The Shadow Clarke

The shadow jury for this year’s Clarke Award (I’m saying that like it’s been happening every year, which it has not because this is the first one) is David Hebblethwaite, Jonathan McCalmont, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Megan AM, Nick Hubble, Nina Allan, Paul Kincaid, Victoria Hoyle, and (surprise!) me. I’m very happy to play, and look forward to reading.

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be, and it was with this in mind that the idea of setting up a shadow jury first came to me. The idea is not to ‘challenge’ the official jury in any way, but to bring more to the party: more readers, more critics, more books, more discussion. And the beauty of a shadow jury is that everything can be out in the open.

—Nina Allan, Announcing the Shadow Clarke

The full Sharkenado will be collected at the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, who are @cssfanglia on Twitter. My posts will all show up here as well. I would apologize for the inevitable shark puns, except that one never apologizes for puns.

The Mongoose and the Monster

After a quiet November—which broke my streak of having something come out in every month of the year so far—I have new work in two books out in December!

One is an essay, “The Great Mongoose,” in the Spirits of Place anthology by Daily Grail Publishing, edited by John Reppion. I’m in there alongside such intimidatingly high-profile names as Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair (!) and many other writers whose work I admire.

Spirits of Place, Dec 2016
Spirits of Place, December 2016, featuring “The Great Mongoose”

The book is about place, about stories “embedded in the world around us …The spirits of place are the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse.” In my essay I wrote about Rajagiriya, where I grew up—it’s a suburban town at the edge of the city of Colombo—which was once called Yakbadda, the devils’ forest. I wrote about flânerie, empire and public space; about monstrousness; and about exorcism.

I am fascinated by the yakku: to call them devils or spirits is of course a misnomer; they do not fall easily into any dichotomy between the divine and the demonic, or the natural and the unnatural. This fascination is also very evident in my other December publication, which is also my first comic (and 8th original fiction publication for the year!), “Vikurthimagga” (විකෘතිමග්ග), with art by Dave Johnson, in Asian Monsters by Fox Spirit Books, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir.

Asian Monsters, Dec 2016
Asian Monsters, December 2016, featuring “Vikurthimagga”

The comic is an alternate theory of the yaka—something to contrast with Ananda Coomaraswamy’s “life cult” that I talk about in Spirits of Place!—in which we discover the terrible secret of enlightenment, and the proximity of the monstrous to the ordinary.

Speak, Fremde, And Enter

My story “The Sill and the Dike”, originally published in Nightmare #36, has been translated into German as “Die Schwelle und der Graben” in Visionarium #9.

The translation was done by Bernhard Reicher, who asked all the right questions and did a great job navigating the subtleties. The title’s use of “sill” and “dike”, for instance, is a figurative usage of geological terms of art that I didn’t necessarily want translated into the equivalent German technical terms (the reason I like “sill” and “dike” here is specifically because they are also ordinary words in English, which effect is lost when using purely technical terms) so we went with the more figurative sense intended.

And of course, we also talked about my use of alien to play on both the sfnal idea of the extraterrestrial and the more mundane meaning of foreigner. The story supports (as many of my stories do, for ease of digestion) a dehistoricized reading: in this case, of an alien invasion set in a so-called “secondary” world—at the same time, in my own reading, the story is set in a particular place and time: Uva Vellassa in south-eastern Sri Lanka, in the early-to-mid 17th century during the Portuguese invasion and occupation. This dual reading is facilitated by the vagueness of the alien, which runs the risk of being lost in translation: “Außerirdische” and “Ausländer” both seemed to lean too much into particular meanings, so we went with “Fremde” as the best way to keep some of the ambiguity intact.

Much could be said about where that ambiguity comes from in the first place. I’ve argued before that the image of war with the alien in science fiction is already imperial, deriving its imagery from the propaganda of empires. So in that sense my story is only making explicit a mechanism that is ordinarily implicit. But there’s something else going on here too, in that parenthetical aside about ease of digestion: there are always these questions of how much to explain, when and how to stop explaining, what goes above and below the waterline. As long as I write largely for a Fremde audience even when not in translation, every story is its own little first contact, with the iconography of speculative fiction in the place of the Fibonacci series or a list of primes or whatever—things that we, in our parochialism, consider universals, but are actually conventions local to the way our minds and senses work, which a truly alien alien must translate—that is used to establish commonality in those stilted initial attempts at communication. Unlike yr basic tv alien, though, we can never fast-forward to the part where everybody is somehow fluent in each other’s idiom and the plot can proceed unhindered by language and culture. This is possibly why I find this place of hindrance so interesting.


My last update recounted my six appearances in Strange Horizons in the first half of the year (as reviewer, columnist and writer); in September I’ve now added a seventh appearance, my newest story “Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes”. This is the second of a set of three stories that I wrote this year on these themes—about art, audiences and performance—which I think read very well together, and are among my favourite things that I’ve done. The third is unpublished so far, but the first was “Notes Toward A Performance: The Narrow Bridge, December 2001” in Shattered Prism in August. I’ve been thinking of stories in sets and cycles more, rather than individual fixed-objects. Of course, the more bizarre the stories, the harder it is to get them published, so thinking about sets and cycles is also necessarily thinking about incomplete sets and unfinished cycles.

The other big news about me and Strange Horizons, of course, and the reason I won’t be appearing as a contributor there any more is that I’m joining them as a fiction editor. The response to this announcement has been bafflingly and overwhelmingly positive, for which I’m very grateful, and I only hope that I don’t cock it up in some memorable fashion.

This also means that my upcoming Marginalia column will be, quite unexpectedly, my last—another incomplete set! Only four out of the planned six—and I suppose I might end up blogging more longform posts here instead after all. How quickly these reversals happen, when just a couple of months ago I was announcing the opposite!

Jed Hartman recently updated his history of online sf prozines, 1985-2010 and talked a little about his own experience with Strange Horizons:

I was very dubious about the idea of a nonprofit magazine; I’d never heard of such a thing. […]  Over the years, a lot of naysayers told us that we would fail just like all the other online magazines. Which is why I’m just a little bit smug that the magazine recently reached its sixteenth anniversary.

This year’s Strange Horizons fund drive is underway right now, and if you enjoy reading it, I encourage you to support it if you can. An sf magazine that has sixteen years worth of weekly issues in its online archives is, in its own quiet way, a miracle. As of last year, Strange Horizons is on Patreon, too, with rewards including convenient monthly ebook editions of all that month’s issues.

One of the things you can do with a sixteen-year archive is go all the way back to the very first editorial and see what Mary Anne Mohanraj said in September 2000:

The genre is starting to actually reflect the world I live in. The field is growing and expanding and shifting and changing, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it.

We started this magazine because we wanted to help with that change.

It strikes me how this sounds nearly as real and present today as it did sixteen years ago. A small reason is that it’s always true: any time is exciting and full of change because it’s your time. A bigger reason is that there is a measurable, historical moment of change that’s still taking place, an opening up of the field (like many other fields) that coincides with broader access to the internet. And a third, even bigger reason is that this kind of change (like many other kinds of change) doesn’t just happen: it must be made to happen, against reaction, against indifference, through errors, past failures, again and again. Change requires persistence. And so, here we are, persisting—

Compendium: 2016, the first half

I started a regular column at Strange Horizons this year and all my longform nonfiction energies have been going there lately instead of here (which is why I thought I should widen the remit of this blog, so I’ll be doing more updates and not only essay-type posts from now on). The column’s called Marginalia. So far, I’ve published:

— “The Problem of Other Minds” in March, in which I talked about sff workshops, community & outsiderness, and the hilariously clumsy 2015 tv adaptation of Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

— “To Live and Die in Tenochtitlán” in May, in which I talked about two sf novels published in the early 90s, Aztec Century by Christopher Evans and High Aztech by Ernest Hogan, their commonalities and divergences.

— and most recently in July, “You Spin Me Right Round”, which is all about the short fiction of Kuzhali Manickavel. Specifically, I’ve talked about “Item Girls”, “Kisi Shayar Something Something”, “The Perimeter”, “Discuss How India Will Become a Prosperous and Secure Nation in the Next Five Years”, “Anarch”, “The Ash Eaters” and “The Tar Heroin Guide to Melting a Snowman”. I tried to stick as much as possible to stories that are available online, to encourage people to read them.

Apart from the column, I also reviewed two books for Strange Horizons so far this year: Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” in March and Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” in May.

And for my sixth (!) appearance in Strange Horizons so far this year, my story “Sweet Marrow” just came out! This is part of the July special, Our Queer Planet. Features some lovely artwork by Alex Araiza and a podcast by Anaea Lay.

Other highlights of the first half of 2016 include:

— a great roundtable at Truancy in March, on “Intersections between South Asian Folklore, Myth and Lived Experience” along with Nin Harris, Aishwarya Subramanian, Shveta Thakrar, Sukhbir Cheema, Laila Borrie, Suna Dasi and Arun Jiwa. I also had a story come out in the same issue of Truancy, “Song to the Sun”.

An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables, published by Stone Bird Press and including my story “Rhizomatic Diplomacy”, is now available on Amazon as of July.

— two of my stories, “The Brack” and “The Marsh”, published on the Juggernaut Books app, which is still only available in India but will eventually be open to everyone. Juggernaut will also be publishing several new stories from me that will be exclusive on this app.

— two stories published in February and March, “Týr/Fenrir (UST, Dubcon, Squick)” and “The Rogue State Next Door”, are two of the three shortest stories I’ve ever written.

Mithila Review also published me twice (so many pairs and doublings in this update): my essay “Blue-Shifted Futures” in April, originally written in support of Lightspeed’s POCDSF Kickstarter, and my story “Caul” in June, originally published in Black Static.

War Is Other People

On TV you can have entire shows about—as it were—the family lives of the Grand Moffs where you may or may not be aware of Alderaan exploding silently and invisibly in the background (of course it’s still happening, whether you’re aware of it or not) but where the focus of the story is on Tarkin’s difficult relationship with his children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that1. This show is on my mind ’cause one of my friends is always watching it. I don’t know why. Probably for the Téa Leoni of it all.

Consider milsf/f as a genre of ideology, cutting across/overlapping with genres of medium, form, style or theme. There is a particular form of it, what I’ve come to think of as the “stormtrooper soap”, that has a familiar forumula. It (a) propagandises state/imperial institutions and valorizes their agents who are authorized to use violence on its behalf, (b) focuses deeply on the emotional lives of those agents and (c) erases, tokenizes or downscales their damage on the world and on their victims. There’s rather a lot of milsf/f that are stormtrooper soaps. I find that recognizing that something like “Madam Secretary” as a ghoulish horror show adds a noirish poignancy, a gallows-comedy instagram filter. No, I’m kidding, it’s a terrible show, don’t watch it. Watch “The Americans” instead: it erases/downscales nothing and generally exists on a higher plane, so much so that you might say it “transcends genre boundaries”, which is one of those commonplace phrases for which we really ought to have a cynically shortened phrase like “sensawunda” for2.

(yes, I get that “Madam Secretary” is only vaguely and metaphorically milsf/f. but technically all genre identifications are a kind of metaphor, and the identification therefore depends on context? the American state/war machine is the Death Star in that both are techno-fascistically cool engines of destruction noted for blowing up things that begin with “A” and end with “-an”)

Milsf/f becomes non-tedious and non-trivial, in other words, precisely to the extent that it critiques the institutions, agents and actions they depict. It’s that critique that should lie at their core; this is how a military-speculative story avoids becoming a stormtrooper soap, or worse, mere propaganda.

(and yes, it does amuse me to make this point by referencing two TV shows that are not conventionally considered milsf/f. this is a point of failure to this (slightly argumentative) post that I’m building in as a convenient safety valve: if you find all this offensive to your sensibilities of what is or is not milsf/f, or what it means or what it’s for, feel free to kick it in this rhetorical vulnerability and move on.)

To clear out the fog of war and take a look at the map for a minute, consider Starship Troopers—I know, I know, I don’t mean to pick on Heinlein. More to pick at Heinlein, if you like, the loose tooth of the golden age. Moorcock’s famous “Starship Stormtroopers” essay is an old favourite of mine, agreements & disagreements and all, wherein he shits on Heinlein’s book from a great height. And yeah, I’m more or less with Moorcock on this. It seems that even the most sympathetic reading pretty much just means invoking Poe’s Law, which just moves the question of whether it is the thing itself or a parody-of-itself beyond an event horizon.

(it was definitely turned into self-critique, or perhaps self-mockery, in the 90s film, which seems appropriate. also noted for Evil Psychic Neil Patrick Harris)

But you can’t really talk about Starship Troopers as militarist propaganda (either the thing itself or a parody of the thing itself sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from the real thing) without talking about Forever War, which occupies a necessary opposite pole. War and all its institutions as farce and abomination, including the nation-state and degrading cults like patriotism. This is quite the traditional pairing, Heinlein with Haldeman, and I don’t mean to dwell on it. What interests me is that these two books, positioned as ideological opposites3, provide a plane in which we can place all the other milsf/f stories that are about reform shading into revolution.

The measurement of milsf/f, then, is in how much abomination the story finds in the machinery of war, by which I also mean the machinery of the state. Only one evil Wormtongue needs to be caught to unfuck the governance of the Riddermark, according to the text, which associates both evil and virtue with birth and breeding. Or maybe the story insists that an evil Empire needs to be overthrown to reinstate a “Republic” whose shadow rulers are an unelected theocratic council of power brokers who, again, derive their virtue, power and authority from their bloodlines.

Or a story might pre-emptively bombard us with cynicism, as in Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light, which literally opens with the protagonist’s cynical assessment of the corruption of the military-industrial complex; the protagonist later is involved in bringing an out-of-control defense contractor to trial, which is a phrase as full of paradoxes as a time travel story–are defense contractors ever in control? Does the international criminal court have the teeth or the legitimacy, either morally or in “realpolitik”, to carry out such a trial? Don’t tell me, I need to read book two to find out.

(it’s like “war crime”, a phrase that accidentally implies that some things that happen in war are not crimes, or that war itself is not a crime. war is fine, it says, war itself is just all right as long as you can avoid these few named atrocities)

In Myke Cole’s military fantasy trilogy (Control Point. Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone), the state/war machine itself creates and motivates its own enemies (hey, just like in real life!), and must be edged to almost the point of cathartic overthrow before it, and the reader, can be frustrated back into the status quo, with negotiations.

(I’ve got another problem with Cole’s series which I can’t let go now that I’ve come to mention it. There’s a trope I particularly loathe, where it’s the Indian military and the Native American militants who are obtuse enough to mistake the aliens from the alternate dimension for gods or spirits from their cultures (to which they bear uncanny resemblances—zomg implications!!1), unlike the hard-headed rationalist American military who knows aliens when it sees them. This is the Wes Anderson of “representing” non-white people. This is The Darjeeling Limited. Which is a film I also particularly loathe so it’s not a great example because if I ignore all these cringeworthy parts I can still sort of enjoy these books—where did I learn this abhuman patience? Why, a lifetime of reading sf/f, that’s where—but there is no force on earth that can make me not hate Wes Anderson films4.)

These are all coordinates on the plane of reform-shading-into-revolution, but since they all fall short of that old Haldemanian limit, they all represent some level of support for the malign idea that violence, organized and applied on a societal scale, is (at least) a necessity and (maybe) a good.

(perhaps it’s too much to expect that this poisonous notion ought to be questioned more frequently in fantastical literature)

So you could say that the reach of milsf/f as a genre is bounded by two clichés, a greater and a lesser. The lesser cliché is, of course, simple variations on the theme of the stormtrooper soap, the war hero, the hagiographic, romanticized reading of the soldier as sin-eater, as the eater of necessary sins, the famous “rough men”. This is itself a military fantasy that has been all too successful in transcending genre boundaries and infecting the world at large; while it enjoys great currency in everyday discourse, in fiction at least we must consider it a cliché that must be demystified to be broken. You don’t demystify the stormtrooper/war hero by “humanizing” them via adding puppies, but by at least trying to talk about what’s really happening: asking whose interests are served by putting other people in harm’s way and why, asking how (mostly working-class) people are led into choices against their own interest through economic pressure and relentless propaganda, how power and violence are romanticized, and so on, and so on. The text has the choice whether to question the tedious propaganda of war or to uphold it, and far too much of this genre chooses to uphold it.

(it may be too generous to call that a “choice”: most of the time, such things are clearly just unthinking defaults. I read a Karen Traviss milsf/f technothriller recently, for example, and clearly I made the choice to do so, and in so doing deserved it.)

But even when it successfully breaks the bounds of this lesser cliché, milsf/f is much more frequently defeated by the greater, which is empire. You see it wherever milsf/f throws up battle scenes with swarming enemy aliens, whether Heinlein’s bugs or Card’s buggers or Cole’s goblins, or in a million other books, films and TV shows, in which we are reminded that fictional enemy space aliens are all too frequently a metaphor for the colonized, as expressions of white anxiety about colonialism, imperialism, slavery and exploitation, as triumphalism, as guilt, as shame, as fear of reprisal. You know that generic scene where the brave colonial space marines fire their plasma-cannons into the onrushing alien hive-swarm? You’ve probably seen it a thousand times. That image goes back to this utterly science-fictional image: the British using the Maxim gun5 in the First Matabele War in 1893, four years before The War of the Worlds. The sfnal image of the alien other as the massed-stupid-evil-dangerous-swarm to be defeated by superior virtue or technology or know-how or fighting spirit, is very old-fashioned imperial propaganda from when our grandparents were young. The secret metaphrand of milsf/f, the thing-being-referenced that makes sense of the imagery and tools it uses, is almost always empire. Empire is the gigantic, unmissable, all-encompassing historical referent of the last five centuries, with 20th-century pulp sff hatching into being, aliens and all, to work out the nightmares of empire’s fall.

(of course, The War of the Worlds is the wrong kind of alien invasion, but still an excellent example of fear-of-reprisal invasion lit. I’m just using it to calibrate the timelines here. there are so many different kinds of invasion lit in sf/f; even exploration literatures are just invasion literatures written backwards.)

One sometimes hears it expressed (e.g. in that article on Starship Troopers that I linked earlier) that the device of the-war-against-the-aliens is fun because the aliens aren’t human; that they can be unambiguously, definitively deserving of death without ethical considerations. That’s what they said when the empires went out to conquer the real world, too.

Today’s sort-of related reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma in Clarkesworld: “When it comes down to it, how is this novel you sent along with your letter, this novel about an interstellar war between monster cockroaches and alienated capitalist soldiers, supposed to be a valid form of social commentary?”

  1. Sometimes you just want to watch TV, and insofar as anything is all right in this loathsome hellworld, this is all right. Sometimes books are TV for all practical purposes. The book-as-television is such a different thing from the book-as-novel that I consider them formally distinct kinds of object despite their superficial similarities. Most series-oriented urban fantasy (e.g. the Dresden Files books, which is why it’s a pity the TV show tanked, moving Paul Blackthorne from The Hero roles to The Dad roles before his time) are good examples of the book-as-television. Less like literary objects working in the tradition(s) of the novel and more like visual entertainment objects expressed in prose. Which I don’t mean in an insulting way. TV and comics have had their effect on the book, and camera-oriented prose, or blatantly Whedonesque snappy-patter narrative, are now commonplace idioms of fast-paced narrative fiction. Probably at least three-quarters of my reading is books-that-are-TV, as a kind of comfort food. On the other hand, it’s been like a year since I quit smoking so I’m owed a vice. 
  2. I propose “tranjenbo” as a verb, as in “The Americans tranjenbos both its genre-of-medium (i.e., mere television) and its genre-of-ideology (spy/pol/thriller slash alt-historical milsf/f) into a blistering critique of the propaganda of valour”. I’m kidding, you don’t have to look at me like that. 
  3. Haldeman has said in interviews and such, iirc, that he wasn’t responding directly to Starship Troopers, but there is clearly a generational shift of perceptions captured in these two books, in how America thought of war—at the point Forever War came out, the USA had just about finished dropping a world war’s-worth of bombs on Laos in the so-called Secret War, a term hastily reclaimed and sanitized by the American pop-culture industry. I’m not sure what the shift in perceptions was, actually, but I assume it had to do with this newfound need for secrecy, which (like charity) covers a multitude of sins.  
  4. Rushmore was okay. 
  5. Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not.” — Hilaire Belloc, “The Modern Traveler”, 1898. Ostensibly this is satire, given that Belloc was in some sense opposed to British imperialism, but then again he was also a racist proto-fascist so I feel like Poe’s Law continues to apply. 


In a recent interview I answered, briefly, a question about why it's important to read widely, and I wanted to expand on that a little bit because, well, lots of things boil down to reading widely. The length, the breadth, the depth of your reading: the geometry of the complex shape it forms in your life, as seen from outside time. Why does it take effort to make this shape something other than a brief, depthless line?

Of course, you don't have to read widely. It's not like you're required to consume ethnically produced fiction from each continent in equal quantities for a balanced diet1. It's not like you could be overdosing on the South American (the gout of too much magic realism) while suffering from a severe South Asian deficiency (the scurvy of not enough arranged marriages)… Read whatever you want, is what I'm saying, and go in peace. Some find it possible to stop there.

For the rest of us, who continue to pick at the scab again and again—

To attempt an argument from first principles, the natural urge of the reader2 is surely to explore and discover (other minds, other lives, other worlds), because that's the same impulse that drives people to be readers in the first place. So rather than reading widely being the special case, it seems to me that it should be the norm; all else being equal, each reader will explore as widely as they can before the natural limits of circumstance and mortality constrain them. And since life is short and troubled (and there are too many stories) every mortal3 reader is, eventually and through no fault of their own, parochial.

The problem is that all else is never equal. The world is so arranged that readers are never allowed to discover this limit of exhaustion in and of themselves. Constraints on the personal scale4 hardly even enter into it, being shadowed by the overwhelming fact that literature and its moving parts—the stories, the books, the writers, the publishers—are not neatly, evenly distributed around the world's languages and geographies. Even if you happen to lead a particularly untroubled life with much disposable income and plenty of free time, and you have the best will in the world to read the near and the far, the like and the unlike alike, you can't. Because we don't live in that world; we live in a world where most of the stories needed to make up that neat, even distribution don't exist. There are too many books for anyone to read them all, yes, but that's an irrelevant impossibility; the important point is that there are not enough books5, nowhere near as many books as there should be.

(Why? It is a Mystery. Here is a locked geopolitical sphere, no way in or out, but there is something misshapen lying on the earth, a suspicious arterial spatter of language, disproportionate wealth pooling in rigor mortis. Tread lightly, this world is a crime scene.)

So reading widely as a practice—not for show and not for points, but as a long-term strategic arrangement between you and your bookshelf—is a kind of portal fantasy. It's a door into a another world, a better one. Not the kind that you can build; but a parallel that we can't touch, a world a knight's-move away that splintered away from this one in the apocalyptic centuries of murder and pillage that we refer to with genteel euphemisms like “colonialism”. But it's not about nostalgia for this never-was, either; it's an algiatric strategy to remember and to be remembered, to resist the sly elision that, under cover of euphemisms, quietly becomes excision6. And I'm not just talking about how histories are written: there is something worse still in those swollen absences in your own mind where there should be a history that you should have known but that you never learned, or worse, that you could never learn. The wounds you didn't know you carried. To read widely is to try to learn, using only your sense of touch in the dark, where your scars are.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “It Was Educational” by J.B. Park in Clarkesworld: “One of the dead is a real human being and he has filed a review of his death. It was fast and I had time to watch as my stomach pumped out blood onto the ground. Glub glub, he had noted, jotting down the onomatopoeia.”

  1. I'm allergic to the well-balanced bookshelf as a peacock tail, that ted-talking, award-friendly strut.  

  2. Idealized, of course, but I rather do mean the reader without a capital R nevertheless, in an attempt to flatten no characteristic apart from the reading itself. 

  3. Immortal readers are beyond the scope of this argument, and may no doubt eventually read everything. 

  4. Time, of course; disposable income (or the tech/savvy for “piracy”); literacy in languages that have a literary tradition and a publishing industry; a literary education of some sort, that sort of thing. By which last I don't mean a schooling but just that even the most didactic of autodidacts must come and drink of their own accord, if only to learn what they like. (Obviously this metaphor is not about drinking from either the Pierian spring nor the Castalian, or any particular named magical spring/quest location. Reading the canons depends on reading widely, not the other way around; reading widely depends on reading-at-all. So maybe just water itself, ubiquitous, precious and polluted.)  

  5. In a hideous symmetry, the US+UK publish five times as many titles per year as all South Asia put together, while having one-fifth the population. Maybe one in every thousand Americans is a novelist—some day if that proportion extends across the globe, we'll call that balance. But that's not a day that'll be seen by anybody now alive.  

  6. Of course, there are always plenty of people to act and argue in favour of this kind of excision. On the one hand, you want to ignore this contemptible time-wasting bullshit—e.g., the thing with the yellowface-pseudonym guy7 or more recently, the risible rant from Michael Grant on how “there is no YA or middle grade author of any gender, or of any race, who has put more diversity into more books than me”—but on the other hand maybe it's better to have this shit out in the open so you know not to step in it.  

  7. The problem with which is not that some asshole can hack a nonwhite editor's sense of poco solidarity (which is just a special case of historically rooted empathy, and not something that comes with harshly policed borders). The problem is Hudson's imperial entitlement and arrogance; by including the poem, Alexie is saying that this is not just a lone rogue poet behaving badly but an arrogance very much ensconced and institutionalized in the mainstream of what is Best, and American. Which seems accurate, and preferable to allowing this sort of pustule to fester unseen and deniable. (One familiar objection to the use of “nonwhite”, as I used it above, that it centres whiteness. But the whole point of “whiteness” is that it is already centred, by definition: it was invented to occupy the centre and deny it to others. Allowing it to fester and necrotize unacknowledged renders the entire ethnographic discourse gangrenous.)  

Which This Margin Is Too Small To Contain

Some thoughts on “diversity” in sf/f and discovering that I’m apparently a “writer of colour” and all that. I never actually use these words myself, whether to refer to either myself or anybody else. Though at the same time I don’t object to their use to refer to myself or anybody else either. It’s complicated. I do periodically worry at the meanings of these words, and I guess I’ve been saying stuff like this for a while now:

So let me unpack that a bit.

If essentialism is the pernicious idea that categories are more real than people, strategic essentialisms are a rhetorical technique when you’re aware that the essentialism in question is bullshit but you temporarily accept being identified with a category in order to achieve something, even if that something is just making a point. There are all sorts of good, practical reasons to collectivize identity in this way, but I think it works best when it’s goal-oriented and time-bound. Because when it’s not, then it can also mean just signing up to be reduced to a category for somebody else’s convenience.

This is a high-risk high-reward rhetorical move, in other words. To name a thing is to bring it into existence as a theory-object, and it’s difficult to dispel it after that, never mind to control how it gets used or who else it might get used on.

Consider this category of “POC”, people of colour. This gets used a lot in the sf/f community, who (at least in the circles that I’ve so far engaged with) appear to have generally adopted it as a way to refer to non-white people. I assume this arrived in sf/f publishing via academia/litcrit? idk. In any case, it’s here and being used.

(also I should say that apart from “writers of colour” one also sees “POC writer”, which in particular is a truly godawful construction. “person of colour writer”…? what. I mean, I’m all for mangling language for amusing or interesting effects, but come on!)

It’s a bit disorienting for me to suddenly become a “person of colour” overnight just by wandering into the sf/f scene. I’ve been online in some shape or form for twenty years, but never as myself, never under my real name and identity like this; back in the day it was normal to use pseudonyms, and by the time that convention changed I’d settled into habits. All this—<all-encompassing gesture>—came about because I wanted to publish as myself, under my real name. And when I started to publish in US markets, this “of colour” thing started to become a thing. The very first time I heard the phrase “person of colour” online (fortunately, this was before it was applied to me), I thought it was some sort of slur. This is, as far as I can tell, a common reaction for many non-Americans who encounter the phrase for the first time: a raised eyebrow and a “you called me a what now?” And then, for those who care to find out, googling up a digression about the specifics of the American civil rights movement.

(semi-related: I’m very dark-skinned for a Sri Lankan, but also male. so for me colourism is more a source of amusing anecdotes than anxiety or stress. for some reason, a life’s worth of being the butt of (very mild) colourism has made the whole “person of colour” thing even funnier.)

So, yes: I dislike the overextension of “POC” outside America because it’s so explicitly an American term. I suppose its prevalence in the online sf/f community is a direct result of the sf/f field being so completely American-centric for so long that any international players are still considered incidental? Regardless, it’s a phrase inextricably tied to a time and a place and a history, entangled in the history of “coloured” and probably to “gens de couleur” somewhere in there. It’s a term that’s meaningful only to American minorities who understand its place in their history, who own its reclamation. By all means, use it in that context, where it is an excellent example of a strategic essentialism for the people that chose to use it.

Using it to describe all the billions of non-white peoples of the world, on the other hand, is not a strategic essentialism. It’s just plain old regular essentialism, nothing but a pure statement of American cultural hegemony: by using it this way, you are literally saying that all the multiplicity of histories and differences in the vast majority of the world population are all subsumed collectively into an honorary American minority for, what I don’t know, convenience. The imperial gaze is out of control! All dark-skinned people have dissolved into an undifferentiated brownish sea of sludge! I propose a fully equivalent replacement term you can safely use to describe all non-white people everywhere in every possible context. That term is “mud person”. You’re welcome.

But wait, you say, seriously, what’s an okay way to say it then? Like is “diverse” okay or “marginalized” okay or “minority” okay? And first I gotta say, I’m not the pope of okay here. This is just me talking regular bullshit, not papal bullshit. As someone newly on the receiving end of labels—and as someone new to these labels—I regard them with more interest than censure. I get that a lot of people have clearly already processed these objections and discounted them, given e.g. how frequently I see Asian writers self-apply the term. And that’s fine! I’m not trying to start a land war in Asia. I’m just (belatedly, I suppose) processing it.

(I was going to say that I regarded them with “anthropological” interest above, incidentally, but I suppose I am not so much the anthropologist in this metaphor as the genre-savvy ethnographic subject.)

What interests me is interrogating the language being used, not in policing usage. If you’d rather stick with whatever terms you’re using, that’s entirely your call. I won’t take it personally1.

Consider the other words. The problems with “minority” are hopefully obvious: it’s useless unless you peg it to a particular geopolitical territory. Here I advise against treating an amorphous, increasingly-online metacommunity like sf/f as somehow equivalent to a nation-state: it is not. It does not have borders. It does have centres and peripheries, but those are very much in flux and to some extent a factor of perspective, the famous echo-chamber effect. It has many different overlapping interest groups, instead of a population. It has no minorities. Sf/f is not a country. It cannot have minorities, or for that matter, majorities. So “minority” is meaningless unless you’re specifically talking about a particular country or city or convention membership or newsgroup or what have you.

“Diverse” and “marginalized” are trickier. First, diversity is a property of a group, not an individual. You need a set of entities in which you can measure variation before you can say whether there’s variety or not. And second, there’s more than one way to measure variety.

So it makes sense to talk about “diversity” when talking about contributors to an anthology or magazine, or a publisher’s roster of authors, or to talk about “marginalization” when you’re talking about some category of writers who you would expect to see in those groups but are missing for some otherwise inexplicable reason.

Consider that second point again. Say I have a story published in an otherwise all-white TOC, then yeah, I guess my inclusion marginally increases the ethnic diversity of that publication. But if everybody else on that TOC is also male, then it does not increase the gender diversity of that publication. In both cases, the diversity or lack thereof resides in the TOC, not in me. Whether it’s “diverse” or not depends on the question being asked. I know this is kind of an obvious point to belabour, but it often seems to cause confusion.

For example, a publisher might claim that a given anthology is “diverse” because it has women in it, ignoring the total absence of non-white people. Or there might be lots of non-white people on it, but nobody who isn’t American or resident in America. Or—look, my point is not that every TOC needs to have one of each kind like some sort of deranged Noah’s Ark, which is both absurd and impossible. My point is just that the fact that the word can be used to describe any kind of variety, combined with the fact that there is more than one kind of variety, combined with the fact that some kinds of variety can be achieved more easily than others, tends to act as a either a blind spot or a fig leaf, depending I suppose on how cynical you are about this being a deliberate rhetorical device. And that’s the problem with nonspecific cheerleading for “increased diversity”, and the reason why it can so easily be subverted.

Which is what brings me back to the first point, that “diversity” is a property of a group and not an individual. But now consider this formulation: “a diverse writer”. Used this way, the “diversity” is reified and placed inside the body of the writer. It moves focus away from the editorial policies and acquisition decisions. It becomes a property that is physically attached to some writers, the diverse writers2. And through them, it becomes a measurable commodity that can be bought or sold.

It behaves, in other words, exactly like a nonconsensual strategic essentialism, which is, er, the same as essentialism, the idea that the categories are more real than the people3.

Words like “POC” and “diverse” and “marginalized” and whatnot are all a euphemism treadmill, yeah? The only way off a euphemism treadmill is to stop using euphemisms, or rather to abandon the false categories that were once described by slurs and are now described by euphemisms. Which means recognizing that categories are not more real than people, because individual people actually exist and even the most well-defined category is, ultimately, an imperfect abstraction based on tradition and policy as much as observation.

I don’t have a real answer here, but I do think many of the euphemisms could simply be dropped and that might help a little.

For example, if you really just mean “non-white” sometimes, then maybe say non-white, no? Sometimes it’s important to actually say “non-white”, because by doing so at least you’re acknowledging that the problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of an existing white supremacy. It only promotes white fragility to talk about this stuff without ever talking about whiteness.

(of course, brown-on-black racism in South Asia is also a thing, and casteism/colourism is a big part of it but I think even there, that anti-blackness is mediated through the absent-but-implicit whiteness, i.e., through colonial history and anticolonial nationalisms. to talk about whiteness is to talk about history, not a skin tone.)

Like if you want to talk about the unbearable whiteness of a TOC and if you phrase your argument as “it’s not diverse” instead of questioning the homogeneity of white supremacy, or worse, if you’re asking “where are the diverse writers”? Because of the way these questions recentre the problem, and attach “diversity” as a property to some bodies but not to other bodies, the issue then becomes about baryonic and nonbaryonic humans.

About how much dark matter you need to stuff into a TOC before it undergoes the state change into being “diverse”.

Which just brings up the attendant fauxtroversies, like is dark matter even tangible, really? Can it interact with ordinary matter on the same level? Is this affirmative action somehow? That conversation always ends up being about the reality, the tangibility of the nonbaryonic humans. The phrase “the diverse writer” is a trap because it differentiates that writer from “the writer”4, and thereby implicitly leaves room for the question “is the diverse writer a real writer?”

All of this is not intended to make it impossible to say words anymore, as peaceful as that sounds. Uh, obviously that’s not helpful. I think that if you really want to identify people by made-up ethnocategories, maybe it’s better to peg it at nation-state5 of residence and/or origin, instead of continent (boo) or race/ethnicity/colour (ugh), with the exception of when the people in question explicitly sign up to be identified under any of those things as an act of (hopefully goal-oriented) strategic essentialism.

Of course, we could all just start calling people by their names instead of their categories, but that’s probably a bridge too far.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Item Girls” by Kuzhali Manickavel in Granta: “In the night, she slides her finger into The Dark One, who tries to think about post-racial America, the antioxidant properties of dry beans, steam pressure washers, Maoists. Instead, she thinks of the bite of sugar at the back of her throat, armies of sunlight dancing on her back, the ocean rushing from her mouth like it is ready to drown.”

  1. Unless you take me up on “mud person” for serious, in which case fuck you in advance. 

  2. For me and many other writers, this also puts us into a position of needing to worry about and fetishize our performance of our own authenticity. This rhetorical trap is sheer elegance in its simplicity: so many of us walk ourselves right into it and have a lot of trouble getting out again. The work made from inside this trap is what I call “authentica”—an awful lot of South Asian litfic is authentica. I want to talk more about this, and how for example it ties into nationalistic projects or anti-imperial projects and the ways in which this is both interesting and terrible, but unfortunately this is an extended ramble that this footnote is too small to contain. 

  3. Gender essentialism falls into a similar trap of considering the theoretical categories of “male” and “female” to be more fundamental than the actually-existing individual members of the human species who manifest a great variety of individual characteristics. Hence “reconstructive” genital surgery on intersex babies to “assign” them to a known category, because that category is fallaciously granted a greater degree of reality than the actual baby. It’s like the reverse of that parable or something. 

  4. Here’s another way this sort of thing gets out of hand: I said “Asian writers” earlier as if that was a real thing. But it isn’t, really! Quite apart from the sheer vagueness of “Asia” as a category—so broad as to be meaningless! Might as well say “Earth writers”—without further qualification, you can’t help but have it mean writers from Asian countries resident in those countries as well as writers from Asian countries who are expatriates in non-Asian countries as well as to some extent writers in non-Asian countries whose ancestors were expatriates from Asian countries, and sometimes maybe even writers from non-Asian countries who are resident in Asian countries, and that’s not even asking what languages they’re all writing and publishing in, and for whom? These are all wildly different constituencies, so much so that it’s not meaningful to even attempt a strategic essentialism between them all. There’s no common project here. So “Asian writers” is essentialism in it’s bluntest possible form, because the assertion contained here is that there is some mysteriously hyperreal category called “Asian”-ness that is attached inextricably to the persons of all those different kinds of people despite the fact that they have absolutely nothing in common. See also, like, all of Africa Is A Country. Continentism is a thing! 

  5. Why do I say this, when nation-states are also terrible fake things that need to be abolished? Well, at least they are legal/geopolitical entities distinct from the physical person of the writer, and are existing big dumb objects that can be pointed at. And “lives in X” or “is from Y” is relatively uncomplicated; it works for baryonic and nonbaryonic writers alike in the same way, which is a sort of flattening, at least? idk. 


I object—isn't that a great opening for a blogpost?—to the idea that writing short sff criticism requires one to read it all, or even as much of it as possible, or that it's necessary to keep up with what's "current", because this is a road to exhaustion. The compulsive neophilia, the false urgency to "keep up"…even the mere fact that magazines are still often built around "issues" is only a nostalgic skeuomorphism! Which would matter less if the "old issues" were less disposable, and if all their contents did not become mysteriously sepia-toned at the turn of the week or the month or the quarter. But they are, and they do. Periodicals are like a metaphor for a linear model of time. There is the cresting wave of the temporary present, this month's issues, moving inexorably into the future, leaving the past behind. Except that this model is just as illusory as that linear model of time, of course. What would the sff short fiction scene look like if it it wasn't putting the temporary in contemporary?

To state the blatantly obvious, short sff is already too wide now to be read in its entirety by a single dedicated reader, even if you only look at the thin slice of the "present". The relevant xkcd is about all books written in English (which passed that point five centuries ago), but if you converted that to sff short fiction written in English I think you'd probably find that a similar point was reached somewhere between the original c. 1920 Writer's Market (I wonder how many markets it tracked?) vs. today's Duotrope (which tracks just over five thousand). Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of magazines over the decades, popping in and out of existence like virtual particles, each with multiple issues, each issue with multiple stories…

This has only become much more of a thing, like orders of magnitude more of a thing, a true Cambrian Explosion of a thing, with the arrival of online magazines (which, as far as I can tell, have also been a thing since at least the 90s but didn't really get mainstream credibility until the mid-00s). So, if there was a time that you could read all or most of it, that time has been gone for a decade at the very least, and probably much longer than that. All these worlds are not yours, except Europa. Attempt your fandoms only there.

But I digress. The point is this sort of "stick the firehose in your mouth" approach does not represent some sort of critical ideal; it's an impossible standard so attempting it (and failing) means nothing. If anything, I think this is damaging to the soft tissues in your mouth, and liable to upset the digestion. If it's impossible to read everything that's current, it's many times more impossible to read everything that is past, but the gulf between these impossibilities is uninteresting because for all practical purposes they are equally out of reach.

I do appreciate when people actually take on these impossibilities head on–I've said this before about Lois Tilton's reviews, and I see Ethan Robinson's taken to a similar firehose-drinking approach lately–but I'm not talking about these people, who are professionals of the don't-try-this-at-home variety. I'm talking to totes would-be amateur reader/critic types like myself, or possibly just to myself. Because every time someone says "there should be more short sff criticism" I see people immediately falling into the various traps of keeping up/burning out or getting their critical objectives entangled with the related but also separate goals of curation/promotion/signal-boosting or, most wastefully, with the hamster wheel of award nominations. Which all seems so unnecessary, or at least besides the point.

(I'm speaking as a reader here, not as a writer; as a writer I tend to feel like hey, all promotion is good promotion, which is another reason writers are the worst. ugh, writers)

There's nothing more dreary than "here's what I thought of this story that I would not have finished or even started if I didn't need to finish this issue for review purposes." There seems to be a innocence-to-experience pipeline from that laudable impulse of "I want to review/talk about short fiction" to increasingly tired, obligatory reviews that peter out into mere recommendation lists and fade rapidly into exhaustion and burnout. This seems so avoidable, especially for the amateur reader-critic who has no obligation to put a firehose in their mouth. Why not be willing to slow down and actually explore your taste as critic/curator? What is it that you're looking for? What truly intrigues you? Can you separate this from other things you might also be doing, such as promotion or curation or signal-boosting?

(when I find people who are willing to admit to having developed a taste, I often find myself reading their commentary regardless of whether I share that taste or not. when people commit to this kind of thinking-out-loud, it's compelling in a way that a roundup of links and shit-sandwich critiques1 can never be.)

I'd hazard that one part of the problem is that nuance in criticism requires you to say negative things, and many people are uncomfortable with navigating this interpersonal minefield and all the unexploded ordnance still lying around from the various culture wars, and the other, more insidious part is that even the thought of abandoning the urge to "keep up" brings up many different anxieties. There are so many hooks piercing the body of short fiction and constantly dragging it forward off-balance–the "issue" skeuomorphism declares last month's stories out of date in the same way that the awards treadmill declares last year's stories out of date, all of which is compounded by the sheer volume of new material being produced every week, all the subscriptions you take out to support the magazines you love, which start to pile up in your house or your reader or your phone and to build up to a kind of virtual weight in your mind, a sisyphean burden.

So why not abandon the idea of keeping up, which was never a really-real thing, and whose sole real effect seems to be to drive people away from actually-enjoying the short story? If you have to slow down in the face of the tens or hundreds of thousands of short stories we're all drowning in, then by all means do it one story at a time.

Which is where I'm coming from with the reading recommendations that I make in these posts. They come from slow-moving obsessions with particular writers, particular styles, particular moods. They come from me looking for the work that I feel some sort of kinship with as a writer. They come from me looking for work from this century that maybe we only even have at all because of that very internet-age opening up of possibilities2. It's a new age of plenty, and I'm very happy to be a part of it in my own small way as a writer, but even more than that, I'm happy to be part of it as a reader.

So these recommendations that I make, they come from treating my reading of sff short fiction as a kind of dérive. It's not a geography of the scene-at-large that I want, nor is it a map of myself-as-reader, but the intersection between the two.

Eventually I want to come back to each of these same stories that I'm recommending now and talk about them some more–this is what I mean by not treating short fiction as disposable or temporary, also–or rather, actually talking about them at all, since all I'm doing right now is giving the recommendation. But I do have stuff to say about all of them, in the sense that in making these specific recommendations I'm outlining a model of the speculative in fiction that makes sense to me. But I'm not rushing to try & articulate it, either, because I'm only starting to try and understand my own taste in fiction. I may be some time at this.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: "The Mongerji Letters" by Geetha Iyer in Orion: "But the polar bear you stuck in the inner envelope suggests you are keen to continue in the family trade. That first explosion of teeth and air bubbles as the creature snapped at my face—what flair! I learned to swim backwards that day, you know? It took a week to bail out the living room and pour the Arctic Ocean back into the envelope."

  1. You know, "here are two things I liked and one thing I didn't like about this story". It's tedious, like some sort of secondary-school essay format.  

  2. Before internet times, me being a short fiction reader was pretty much just wearing a paper bag over my head and reading whatever decades-old white-sff anthologies the British Council library deigned to throw at me, so this level of access to contemporary short fiction is kind of a big deal for me.