Review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish

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

The Man Who Spoke Snakish
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is easily the least traditionally science fictional of my shortlist selections: not only does it feature no rockets, but it’s set firmly in the past (and is more about pasts than futures) and it includes talking snakes and something very much like a dragon. In the sense that science fiction is defined by the presence or absence of received ideas and familiar imagery—that is, using the least science fictional definition of science fiction—it would not be considered science fiction.

Science fiction is traditionally associated with imagining futures, but that mechanism is time-symmetric: it is also frequently used to imagine the past, though usually in contained forms like alternate histories or time travel. But it seems perfectly reasonable to apply the same techniques of imagining the far future to imagining the far past. This symmetry makes sense, since the past is exactly as (un)real and (in)accessible as the future. Both are constantly being produced and reimagined, not separately but together. This future of rocket-ships exploring the galaxy and colonizing strange new worlds is simultaneously imagining a past where Europe “explored” Earth and “colonized” strange new lands. That future of first contact where humanity is tested for worthiness by strange wise aliens is simultaneously imagining a past where first contacts were uplifting, or at least could have been if only the restless and doomed natives had had an Amy Adams to hold up a sign with human written on it.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is set in medieval Estonia and follows the life of Leemet, a boy who eventually becomes the last living speaker of Snakish, which is a once-widespread primordial language in which animals can be commanded and compelled. (Which, incidentally, is a device that previously showed up on Clarke shortlists in a more conventionally sfnal form in 1994—and no doubt in other instances too, this is just the one that sprang to mind—when Neal Stephenson handwaved about Sumerian as a primordial and programmable language for human cognition, or something. The distinction between the two seems superficial to me, relying largely on the interior décor. Science fiction is the one that goes beep.)

Leemet is one of the last generation of his forest-dwelling people, who are either dying out or leaving the forest to assimilate into villages, learning German, Christianity, and agriculture at the expense of Snakish. The world outside the forest is an alien one of Christian monks and knights in armour. The Pope is a distant but threatening presence, like a Borg Queen in a neighbouring quadrant. Leemet spends his entire life working out his relationship with modernity—he is attracted and repelled by it, he commits violence against it, he becomes resigned to it, he resents it bitterly but also yearns for it. Much of this he’s inherited from his family:

Uncle Vootele told me how my father—when he was still living in the forest—would just about explode with irritation and envy when he thought about the interesting life the villagers were leading and the impressive tools they had.

“We must hurry up and move to the village!” he had shouted. “Life is passing us by! These days all normal people live under the open sky, not in the bushes! I want to sow and reap too, as they do everywhere in the developed world! Why should I be any worse? Just look at the iron men and the monks; you can see straight away that they’re a hundred years ahead of us! We must make every effort to catch up with them!”

The conflict between the eternal and progressive views of time is the rod around which Leemet twists. The modern view of time is that there is such a thing as a future: that there is development, that there is progress. The iron men and the monks are not just an invading civilization from the future: they bring with them the very concept of a future (and therefore of a past), and place themselves at its teleological heart. The arrival of alien ships looking for Christians and spices asserts a new sense of time, one whose lines are not parallel and therefore have a vanishing point—one, always, that privileges the alien point of view, putting the arrived-upon on the back foot. As Johannes the determinedly modern villager says to Leemet:

I was taken to Rome and led in front of the Pope, and the glory and splendor I saw there took my breath away. Gold, silver, and precious stones were glittering everywhere; the churches were made of stone and with such high towers that not a single spruce tree here in the forest could reach them. Then I understood that the God that is served by the foreigners is the most powerful, and if we want to achieve anything in life, then it is wise to turn to him and to forget all the silly superstitious customs that make us ridiculous before the whole world. I came back home and was ashamed that we still live like children, while other nations have grown into adults.

These violent futures conjure violent pasts, which Leemet resists in turn. This isn’t a story about clinging to tradition against change: rather, traditions are invented only in response to change, quantum pasts flickering into being to cancel out new futures. Traditions and heritages are just as new, just as suspicious, as progress and development. (Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, for example, was retroactively invented as a 2,300-year-old tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a form of anticolonial resistance, yes, but one built explicitly along casteist and ethnic lines: that is, rooted in both the native bigotries and the imported ones, the worst of both worlds. It’s instructive—and depressing—to compare it against the more recently, and carefully, constructed Buddhism of Ambedkar.) In Snakish, Leemet is constantly encountering new pasts:

Hiie had another problem too, apart from having to feed wolves all day long and chop up hares with a big ax. She didn’t drink wolves’ milk—and that was extremely bad, in Tambet’s opinion. Think of the pack of wolves squatting in the barn, lactating rivers! What was to be done with all that milk? Naturally it had to be drunk, and every family member had to make a contribution. Apart from that purely practical reason, Tambet was deeply convinced that every true Estonian ought to drink wolves’ milk; it was wolves’ milk that had given our forefathers and foremothers their boundless strength. So refusing wolves’ milk was a terrible crime, a betrayal of old customs, and in Tambet’s opinion nothing was more heinous.

Tambet loathes the village and everybody who moves there. His traditions are produced by his anxiety about the modern: the presence of the village outside the forest is what brings them into being and makes them real. Tambet’s friend and ally Ülgas the Sage persistently constructs a past where the Sages of the Grove and the worship of sprites are central to the culture of the forest-dwellers—a past contested by Leemet and his uncle Vootele, who don’t believe in sprites at all, much less the sages.

Only later did I understand that although Ülgas and Tambet hated all those who had settled in the village, they themselves no longer really lived in the forest. They were disappointed and angry to see the good old sylvan life gradually dying out, and to overcome that they clung to the especially ancient and secret ways. They cherished spells, sought a way out in the invented world of the sprites, and no longer cared for ordinary Snakish words. To them they seemed too weak; they had not been able to keep people in the forest, so must be of no use.

Snakish itself is a source of multiple pasts. It isn’t the language of snakes as such, but the language of the entire animal kingdom, of which adders are the pinnacle and Snakish-speaking humans are a sort of benighted cousin. It is not a human technology, but an adder technology (indistinguishable, of course, from magic) that humans once practised and which was lost through generations of disuse. It’s not the only thing that was lost through disuse; Pire and Rääk are the last living Primates, hominids who still have vestigial tails, and Leemet’s terrifying grandfather still has the poison fangs that were once common among humans. All of them are constantly inventing pasts, and Pire and Rääk are perhaps the most committed to regression:

Likewise the Primates Pirre and Rääk were still in the forest, though they no longer lived in their old cave, but had moved to a tree. That is, in their love of antiquity they had gone so far that even living in a cave seemed senselessly modern to them […] they were no longer young; their fur was gray and it was very troublesome for them to keep their balance on the branches. In the name of their principles, however, they were prepared to undergo any trial.

Pire and Rääk speak a dialect of Snakish older than the one Leemet does, which requires pronounciation that Leemet’s tongue is physiologically unable to reproduce. The Primate Snakish commands a wider variety of animals and harkens back to ever more ancient eras. The paintings on the walls of the Primate cave go back hundreds of thousands of years, but the oldest ones are long lost to cave-ins so Leemet only has Pire and Rääk’s assurances that they even exist, much less what they depicted.

Of all that is lost, the most remarkable are the great monstrous creatures of ancient times who Leemet observes passing into myth. One is the great winged snake called the Frog of the North, who could once be commanded to destroy invading armies by thousands of massed Snakish speakers but now only sleeps. Leemet spends much of his life searching for the Frog of the North, and eventually becomes the sleeping dragon’s guardian, but cannot wake him: a single speaker of Snakish is not enough. Leemet is the last person to know that the Frog of the North is real. Leemet and his friend Hiie also briefly encounter a monstrous giant fish called Ahteneumion, who is “as big as a mountain, and evidently terribly old, for the whole sea was full of its long gray whiskers”, and who decides after a brief conversation that he will never rise from the ocean floor again but will follow the example of the Frog of the North in sleeping forever. Before diving for the last time, the fish tells them:

“You were the last humans I saw and who met me. You know who Ahteneumion is and what he is doing. Others don’t. You are now the wisest people on earth. The last ones to see me. Farewell!”

To Ahteneumion, history centres on himself, and effectively ends with his abdication of it—a charmingly simple egoism that Leemet aspires to but can never attain, even when he becomes the last speaker of Snakish left alive.

While the story begins from Leemet’s early childhood, it’s clearly indicated right from the beginning that this is a much older Leemet looking backwards. It has the feel of a told tale, full of digressions, commentary, and opinions. It is also that fundamentally modern thing: memoir. This isn’t the book of Leemet living his life, but rather of the older Leemet telling, in retrospect, the story of his life. He is narrating it, creating it, trying to make it make sense, to give it a shape, making selfhoods and shedding them. His life is resistance to modernity, but his narration of his life is the degree of his assimilation to it.

Tatiana Larina's Dream by Ivan Volkov (1891)
Tatiana Larina’s Dream by Ivan Volkov (1891). Oh, and Leemet’s sister marries a bear. Fwiw, they have a healthier relationship than Leemet ever manages with anybody.

Snakish gives Leemet a consistent, wry, casual tone, unselfconscious and unaffected. There are some anachronistic jokes (for instance, once referring to a bear as a “teddy” in a pre-Roosevelt setting) which are in keeping with the tone but didn’t quite land for me. Snakish doesn’t take itself too seriously: all the death and loss and violence is accompanied by lots of pure comedic moments like the giant louse who behaves like a dog, or how anything Leemet’s grandfather does is inevitably both extremely violent and extremely funny. On the other hand, for the most part all the women in this book are caricatures who exist to give Leemet something to react to—his mother’s histrionics and overfeeding; Magdaleena the beautiful village girl slash temptress; Hiie the playmate turned love interest and so on—and who mostly die so that he can feel things. So there’s that. Even more tiresomely, a female adder is more of a character than any of the human women, and even she (literally) takes maternity leave from the plot halfway through.

A recurring motif throughout the story is the stench of death, which is a memory from a traumatic experience in his childhood (the death of his uncle Vootele) that Leemet associates with loneliness, abandonment, and alienation, and which eventually becomes the manifestation of his anxiety around modernity. He smells decay even while the villagers openly admire his command of Snakish, because he still believes that Snakish is a learnable language, the common heritage of all humans and not a special power that he alone now possesses. Unlike Ahteneumion, Leemet understands that history has left him behind: or rather, he understands that he now lives inside “history”, and that there’s no place for him in it specifically because it was made for somebody else. Leemet’s climactic rampage of violence is understood to be pointless from the beginning. It’s not a great war of liberation or a final battle between good and evil; it’s just a paroxysm of violence born out of frustration and rage. It is cruel, ridiculous, and unnecessary, and therefore quite authentic. On a more individual scale, though, the story does suffer from the sheer cavalcade of tragedies. So many people in Leemet’s life die suddenly and horribly that one comes to expect it a little too soon, which is possibly why I found myself sometimes impatient for the story to get a move on.

One way in which this is not a Tolkienesque melancholy narrative of a golden age resisting modernity, to which it might bear a superficial resemblance: the pasts in Snakish are multiple, contingent, self-serving. There is no actual golden age: each character invents their own past and implied future, or vice versa, and their competing visions are destabilizing, alienating. Ahteneumion sees the end of history right then and there as he goes to sleep. Johannes sees history as an upward curve of development and progress, much as it is fantasized in history textbooks today. Pire and Rääk see a dizzyingly elongated curve in the other direction, a very long slippery slope of loss. They respectively place history’s end at the opposite ends of time. The text is openly sympathetic to Pire and Rääk’s perspective, even when Leemet doesn’t agree with their gentle, inward-focused devotion to regression. They are the only characters whose movement along any curve of history seems worth cheering for, even if it’s in the “wrong” direction. Pire and Rääk set out on a mission to climb back up the slippery slope and personally undo the losses they see in history; it’s fitting that they get a more elegiac ending than Leemet himself does.


(This post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

catsharkTo honour old arguments over the 1992 shortlist, I began by ruling out all books with spaceships on the cover. Most of these I don’t regret losing, except Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which I’m actually reading right now and enjoying very much—but not as one of my shortlist picks, alas! Rules are rules.

Second, I borrowed one of Megan’s rules and discounted books by everyone who’s won a Clarke before.

Third, I left out some books that I find intriguing but felt would be redundant of me to select, like The Underground Railroad, A Field Guide To Reality, Central Station, or The Fifth Season, which are already getting substantial attention from the sharkes. The fins are circling, as it were. (If time and circumstance permit, of course, I might write about these and other books that I’d read or considered anyway, even if briefly.)

Fourth, I ruled out all the books I’d already read, because reading new books is a big part of the fun of this project for me.

If this all seems a bit arbitrary, it certainly is. In my intro post I talked about the joys of freedom from responsibility in this project, and I’m exploiting that as much as possible.

My shortlist:

  1. Songshifting by Chris Bell
  2. The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley
  3. Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
  4. Empire V by Victor Pelevin, translated by Anthony Phillips
  5. The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by Lola Rogers
  6. The Arrival of the Missives by Aliya Whiteley

The six authors are from six countries: the books include four translations, a novella, and the only self-published novel on the submissions list. Obviously this is neither an attempt to predict the official Clarke shortlist (since there’s an official competition underway for that), nor even to imagine a plausible alt-universe official shortlist (there being several of those already via my fellow jurors, and some degree of consensus already forming via the overlaps in our selections) in that this selection mixes likely candidates with less likely ones. Rather, I’m using my shortlist to push the boundaries of that consensus a little bit and bring a few more books into the conversation. And perhaps to adopt a slightly orthogonal perspective of the field―in cross-section rather than a bird’s-eye view, maybe. This is also an acknowledgement that the shadow shortlists are fundamentally unlike the official shortlist in that ours are multiple by definition, which gives us interesting effects both in the points of overlap and in the lonelier spaces between them. The existence of multiple shortlists allows us to play off each other’s selections, set up resonances, compensate for absences, and most interesting of all, to choose different frameworks to read with.

So I’ve also tried to select books that I think would be interesting to read through 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. It seems to me that all six of these books (and not a few of the others, too) should be interesting, and hopefully entertaining, to read through this frame.

Resident Guest

(This is my intro post for the Sharkes, which originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

My approach to the Sharkes is probably going to be less about the award per se―its Britishness, its ups and downs: I mean, I read and deeply enjoyed “Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3” like everybody else, but apart from that it’s all a bit distant and hazy from where I live, much like the various hullabaloos about the American awards—and more about using the award’s official submissions list as a frame for my reading.

Until relatively recently, the only SFF awards I knew were those mentioned on book covers: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Clarke. The first Clarke winner I ever read was probably either The Handmaid’s Tale or Take Back Plenty, but those were older editions that didn’t mention it on the covers, so at that time I didn’t know. So the first time I realized there was such a thing as a Clarke Award was when I saw it on the cover of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, the 1996 mass market paperback with the big blue face on the cover, with “Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award” on its forehead.

It’s almost funny that I hadn’t heard of the award by that time, given that Clarke was a local celebrity. If there were ever any local announcements of the original 1987 grant or of any of the subsequent winners, I missed it. I don’t think there were any, though. Things were a lot more disconnected in those days, and the award was firmly rooted somewhere else. And anyway, Clarke lived in a different version of Colombo than I did. A few years before I was born (and not long after Elizabeth II finally stopped being our head of state, nearly a quarter-century after independence from the Empire) the Sri Lankan government brought into law an entire new immigration status, the non-citizen Resident Guest, to accommodate Clarke personally. Apparently even as late as 1982 this was still being called “the Arthur Clarke Law,” which we might call that a fourth law on top of the better-known three already named for him (and the only one which is actual law.)

Looking back at the Clarke winners and nominees now, I recognize many of my fin de siècle favourites that don’t appear on the Hugo or Nebula lists of the same period: Eon, Use of Weapons, The Broken God, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Vurt. So in that sense, even though I didn’t follow any of the conversations at the time, it seems in retrospect one might say that my taste has always been closer to the Clarke than to the other awards.

But then this uncanny affinity is not mysterious. I read most of those books by borrowing them from the British Council library in Colombo, and it seems reasonable to assume their Clarke Award wins or nominations ensured that they were stocked. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that my early taste in SFF was heavily influenced by the Clarke in the first place. Which seems a rather terrifying responsibility for those that end up on the actual juries. Who is to blame for me having read Vurt at seventeen, and everything that this led to? And so on. Which is why I appreciate that the shadow jury allows one the pleasure of reading and talking about books in public space, without being required to make terrible choices in camera that might affect the tastes of new generations of readers and writers to come.

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.