I’ve written a review of two more novels shortlisted for the 2019 Clarke award, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Sue Burke’s Semiosis: I paired them because of their structural and thematic commonalities, as I probably will also with the Whiteley and the Saadawi.
Many thanks to my patrons for supporting these! Greatly appreciated, you all are why these essays can fungally exfiltrate the biodome and successfully infect the noösphere.
Still noodling over the options of how to actually use Patreon’s posting features. I plan to continue to have both public and patron-only posts: the latter will be on Patreon out of necessity, but in future I think I’ll switch to putting the public posts here and linking them from Patreon rather than the other way around. Mostly because I much prefer the very flexible and extensive WordPress formatting options to the stark and rudimentary formatting features that Patreon provides for text posts. It is not exactly friendly to the longform essayist, that place: one gets the impression it’s designed more for embedding or linking to content than actually containing it. What I like about the new WordPress interface (the controversial Gutenberg editor) is that it seems equally at home with both. The paragraph should be treated as a quasi-magical high technology from a Lost Age, to be hoarded and dreaded for its dangerous powers, not consigned to poor implementation of paragraph and line break tags.
So I’m trying something a bit different this year. I’ve launched a Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/vajra, which I’m hoping to gradually turn into something that supports more regular nonfiction output from me: essays and criticism, on speculative fiction and other subjects of interest. Please do check it out, and all signal-boosting is wildly appreciated!
The images show a postapoc American landscape dotted by giant downed warcraft of various types, and both living and dead bodies adorned with “neurocasters”, which are a mashup of a VR headset (which is what they look like) and the neural jacks of ye olde cyberpunke (sigh). Using the neurocasters, people can control drones, which is how the last war was fought. (First drones, and only then the sticks and stones.)
Meanwhile, for an overview of what I’ll be writing about on Patreon in the near future, the full shortlist is, in no particular order:
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Semiosis by Sue Burke
This is an interesting shortlist. Electric State is an illustrated novelette. Rosewater, Semiosis, and Revenant Gun are all series books, and all are quite clearly written to work as series books. Rosewater opens a trilogy and Semiosis a duology, while Revenant Gun concludes a trilogy: the ghosts of five other books accompany these, in other words, of which two I’ve read and two haven’t been published yet. These three shortlistees are, I feel, all the same type of series book, in that they belong to closed trilogies and duologies attempting to tell a single overarching story, rather than open-ended episodic series where each book largely works by itself (this is not an exhaustive or mutually exclusive typology: more complex situations abound, such as Cherryh’s Foreigner series, which does multiple trilogies in sequence and therefore does both of these things at the same time.) These three, though, considered as individual novels, are definitionally incomplete to varying degrees. The only standalone full-length novels in the shortlist this year are Loosening Skin and Frankenstein in Baghdad, which immediately endears them to me, of course. Last year there were no series books at all, so this is quite the turn.
Lee’s Ninefox Gambit was shortlisted a couple of years ago, so that means two out of three books in the Machineries trilogy are Clarke nominees—very cool. (Poor middle child Raven Stratagem, though.)
I particularly appreciate that the Saadawi made it on here, as a translation: I don’t believe there have been any translations on a Clarke shortlist in some time: in 2017’s shadow jury I picked out all the eligible translations from the submissions list and hoped to see more on the official shortlist in future years. (I believe Electric State was simultaneously produced in English and Swedish after a successful crowdfunding campaign, so I’m not counting that as a translation in the same sense of making a pre-existing book written in another language available to an anglophone readership. But if you do count that also, it would make it two translations.) I also picked Aliya Whiteley’s Arrival of Missives for my shadow shortlist in 2017. It didn’t make it to the official shortlist, so I’m very pleased to see a Whiteley novel finally on here too.
It’s good to be writing reviews again, after something of a hiatus. I’ll collect my Clarke 2019 posts on Patreon under the Clarke 2019 tag so that they’re easy to find.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
The most contemptible subgenre of military science fiction—the Red Dawn variant of the persecution flip—is apparently thriving. There was the godawful Ghost Fleet from a few years ago and now apparently a new "North Korea nukes the US in 2020" war-porn monstrosity.
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.
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.
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.
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.