of the name is meaningless. The apparent sensitivity of it, the sudden self-awareness: these things are cosmetic at best, and in so being, they are a mockery of the ideas of sensitivity and self-awareness. It’s much like the original post-war big lie: “zero civilian casualties”. The purpose of a lie of this nature is not to deceive, because nobody could possibly be deceived. It is to demonstrate utter contempt for the very concept of the truth, for the idea of being called to account. Victory Day became Remembrance Day to briefly whitewash the public personas of a new government and president—personas which are quite sullied again by now, of course, through every fault of their own. The name change was superficial: it did not lead to demilitarization in the North, or to reforms. In fact, today we are pointed quite in the opposite direction, towards increased militarization against a new enemy, because the Sinhala-Buddhist state cannot function without a marked enemy minority. Without this, they no longer know who they are.

Love Marriage is about Yalini, who was born during Black July and lives in North America, gradually finding out about her family. Much of that history comes to her from her dying uncle Kumaran, who was an LTTE member, and with whom Yalini’s relationship rapidly grows complicated: she loves him and his obvious love for her mother, and she loves him for his kindness to her, his willingness to share the history she has been denied, but she cannot reconcile herself with everything he has done, the people he’s killed, the ways in which he has compromised her and her family simply by coming to them to die, and bringing his daughter to marry an LTTE financier. The book treats Marriage as a kind of technology: always stylized, always formal, often figurative. Apart from the marriage of Kumaran’s daughter, which Yalini opposes, there is the mirror-marriage of Yalini’s parents, which Kumaran once opposed, and the marriages of her grandparents, in the alien worlds of the prewar past. And then this, the alchemical marriage of individual and family, of person and history:

This is an arranged marriage too, something ordained not by the stars, but by me: this meeting of girl and country.

This encounter with history doesn’t happen all by itself. Yalini only begins to learn about her family as an adult, after the tsunami, after her uncle. Partly it’s because her family keeps secrets, but it’s also that learning history—whether of your family or the world—is work. This is not only a problem for the diaspora: those of us who lived through those years in the South also have to work at encountering and uncovering our histories, of comparing versions of it, of trying to understand. This is especially true of those of us enculturated as Sinhala-Buddhist, because a century-old propaganda campaign effectively is culture and disassembling it is labourious. The absence of this work can be seen in the tightening cycles in which history repeats itself. When political memory is shorter than an electoral cycle, it gets harder and harder to argue for the relevance of historical context. And like for Yalini, the problem is as much a dearth of information in some cases as an oversupply of competing histories in others. The problem is learning how to sift through both silences and lies.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is the book most distant from the war, I think, even though it’s inevitably shaped by it. In Boston, Lucky is a lesbian married to Kris, a gay man, in an attempt to form a superficially heteronormative brown marriage unit that keeps her conservative family happy and his visa intact (she eventually decides to divorce him, of course, but that’s not the climactic decision). Lucky is hopelessly in love with Nisha, with whom she’s been on-and-off forever, but who is now being arranged-married to a straight man, Deepak, and who is going ahead with it out of a sense of filial duty and confusion. Lucky, who is herself struggling with how she feels, does the work and makes her move: she asks Nisha to abandon her marriage-which-would-be-a-lie, and to run away with her. But of course Nisha says no. That’s how it works in this sort of book, and all too often in real life. Just because one person has done the work and figured out a truth they can live with doesn’t mean anybody else is ready to hear it.

Unlike Yalini, Lucky is not consumed with the need to learn and engage with her family history, but her grandmother is her most direct connection to the war, the family’s historian:

Hobbling out of the room on her walking stick, [Grandmother] says, “It’s always about the ones who aren’t here. Remember that.”

Grief is political. Grief is a politics. Every movement, every cause is founded upon its dead. And so the state fears grief, not because they fear that it will lead to violence but because they don’t care for grief’s accusations.

(The current wave of anti-Muslim violence, both organised and disorganised, shows how violence against minorities is, rather than a problem for the Sinhala-Buddhist state and polity, rather a cyclic process of identity-renewal. It is how that identity, both as held by large numbers of people and as encapsulated into law and practice by the state, defines its boundaries, reinforces its hegemonic position, and reiterates its own existence. Without that violence, ‘assimilation’ would more naturally flow in the other direction: the strict borders of the unmarked Sinhala-Buddhist identity would dissolve the moment they are not being enforced and reinforced.)

One of the ways in which we grieve is to dwell on things that hurt to remember: the faces and gestures of those that are lost, the ways in which they might have spoken or acted.

The wedding has probably started. Both sets of parents will give their children away. Nisha’s male cousin, stepping in for a brother, will guide Deepak to the flower-entombed altar. The priest will make a ring out of reeds and start the ceremony, his nasal chanting filling the room. When Deepak’s sister comes to guide her to the altar, Nisha will stand up, grab the chair for support.

Lucky’s not present at this wedding to see any of this: this is imagined. After she’s rejected by Nisha for the last time, Lucky goes home to make peace with, and come out to, her mother (the struggle is real!) This makes it the most hopeful book of the triptych, a book that’s thoroughly brown and queer (including in its awkward collisions with white queerness) and looking for and perhaps finding a future despite how much of a hold the past has on us. The voice of speculation here, the lie-of-the-imaginary with which she visualizes the marriage-which-is-a-lie on the way to finding and speaking her truth, mirrors a scene in Love Marriage where Yalini imagines Kumaran’s funeral in a different way than it really happened: a lie, but perhaps one that is more true than the truth. He dies in Canada, but she thinks, what if he had died in Jaffna?

Both death and marriage require fire. If we were in Jaffna, having a funeral, the sons of the dead man would gather around an ayer, a priest, a Brahmin.

Yalini goes on to imagine, in detail, maintaining the subjunctive for many pages, an entire traditional Tamil funeral for her uncle—which is, not incidentally, very similar to a traditional Sinhala funeral. (The rites in which we mark marriage and death are cousins, having drifted only a little in the few generations that we have been marked as separate peoples.) Yalini’s imagined funeral is her marriage to her own history, the coming together of woman and nation. Lucky’s imagined marriage is a funeral for her love for Nisha, a formal leavetaking of that which is gone and never coming back. Neither Yalini nor Lucky end their books with any interest in marriage for themselves.

Brief Marriage brings us as close to the war as fiction is capable of. It is set in the very heart of the war’s end. Where Thousand Lies spans years of life and Love Marriage spans generations: Brief Marriage spans a day or so. Dinesh is a young man in a camp along with many other refugees, all starving, many wounded. They are all sheltering, often futilely, from constant shelling by the military. Dinesh is also in hiding from being recruited by what the book refers to consistently as “the movement”. He and everyone else in the camp are living on the very brink of either slow or sudden death. Unexpectedly, he finds himself the object of an arranged marriage to a young woman in the same camp, Ganga. Her father, Mr. Somasundaram, simply accosts him one day.

He was an old man, he was going to die soon, and it was his duty to find someone to take care of her once he’d gone. It didn’t matter whether their horoscopes were compatible, or what day or time was most auspicious, for obviously it was impossible to follow all the customs all the time. Dinesh had some education and he was a good, responsible boy, he said looking up again, and that was all that mattered. There was an Iyer in the camp who could perform the rites, and if he said yes then the Iyer would get them married immediately.

Dinesh and Ganga marry, rites and marriage curtailed by circumstance. The narrative is similarly contained. Dinesh is a thoughtful, precise person, undone by trauma and exhaustion but otherwise clear and methodical in his thinking. The shelling has made him all too conscious of his body, its fragility, the filth that encrusts it, the air that moves through it. He sees the people in the camp around him similarly affected in various ways, including some men so deep in grief that they become unresponsive:

the men reminded him of the frogs he’d learned about long ago in school, whose spinal cords were cut by scientists to study the difference between the higher and lower brains. Unlike the frogs you saw in ponds and puddles, whose wet skin was always expanding and contracting and whose deep, satisfied voices were always rising and falling, the embodiment of organic flourishing, these mutilated frogs were completely still and silent, oblivious to all stimuli, passive even when poked or prodded. Whether they were hungry or thirsty, calm or scared, it was impossible to tell for the only movement they made was when they were pushed over, in response to which they merely righted themselves and resumed their blankness, a blankness they kept till they died.

When Ganga dies, Dinesh too retreats into himself like this, and we finally see this state from the inside, the utter extremity of grief, of sympathetic dying.

Throughout, the book treats his perspective with deep dignity, because the events of the narrative do not. As Subashini Navaratnam says in her extremely thoughtful review:

It occurs to me that there is an ethics to this kind of careful, precise writing. Someone who writes like this must value the moral in the process of creation and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not merely to “tell a story”. It is to fundamentally disturb the reader.

The book depicts just one person’s interiority in all its depth and intelligence, and with all the attendant horror of those things being abused and destroyed. Its politics is contained in the crushing gravity of that stubborn singularity. In its refusal to simplify (or complicate, depending on how you look at it) it has no access to statistics: it cannot ask these questions in the way that we are more accustomed to. It does not ask any questions at all: it merely says that this is how one person might live and love and die in a place like that. It leaves to us to try and encompass the vast expanse of what one single person truly is, and to multiply it, and to multiply it, and to imagine a hundred thousand funeral fires, to imagine who they might have come home to, made peace with, come out to.

Your Animal Mind at Ease

Recent publications: short stories “On the Origin of Specie” in Nightmare and “Half-Eaten Cities” in Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Volume II from the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.

I quoted this lovely poem by Ada Limón recently and have been thinking about it—and about poetry, and animals—a lot since then.

My beautiful dog died a few days ago. (Fuck cancer.) My instagram, such as it is, was composed mostly of pictures of her—I have many hundreds of pictures, though I’ve only posted a few. (I’d post one here but I’d rather not right now.) I’m glad to have the pictures. But they are not the same as having a dog sleeping at your feet in the morning sun. I keep hearing her breathing, or the clicking of her claws on the floor. I hope there is room in me for one more ghost.

Also, I have a migraine. My head feels like a clay pot being overstuffed with ash. I am patiently waiting for the first crack to appear, at my left temple where the pressure is sharpest, which will bleed in grey like dust falling in some silent lunar landscape.

Cave Canem, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.
Cave Canem, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.

Words are stories. The cave in cave canem is from the Latin caveo: to be aware of, to pay attention. Via the shared Proto-Indo-European ancestor, it is cousin to kavi, the Sanskrit word for the poet, the wise, the seer; it is grand-aunt to the contemporary Sinhala word for the poem and poet alike. The poem is the seeing, the wisdom; the dog is the poem.

History’s Anteroom

Recent publications: a couple of short stories—“Mulch” in See The Elephant #4 from Metaphysical Circus Press and “The Dreaded Name: Thirty-Nine Crowdsourced Annotations on an Anonymous Manifesto Promoting Tactical Human Extinction” (my longest story title ever, by some margin) in the anthology The Internet is Where the Robots Live Now from Paper Dog Books—and a poem, “Vajrakantakasalmali”, in Syntax & Salt.

Since we are in a Janus-faced moment (see also: resolutions and irresolutions, the takings and leavings of stock) there is a round-up of everything I published in 2018 listed here in my bibliography, or alternatively and perhaps more intriguingly in full tweet-thread form here, where I even did little blurb-type things for each of them.

I used to find that sort of thing harder to do than writing the stories—social media self-promotion in general, or worse, writing blurby bits about my own work and trying to say what a thing is about, when obviously everything is about a lot of things. But sometimes you can just say some words and move on with your life? It seems the salve for many of life’s thorns is to try to relax and do the thing and not worry about it too much. And this is perhaps good advice not just for the minor but also the major arcana. See also: the leavings and takings of leave, the piya vippayoga dukkha, which is the name of the thing that flutters in the extremely occupied cage and makes it hard work for the other organs to organ. A lung must lung without having to worry about stray claws and beaks and feathers. A heart must heart.

Max Porter, "Grief is the Thing with Feathers" (2015)

Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is fortunately not about Ted Hughes as such despite the overwhelming stench of Crow, but rather about a Ted Hughes scholar. It’s a small lovely book about grief as the madness with sanction, the permitted abandon. There are the things we see and the voices we hear, the half-world we inhabit, sometimes for too long, eating and drinking of it, until we can’t quite come all the way back. That’s me, you see. It took me about seven years to breathe out and say, okay, maybe I’m never going to come all the way back. But then there was an eighth year (and we are in it still—calendrical regimes are complicated) in which I am like, well, fuck it, I can make this work too. It may seem like I’m talking about several things at once. I am, because everything is about a lot of things. Griefs—what an awkward-ass plural that is; it should at least be grieves for the echo, for we be reft when we be reaved—braid. And the pain of being separated from those you love, the diamond-edged precision of this term, the piya vippayoga dukkha, does not speak of death at all, except to encompass it by implication. Death is not the mystery: sundering is.

Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was trans­formed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance—provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem.

From Benjamin’s Paralipomena
H.L. Seneviratne, "The Work of Kings" (2000)

This anteroom is a hazard for the handling of infinite tasks. This is, for example, how orthodox Sri Lankan Theravada handles the problem of nirvana: defined as an impossible problem of many lifetimes, it’s easy to put it aside altogether and do other things of more worldly import. H.L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings records a particular argument about the heritage of a Theravada Buddhist monk in the late 1940s, overlapping with the struggle for nation-making. Walpola Rahula argues for the politicization of the monk, and a social role in keeping with the Christian model; his critic Henpitagedara Gnanavasa argues for a vibhavagami path that precludes this kind of usefulness. Of course, Gnanavasa lost this argument so thoroughly that (as I noted when I tweeted about this book a while back) now, seventy years later, it is bizarre to expect that Buddhist monks should practice Buddhism. Organized Sri Lankan Theravada entered history’s anteroom then, and has since made itself very comfortable there: to yr average frothing-at-the-mouth monk, that anteroom is the world.

The classless society and nirvana are not the only kind of infinite tasks, though. These are not truly infinite tasks: they could be any task of sufficient scope and ambition that it can easily be (mis)construed as infinite. This is, as are many things, a problem of definition. Healing can become an infinite task, if you’re not careful. So can Great Works, if one is so incautious as to attempt them. It’s a pattern that occurs in the large and the small, like nautilus shells and spiral galaxies. But this kind of connection between the large and the small is itself the beginning of an answer, if sundering were a question. Listen, that is Earth under your feet, the same as mine.

Jasminum grandiflorum

Recent publications: short story “When Leopard’s-Bane Came to the Door of Third Heaven” in Liminal.

Thinking about: the act of writing in its raw, uncut form, as a kind of religious experience—as a kind of transport—is such a strange thing to have encompassed and upheld by routine and ritual, by faith’s grind, like you were walking uphill to temple every day, and of course you bring your saman pichcha and light the little clay lamps, coconut oil on your fingers; you sit cross-legged in the hot, grainy sand to say the dead words, during which you think of your dead, and theirs, and theirs, multiplying overhead like a great bone tree rising into the sky. No, that’s all a bit grim, isn’t it? Let’s say instead you’re like a mime practicing a bit. First you elaborately draw a door in the air, marking out hinge and latch and doorknob, finding an imaginary key in your pocket, feigning surprise—you insert and turn it in the lock which does not exist, and it goes click and you push it open and walk through. Some days there is nothing through the door, though you have to open it anyway to find out. And some days you walk through into an altered landscape. Everything looks the same, and in fact everything is the same, because after all this was only mime and it was an imaginary door, except now the room is redder in your eyes and there is music in the air.

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.

Review: The Arrival of Missives

(A version of this post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

The Arrival of MissivesTime travel TV shows can be broadly divided into two categories based on whether they’re about conserving history or changing it. On the one hand, Legends of Tomorrow or Timeless are about characters from our present preserving the status quo of our past, no matter how many historical atrocities must be committed to make that happen. On the other hand, 12 Monkeys or Travelers are (generally better) shows about characters from our future attempting to change the status quo of their past: our present is the error they’re setting out to change. The first category is big on costumes and cliché historical settings. The second is usually about future dystopias that must be prevented by taking action in our present: depending on budget, we may see more or less of the future dystopia itself, which features its own set of clichés.

Travelers in particular is one of the better science fiction shows on TV lately. It’s a low-budget show, light on the fx and heavy on the high concept. We don’t see the future dystopia directly; we only see it in the estrangement of the travelers, the presences they note with joy and wonder, allowing us to register them as corresponding future absences: the clean air, the trees, the birdsong. What differentiates the travelers in Travelers from the ones in 12 Monkeys (or Continuum, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles …) is that they are not a small band of plucky renegades, but part of an organized, civilization-scale collective project. Everybody left alive in the unseen Travelers future dystopia is working on this: many teams are sent back to our present, operating in cells and working on many problems at once. It is understood that the problems of the future do not derive from some particular single event that the time travelers could easily prevent. There is no particular villain to shoot, no bomb to defuse. And because of this, the project is dynamic, as the future adjusts to consequences and sends further instructions. The goalposts are always moving. And all the missions on Travelers are one-way trips: all these people are exiles from the future, committing the rest of their natural lives to the project. That is, they are exiles not only from the future that they came from, but also from the better future that they are creating. This is a leftist/sfnal well that many writers have drawn from before. There is a desperate romance in the double alienation both from the inaccessible future and from the uncomprehending present.

funarof7
(Source; full text of poem: “The Bellbuoy”)

Nearing the end of Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives, we think we’ve learned that it’s the second kind of time travel story: a story about a future attempting to change the past to change itself. Though here there are no travelers at all. All that is sent back are messages, the titular missives. Only information. The future is spamming the past with propaganda, hoping that of all the people who receive it, at least a few will be receptive, will be radicalized, driven to action.

Imagine reaching the point where there are no further allies to find, and so, in desperation, you write a message and place it within a bottle and throw it into the ocean. You hope and pray it will reach somebody who will feel the same as you, and who will find a way to aid you across that great expanse of ocean. That maybe they will save you. You pour all your persuasion into that message, and you cast it adrift; you have no inkling as to what kind of person might find it. You can only hope that it is picked up by somebody who shares your beliefs. Perhaps, if you send many such messages, some will wash up on fertile soil.

It matters that these communications are missives. They are entirely static and unidirectional. There is no access to consequences, no adaptation, no movement. The future is not listening, only speaking.

As Jonathan’s review covers in detail, Missives is written from the point of view of a young English woman, Shirley Fearn, who has a crush on the new local schoolmaster, Mr. Tiller. The story is set in early 1920, during which Shirley gradually learns that Tiller is an agent of a distant future that is attempting to change her present in a very personal way. Shirley is not the object of Tiller’s machinations, but his instrument: he wants to ensure that a particular young couple in her village don’t marry, so as to render their line of descent nonexistent. Sort of like Terminator, if the Terminator didn’t attack John or Sarah Connor, but instead sabotaged Sarah’s grandfather’s marriage before they had children. Tiller attempts to use Shirley to break up that marriage before it happens, escalating to violence as his original plan fails.

Tiller was recruited during the war; as a soldier and near death, he encounters the missive as a rock-like object that embeds itself in his body, in what would have otherwise have been a fatal wound. It preserves his life and lets him experience the future’s propaganda as visions when he touches it. When we meet him, he’s a true believer, completely committed to bringing about the future that the future demands of him. His error is in bringing Shirley into his confidence, in attempting to recruit her by allowing her to receive the missive as well. Afterwards, Shirley reflects on Tiller:

He is not mad. He is brave, and determined. He is utterly mistaken in his loyalty. He has taken the vision as undisputed knowledge rather than a point of view. He does not see that this future is not his fight.

Shirley is less susceptible to the propaganda of the future because she is not its target audience. Tiller accepts the missive’s assertions uncritically, that its eugenicist patriarchal white supremacist future needs defending, because it’s aimed directly at people like him. He sees only what the future is arguing for, not what it’s arguing against, because that dystopia is only an extension of systems that were already well in place by 1920. Tiller already understands capitalism, empire, and patriarchy to be good, solidly British, desirable things; how could he see their logical endpoints as anything but perfection? It doesn’t even occur to him that Shirley might find this future alienating instead of uplifting, or that it might drive her to desperate opposition. Which it does—the book ends on a declaration of war, where Shirley abandons her old plans for her own life to hunt down other agents of the future and destroy them. The empire, reaching back through time, is creating not only its fanatical adherents but an equally fervent resistance.

In 1835, Kylas Chunder Dutt wrote a short story called “A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945”, published in the Calcutta Literary Gazette. It’s one of the earliest published English-language short stories from South Asia, and it’s a science fiction story about a rebellion against the British Empire 110 years in the future—the rebellion fails, incidentally, which is more pessimistic than one would expect from such a young writer (Dutt was eighteen at the time), but I suspect that Dutt was setting out to write about resilience in the face of defeat, not about the end of Empire. It is very clearly a polemic, deliberately seditious. It was, if you like, propaganda from a particular future, all the more remarkable for its prescience. And of course Dutt’s future 1945 is still a quarter-century in the future of The Arrival of Missives, whose little struggle between competing futures may seem to take place in an idyllic English village, but actually takes place in a horrific dystopia of its own. To take only a single example, Shirley and Tiller’s story is taking place more or less simultaneously with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and its immediate aftermath.

Almost any future can be argued for in a way that (briefly, at least) might make it sound desirable; anybody can claim to be an exile from the future, a true believer. This is also very much a story about how history is written, and by whom, and for whom. History is written by those who have power, but this isn’t just the battleground of the history textbooks: history is constantly being written as it is made. One could even go so far as to define power as the ability to impose narrative on events; to repress and reinterpret history even as it happens, so that even the future’s primary sources will contain those distortions. As Churchill said of his WW2 memoirs, “this is not history—this is my case.” In Travelers, the future’s understanding of our present sometimes includes dangerous misunderstandings based on inaccuracies in the historical record. In Missives, the future attempts to retroactively impose those distortions on the past, to make its narrative of an endangered perfection as compelling and contagious as possible.

This is a tempting but dangerous romanticism, Missives argues, because it’s agnostic to principle. Which is why principles matter, of course. Missives constructs an argument against romanticism using the voice of a romantic young woman, which is why the process of her working her way through various romantic illusions is significant. And the novum—that the future is a dystopia attempting to preserve itself, not a utopia struggling to be born—works because we are already familiar with the grammar of time travel stories, so that we too are tempted to read Tiller sympathetically at the outset. After all, he has a mission and a big picture, which everybody else in this parochial village lacks. Shirley learns to read the missive critically, but too late to save a life. The necessity and method of reading against the grain is what feels to me like the heart of The Arrival of Missives. Shirley has to teach herself how to do this from scratch. The sheer preponderance of time travel narratives here in 2017 that rely on the same devices and uphold the same politics as Tiller’s future space nazis suggests that this has never stopped being necessary.

Review: Empire V

(A version of this post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

Empire VEmpire V (Victor Pelevin, translated by Anthony Phillips) is about vampires, which is probably guaranteed to turn away many readers who could happily go the rest of their lives without seeing another vampire. The figure of the vampire has by this point been made to stand in for so many disparate things—the sexual predator, the romantic outsider, the lonely immortal, the feral beast, whatever—that the image feels quite emptied of meaning in itself. Merely knowing that there are vampires in a story no longer tells us anything useful about it. At best, one might make two safe guesses: one, that the story is not going to be about vampirism as such; two, that the vampires will be in some way a fringe element to society.

The first of those is largely because the vampire as a figure of fear seems dated; it’s rarely played that straight any more except in apocalyptic scenarios like The Passage or The Strain, or perhaps in retellings like The Historian. In stories with a contemporary, non-apocalyptic setting, the vampire as a romantic sympathetic figure is of course more common. It exploits a convenient otherness, especially if the tiresome biteyness can be toned down—the heroic vampire happens to be “half human” and/or has a “soul” and/or is vegetarian and/or has a plentiful supply of ethically sourced blood, or any other device that allows the story to be about something other than the vampirism per se.

The second safe guess, meanwhile, is what generally unites the use of the image across styles and tones: in a non-apocalyptic scenario, vampires must necessarily be a hidden or otherwise fringe element. They might be secret sybarites living in luxury like in Blade or Underworld, romantic feral loners like in Let The Right One In, comedic suburban left-behinds like in What We Do In The Shadows, or if their existence is widely known, they might even (bizarrely) be an oppressed minority like in the Sookie Stackhouse books. In all of these variations, the vampire is marginal to human civilization, which is still (if only by virtue of numbers) the dominant power. At most, they’re a hidden secret society that might farm small communities of humans, like in Fledgling or Carrion Comfort.

Pelevin’s Empire V is entertaining precisely to the extent that it flouts these two safe guesses. First, the entire book is specifically about the act of vampirism and what exactly it is that’s being sucked, which is no longer blood but money, or rather the human mental processes and anxieties of desire and frustration that money represents; second, its vampires are not marginalized in any way, but are rather the designers and creators of humans both as a species and as a society: humans were bred to have a mind that would desire things, and then given a society engineered to both continually provoke that desire and frustrate it.

As a critique of capitalism, this is perhaps a little too over-the-top to work except as comedy, so of course Empire V hams it up from the very beginning. The protagonist is a hapless and unpleasant young man who is turned by a vampire at the outset and spends the rest of the book being indoctrinated into vampire society, which is (naturally) full of terrible people. Early on, he learns that the actual vampires are a slug-like symbiont (called the Tongue, because it replaces the tongue of a human host): these are creatures who once fed on dinosaurs, and who ensured that mammals and then humans were bred to be compatible for symbiosis.

‘For a long period we lived in large predators, such as the sabre-toothed tiger and other big cats. Our culture was at that time, well … ah … somewhat alarming. Heroic and violent, you might say. We were terrible, magnificent and cruel. But you cannot be magnificent and cruel for ever, and approximately half a million years ago there was a kind of a revolution in the world of vampires …’

The term ‘revolution’ had frequently cropped up in Discourse, and could apparently mean almost anything you wanted it to. I thought of the most recent contexts in which I could remember it being used.

‘Do you mean something like the Orange Revolution in Kiev? Or something more like the Volvo Revolution?’

‘Hmm,’ said Enlil Maratovich uncertainly, ‘not quite. It was more akin to a religious conversion. As I mentioned, vampires set themselves the task of changing over from stock-raising to a form of dairy husbandry. They decided to create a milch animal for their needs. The result was the appearance of mankind.’

This is pretty typical of Empire’s prose: both the sly humour and the way people talk at the protagonist, Rama, who is continually frustrated by his inability to understand vampire ideology and continually insecure about his low position in their hierarchy and his inability to assimilate. Eventually it turns out he’s not a unusually bad learner, nor is vampire pedagogy fundamentally unsound—his education was half-assed because he was earmarked for a social/sacrificial role that he was not expected to survive. But that’s not particularly important. Plot and denouement are not what this book is about. This book is about the pleasure of lazily exploring the metaphor’s odd corners, as if deliberately setting itself in opposition to stories that take the vampire and all its associated tropes as givens.

Vampires, of course, have a stake in every speculative genre. From their roots in horror and the weird to their more defanged cousins in fantasy, they vary more in the affect they are intended to evoke rather than in the plausibility of the explanations for their existence. The most science-fictional vampires, like in Fledgling or Blindsight, are the ones that break the fewest realisms. Unlike the monstrous vampire who is an aberration of nature, or the friendly neighbourhood Vincent the Vegetable Vampire who is fully assimilated into the narrative’s normal, the most sfnal vampire stories are the ones that worry about explanations (where do vampires come from? How do they work? What do they want?) and attempt to answer these questions in material terms. The peculiar pleasure of Empire V is just how much space it devotes to this at the expense of a more conventional plot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a conventional plot: there is indeed a faux-romance and a rivalry, culminating in a vampire duel. But in keeping with Empire’s absurdist tone, the duel is fought with poems, which inevitably leads into a discussion of the formal requirements of the vampiric sonnet, which may well be my favourite passage in the whole book.

‘So, according to the rules of the engagement you and your rival must each compose a poem. The form of the poem must be a vampiric sonnet.’

‘What is that?’ I asked.

Loki looked enquiringly at Baldur.

‘Did we not tell you?’ groaned Baldur. ‘What an omission. A vampiric sonnet is a poem consisting of twelve lines. Rhyme and metre, if any, are optional. The most important thing is that the last line must metaphorically suck, so to say, all the meaning out of the poem, expressing and encapsulating with maximum brevity the quintessence of the verse. The last line thus symbolises the process whereby red liquid is sublimated into bablos, which you then ritually present to the Mosquito Muse. Understand?’

‘Approximately,’ I said.

‘But this is a lyric poetry convention, not a strict rule,’ continued Baldur. ‘Each poet can decide for himself the manner in which he proposes to convey the sense of the whole poem in a single line. After all, only the author knows what it is, is that not so?’

Loki nodded importantly.

‘There’s one other rule for the vampiric sonnet – it should be written as a reverse stairway. The result is a kind of ladder of meanings, symbolising the vampire’s descent to the lowest essence. But actually that’s not obligatory either.’

‘What do you mean by a reverse stairway? What would it look like?’

‘Like Mayakovsky,’ said Baldur. ‘Only backwards.’

Having been told that humans were bred for milking, Rama (an assumed name, like Loki and Baldur and the rest: all vampires name themselves after human gods when they enter into symbiosis with a Tongue, as a kind of affectation. Among the many hierarchies of vampire society is that technically the human bodies and minds of the vampires themselves, no matter their seniority, are entirely subservient to the Tongue, which is simultaneously the organ through which they imbibe raw exploitation and the one through which they discourse about it) spends much of the book trying to understand, as he puts it, the “milking mechanism”. He’s seen Blade: Trinity so he wonders whether there are shrink-wrapped humans being bled in secret laboratories. When he learns that it’s about money, not blood, at first he interprets that in the most literal possible way, assuming that used paper currency is somehow liquefied into something vampires can drink. But it’s simpler than that. Empire V’s vampires don’t ambush people in dark alleys and bite them or gnaw on their wallets. Instead, they feed remotely on bablos, rarefied human desire; that is, they consume the emotional labour performed by the human mind. (To the vampire, this is the original purpose of human minds and everything else is merely byproduct.) Of course, this is not a new metaphor, but a return to one of the oldest. To Marx, capital was dead labour that, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour”—a device literalized in Empire, if broadened somewhat in scope.

The monstrous vampire is usually a particular predator (sometimes a plague of infection, though this is usually zombies or aliens, but mostly individual bad vampires with their own personalities, or at least aesthetics); meanwhile, the prevalent reimagining of the vampire as tortured antihero or even just regular romantic hero (presumably paralleling the reactionary politics of the last forty years) is also usually about particular vampires, focusing intensely on their personal struggles and individual characters. Empire avoids both of those approaches by being very much about vampires as a ruling class, not as individuals. This is underscored by how little their human selves or personalities seem to matter to the Tongues: Rama appears to be selected as a host more or less at random. None of the vampires are interestingly tortured, or even conflicted; rather, new vampires are quickly seduced by wealth and privilege, and completely submerged in a bubble of ideological reinforcement. The eventual revelation and consumption of the bablos is experienced by Rama as euphoric rather than horrific. Tellingly, an older vampire remarks that consumption of bablos is actually traumatic and painful for the human hosts, but that the Tongue then conditions them by releasing neurotransmitters to retroactively believe that the pain was in fact superhuman happiness and pleasure.

I was no exception. I could remember this bright-red germ of hope growing in me … We imagine we are just on the point of understanding something important, of figuring it all out at last, of achieving something, after which a new life will begin, the right life, the real life. But this never happens because the red drop of sense and hope always vanishes, and we must begin again to grow it and nurture it from nothing. And then it disappears once again, and so it goes on throughout our life, while we become more and more tired until finally nothing is left to us but to lie on our beds, turn our faces to the wall, and die …

Now I knew what invariably happens to the red drop of hope. I fell ever more quickly through other lives as my rider was deftly scooping up the last remaining drops of meaning, swallowing them as it sated its inscrutable hunger. Many people I saw were on the brink of understanding what was happening, they guessed it but were incapable of thinking about it. […] In the last second of the voyage I remembered that all of this had been familiar to me when I was a child. Then I had seen vampires flying through my dreams and knew that they were taking from me the most important thing in life. But in the real world it is forbidden for humans to know what they can know in dreams.

The individual vampires in Empire are clownishly malevolent. Not a one of them is a leathery badass or dark mastermind. While the totalizing system of vampiric exploitation is indeed sinister and horrific, the particular vampires who we see benefit from it are as foolish, venal, petty, self-satisfied, and unsexily dangerous as any President or CEO. Arguably this might make the book too realistic to be considered science fiction, but for what it’s worth they do turn into giant bats sometimes.