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 seems 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. 

Excisions

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. 

Atemporarility

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. 

Tonguetacles

I don’t like TED Talks–who does?–so when a friend shared this one by Jamila Lyiscott last year, I didn’t actually watch it, I just read the transcript. Months later I came across the link again and this time I actually watched the video, and it’s both funnier and more intense than I’d thought. But the way in which the transcript truly failed me was in dropping the sheer hilarity of all those audience reaction shots. There really should be transcript notes for that sort of thing, like:

Lyiscott: Sometimes I fight back two tongues while I use the other one in the classroom and when I mistakenly mix them up I feel crazy like … I’m cooking in the bathroom

[WHITE AUDIENCE LOOKS BEFUDDLED]

Pls to fix this, TED Talks people.

Lyiscott calls herself trilingual, which I took as a dig at the idea that languages are neatly-bounded, discrete and countable. Which I agree with, of course. This is why even words like “bilingual” and “trilingual” are kind of irritating—how do you even count how-many-lingual you are if you’re allowed to count not just the fancy, dressed-up languages but also all the dialects, ethnolects, sociolects and argots that you might also speak? Not just a forked tongue but a full-on Cthulhu mouth swarming with tiny little tonguetacles. I probably speak eight or nine lects-of-some-variety, at this level of granularity. I’m assuming most people do. In a world full of multilingual people, one can only feel a kind of horror for anybody who is truly monolingual even in this expanded sense. I don’t know if that’s even possible. At the very least there’ll be a distinction between formal/informal varieties, no? Unless you were raised in a bunker by an apocalyptic cult like Kimmy Schmidt.

*pause while everybody hums the theme song*

I quoted this on Twitter recently:

“I felt ‘experimental’ would explain everything else in a way that said ‘English is not my Second Language but Thanks for Asking.’”

It’s from this interview with Kuzhali Manickavel.

This is interesting to me because I’m never quite sure what to do with ideas like “first language”, “mother tongue” and “native speaker”, either. (My actual, literal mother spoke many lects, like I do.) It’s true that I did learn to speak Sinhala first. I was four before I started learning to speak English: one of my earliest memories is telling my parents I’d figured out that they were switching to English sometimes specifically so that I wouldn’t understand what they were saying! But over the years I’ve grown more comfortable speaking and thinking in English. These days there is a noticeable drop in my reading speed when I switch from reading English to Sinhala, and there are many areas of vocabulary where all my reading and thinking has been exclusively in English for so long that I don’t even know the Sinhala words for those things off the top of my head. I’d need a dictionary to translate this blogpost. I’m neither proud of this nor ashamed of it; I would have preferred it to be otherwise but I’ve had better things to do with my life than to embark on a quest for perfect parity in fluency. What does it matter? Fluency goes up and down with usage. When I was in my late teens I spent a year or two exclusively hanging out with Sinhala speakers—pretending not to speak English well, to fit in better—and my English deteriorated, which I only realized when I was unexpectedly thrust into an English conversation and found myself stuttering and stumbling over vocabulary, word order and pronunciation. And then in my twenties, when I started working in offices where all the work was done in English, the direction of relative fluency reversed again.

(now, sometimes I mix up SOV/SVO word order and I don’t always “fix” it, even if editors sometimes ask. This is my idiolect and I’m trying to let it be itself.)

I’m aware the overall bias toward English is not just a matter of personal preference, obviously. It’s a postcolonial class thing and has been for generations—the long-standing Sinhala slang for English is “the sword”. It’s a joke, but also not a joke—even after the nationalist movement and the Sinhala Only Act and all the culture wars (and literal wars) of the last century, it’s still true that most parents want their kids to speak English well so that they have more opportunities. Mine did. So the one language was encouraged, because it was a weapon, because it was the future; the other didn’t wither away because it was still used every day, but it did stagnate. A language you don’t read fiction in is a language that you don’t speak as well as you think you do.

But there was also a personal preference that grew out of my reading habits, and that’s where this connects back to sff and genre fiction. As a kid I wanted to read sff books, and in Sinhala the only options I could find at the time were translated Clarke novels. As a matter of fact, I think my first Clarke was the Sinhala translation of 2001. It wasn’t a great translation. But then I started reading Clarke in the original, and from there discovered this endless sea of other sff that had never been translated, and then twenty years went by with me reading fiction almost exclusively in English.

(when I have nightmares, on the other hand, they’re in Sinhala. maybe that’s a good way to figure out which one is “really” your mother tongue: it’s the one that comes to you in extremis. sometimes I choose English constructions over Sinhala ones because the latter are more emotive and therefore more painful. when I speak of my late family, I almost always use English words.)

Once I started writing fiction, I got this question semi-regularly: why don’t I write in my “mother tongue”? The implication being it would be more natural if I did, or more authentic, or even that I was performing a kind of acrobatic stunt by writing in English “instead”, that I was “writing fiction in a second language”. The questions are posed innocently enough, I don’t take offense at that. But I don’t usually give them real answers, either, because it’s too complicated to explain. One of the reasons I’m taking a little space here to work through a more complicated response to this question is so that I’ll have a link to reference next time it comes up.

So here’s the thing. Just because one of my tongues is a colonial language doesn’t make it less authentically mine. It is true that Sri Lankan English only exists because of the British occupation. This isn’t ancient history, it was still going when my parents were young; the Queen of England was technically our head of state until a few years before I was born. But I don’t consider English a foreign language; as far as I’m concerned, the British forfeited any claim to it in reparation for the occupation. (For that matter, Sinhala is a foreign colonial language too, only the colonizing happened some centuries earlier. There’s no statute of limitations on history.) I’ve spoken English nearly all of my life; my parents spoke English; my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents spoke English; my newspapers speak English; my street signs speak English. Any definition of “native speaker” that says that I’m not a native speaker of English is therefore broken.

Not that I want to claim “native speaker”, I find it vaguely repugnant; I’m just pointing out that it’s exactly the colonial history that renders the distinction moot. You break the world, you buy it.

So when I write fiction in English, I’m using a language that I’m happy to claim as one of my own. When I publish in US/UK markets, I don’t see it as sending tribute to Rome—or to Nanjing, for a more historically accurate metaphor since I don’t think we ever actually sent tribute to Rome but did have to placate the Yongle Emperor in the mid-fifteenth century—but as choosing to participate in the biggest and oldest extant tradition and paraliterary culture of anglophone short sff. Yes, sometimes it’s grating that there is such a distinct gap between centre and periphery right now, and that the claimed internationalism of “world” cons and “world” awards is a façade. But that’ll shift with time and more wonderful initiatives like Omenana or The Sea Is Ours. We need many such projects!

At some point, in fact, I want to try doing something like that myself. (Not yet, I’m still a bit new to all this.) But the reason I’m thinking about it at all is that I’m coming around to the idea that the gap between centre and periphery can’t be rebalanced from the inside, only from the outside. You don’t get it done by petitioning for imperial favours. The Yongle Emperor had the King of Kotte brought to him as a prisoner after the Ming–Kotte War and tried to appoint a regent to go back and take power, but it was too late by then, right? Because the periphery had reorganized itself and made their own choices in the power vacuum. Paying tribute is very different from being a vassal state. And wow, this metaphor got totally out of hand but it still sort of works and I’m going with it.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Boonoonoonoos little bit Boonoonoonoos” by Binyavanga Wainaina in Jalada: “As if she has left herself, Milka can see her limbs lurch to the center of the living room, her skirt bursting with color and soft wind between her legs as they circle each other. Little bowls of living-room light are spinning gently around her as she turns, arms around Eunice’s waist. She can name each of her organs, which sit spinning inside her like hot rocks peeping out of a creamy pool that reaches out to lap and lick.”

Strange & Familiar Lands

I’ve still not read a lot of Heinlein. Local libraries & bookshops when I was a kid were stuffed to the gills with Asimov and Clarke, but little to no Heinlein. I’ve read most (though not all, given how prolific they were) of Asimov and Clarke, but of Heinlein I’ve just read Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, and maybe a couple of others at most.

(of course, I’ve always intended to go back and read it all but “things to read before I die” is a long, long, long list. also a bit maxed out on my mid-20th-century American sf quota because I’m still working my way through the thirteen volumes of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.)

Colombo’s second-hand bookshops, then marginally less endangered than they are today, had this policy that you could borrow books for an indefinite period, for something like fifty rupees, as long as you put down a deposit equivalent to the price of the book. (That was generally in the range of a few hundred rupees at the time. The exchange rate has undergone dramatic changes since then, so converting these numbers to dollars will make a lot less sense today than it would have twenty years ago.) Then when you were done with it you could return it and borrow something else, and so on until the deposit was used up in borrowing fees. So you could read five or six books for the price of buying one. It was like an ad-hoc library without membership, due dates or late fees. I don’t know if they still do this.

(I spent most of the 00s barely reading at all because that decade was a disaster and when I finally picked up the habit again, it was the age of the Kindle and that worked better for me. sic transit, &c.)

In the 90s most of those second-hand book guys knew “classic” sf authors by name. You could ask them for science fiction recommendations in the 90s and get Clarke (always Clarke first, seeing as how he was a local celebrity) and Asimov, and occasionally something else like a battered Bradbury or a dog-eared Dick. But in all those years, I don’t think any of them ever handed me a Heinlein.

(last time I moved I donated nearly all of my paper books to those very same second-hand bookshops, including those copies of Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil. Circle of life and all that.)

Anyway, because of this strange and inexplicable absence of Heinlein from the local scene I didn’t actually realize Heinlein’s stature in American sf for the longest time. I’d heard the name, probably read some of the short fiction, but I had no idea he was considered so major or influential. Until sometime in the mid/late 90s, when I found a collection of essays by Asimov called, unimaginatively, Asimov on Science Fiction. The book had been published in 1981; in it, in an essay called “The Second Nova” first published in I think the mid-70s, Asimov contended that “Doc” Smith, Weinbaum and Heinlein were the three most important figures of early American sf. At that point I’d read Smith’s The Galaxy Primes (of all things) and of course I’d read “A Martian Odyssey”, so I knew who those two were. Weinbaum was the titular “second nova” and the essay was mostly about him. But Asimov did go on to say that Heinlein was the third and last nova, meaning that après Heinlein, le deluge: sf supposedly diversifying thereafter to the point where no single person could be that universally influential ever again.

I’m not saying this was a critical masterstroke; let’s say it’s an, er, expressed enthusiasm. The important takeaway here is that it was Asimov himself who had to explain to me who Heinlein was!

(it was shortly after this that I found those two Heinlein paperbacks. or rather, it was only after this that I really saw them, picked them up, took them home. I don’t know how many times I’d seen and ignored them before.)

I know I’m not the only sf reader growing up in Colombo in my generation who had this same blind spot, either, because I’ve had this conversation many times over the years. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain to someone who Heinlein was. No, I’d insist, he was apparently totally a big deal and I don’t know why we’ve never heard of him! And then I’d try to get people to read Stranger and prevent them from reading I Will Fear No Evil at all costs.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to advance a new conspiracy theory to explain how all this came about: what if Sir Arthur engineered this situation so that at least in his adopted hometown, he would always be unambiguously number one? Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “The Ravens’ Sister” by Natalia Theodoridou in The Kenyon Review: “But if you hold me, you will burn me, I said, and I will die. And the Sun said, then you won’t care about your brothers any more, will you?”

Downhill

I’ve evolved a moderately idiosyncratic approach to Goodreads: I’m trying to add everything I’ve ever read but without ratings. Because ratings are broken and useless obv., but also because it’s just too much context-switching for that space. Combining just the writer/reader roles introduces enough complexity—do you rate issues of the magazines you’re in as a contributor, for instance, and if so, how?—but the mere idea of rating other people’s books just raises the complexity to unmanageable levels. It’s a social problem, not an epistemological problem. Tl;dr I don’t rate stuff on Goodreads in case I somehow end up on a no-fly list.

What I do love about Goodreads is the reading challenge widget. There’s no nuance to it, nothing like the subtleties of the more famous/controversial reading challenge of recent weeks. The Goodreads challenge is a blunt instrument, looking only at how many books you’re setting out to read in a year. When I did it last year I didn’t pay any attention to author identity at all. In general, I just follow my nose and read whatever I feel like reading. Looking back at it now, this resulted in: I read 110 books, of which (going by a superficial scan of Goodreads author profiles) about 55% were male-authored and 95% (!) were by authors residing in the US or UK.

(tbf I think my sff short fiction reading has a lot more international variety. But there’s no Goodreads for short fiction so I can’t count them up in hindsight.)

(also there are lots of other axes and dimensions raised in the original challenge which I’m ignoring here, some of which I might talk about later.)

Those two percentages alone are interesting, though. I mean, the first is more or less where I’d expect it to be, at “half, give or take a bit”. The second, on the other hand, is terrible—especially coming from someone themselves trying to contribute to non-US/UK anglophone paraliterature, but I feel even otherwise kind of terrible? Even looking at the half-dozen or so books in question, there’s an over-reliance on translations of truly exceptional work. Like Vita Nostra, The Rabbit Back Literature Society and The Three-Body Problem: these are all wonderful books, but they’re also books that have already been filtered by success and chosen for translation. So just looking at this tells me there’s something that needs changing in my reading habits. I should either have not been surprised by the 95% or it should have been a different number altogether; it’s the surprise that tells me that something’s wrong.

This is the question that all the challenges &c. boil down to, the way I see it: is there any pattern in your reading that you didn’t deliberately choose? Because if so, that pattern is an imposition from the unbalanced world, somebody else’s choices rolling downhill and landing in your head.

Choosing to break such a pattern is a decision that could be, in theory, situated either in “buying different books” or in “picking up different books to read”, which are very different things if you tend to buy and stockpile ahead of time like I do.

The latter is a weirdly liminal moment for the chronic reader, which happens when you’re moving from a finished book to a new one: there’s an animal pleasure in it, a freedom of movement I’m loath to fuck with because I feel like it’s somehow a (minor but significant) part of my enjoyment of reading itself. It’s the complete opposite of having a to-read list, which turns reading into a chore. I never want to be read as a chore, and so I don’t want to do that to anybody else, either.

(even as I say it I realize there are probably people out there who find a to-read list liberating rather than suffocating. oh well, it takes all sorts)

So changing habits is, I think, for me all about choosing to stockpile different books. About deciding what sort of reading I want to make possible for myself (but not required or necessary) in the months and years to come (but not on a particular timetable). The theory is that this will be enough in the long run, and I suppose there’s no pat answer to that. One must simply wait out the long run and see.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Only One Good Reason to Get a Haircut” by Sloan Thomas in Jersey Devil Press: “I’m related to Wolfies. Everybody is related to Wolfies.”

Philoctetes

I was going to comment on the Ryan Boudinot article but it’s already been fisked to death, I don’t think it bears more refuting. Besides, ever since the initial disappointment of learning that MFA doesn’t actually stand for “motherfucking art”, I’ve been severely disillusioned about higher education.

Unrelated to Boudinot or MFAs, though, I wanted to talk a bit about writing-as-therapy. Not in a classroom setting or in literary academia, but the way it works for the likes of me, for the pulp writers. In the altogether different literary universe—not actually a less pretentious one, since apparently there is equal and opposite snobbery in all directions—where I write short sff, follow Heinlein’s rules and all that, expectations adjusted downward to account for inflation since it’s not 1947 any more, and publish almost exclusively in sff magazines, I couldn’t write memoir even if I wanted to because nobody would buy it. But I’ve both consciously and unconsciously done a lot of writing-as-therapy in the last two years anyway. For example, there’s a pattern you can see in most of my early work, one that was not deliberately put there: “Pockets Full of Stones”, “The Jackal’s Wedding”, “The Calf”, “By Dawn’s Barbed Light” and “On Being Undone By A Light Breeze” are all—alongside whatever else they’re about—about losing parents or losing a sibling. Grief is pervasive; it can become a normalcy, a new default, so much so that you can sometimes write nothing but characters who are themselves grieving for a year and still not notice that it’s a pattern. I stopped after I noticed, of course.

There was another common aspect to a lot of those early stories, which was that the stories would end with the protagonists throwing themselves into the unknown—sometimes death, other times great uncertainty. They’re about stepping forward from grieving. This is true of almost all the stories above, and some others written around the same time (“Caul”, for instance). That part was a little more deliberate. I was practising, if you like, a particular emotional movement, the step from despair’s edge down, to find if nothing else exhilaration in falling. Trying to familiarize myself with the movement so that I could do it in real life. Eventually I stopped doing this one, too, at least quite so blatantly. It’s important to break your patterns when you can, before the wind changes and you get stuck that way.

So the pulp writer’s way is the exact opposite of the Boudinotian #SevenYearsInTheWoodshed. Not isolating yourself to hone your craft in the dark, but doing your practice in public with the “editor’s desk”—that mythical, liminal space—as proving ground and level boss. I only took writing seriously, meaning I started writing and sending work to be considered for publication, in mid-2012 after I understood two things. One was just that life is short, shorter even than you think. Two, that I was numb to, among a great many other things, the fear of failure or rejection. Why not, I thought, make use of this strange and bathetic gift? I started sending work out almost as soon as I finished writing it. I wrote what would be my first pro-sale story a couple of months after I started, after furiously iterating through dozens of scraps and half-assed shit that would never sell. A long time ago, before all this happened and when I was still just thinking-about-writing-someday, I’d thought maybe I should save my good ideas for later because I didn’t want to use them up too early and run out. That was foolish. The first lesson I taught myself when I started writing for real is to go all in, because you can always revisit ideas if you want; because there are always more ideas; because life is really fucking short, and shorter than you think.

(Which is the other thing I don’t understand about MFAs, perhaps because I never went to university and my view of how writing works is perhaps too personal. We all have to make use of whatever we’ve got in our lives, is what I’m saying. Surely it’s only more difficult to explore your unreal estate while under fire by the academy’s canons…? But I’m probably wrong about this. I’m told I am frequently cynical about higher education as a kind of pre-emptive defense for not having any of it. I am only the fox who thinks your grapes are sour. Your grapes are the worst. Nobody wants your grapes. Just, fuck your grapes, man.)

Now, a few years down the road when sometimes a rejection does finally, beautifully sting a little, you have no idea how much I treasure these little hurts. Even my imposter syndrome is still all just pins and needles from slowly returning bloodflow. Whether writing as therapy works or not, or whether it’s just a matter of finding something to occupy yourself while the long grey time passes, this at least is a praxis I understand. Writing through the shit has itself been my higher education. Learning to live with the unhealing wound is my motherfucking art. #micdrop, boom. Gonna have to actively remember to not end all future blogposts like this.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” by Sam Kriss in The New Inquiry: “we will overthrow the fascist institution of the sun, finally achieving the dream of all great revolutionary movements in history.”

The Flaccid and the Fantastic

There’s a Clutean definition of “hard fantasy” in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:

A useful term for stories where Magic is regarded as an almost scientific force of Nature, and subject to the same sorts of rules and principles. This was the type of fantasy championed by John W Campbell Jr in Unknown […]

That seems straightforward. Wikipedia has a compatible opinion, considering the Harold Shea stories (L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. I read and enjoyed these a long time ago in The Compleat Enchanter omnibus) to be the prototype of their “hard fantasy” canon: fantasy that treats magic as a predictable, rule-governed part of the natural order. Shea wins “The Roaring Trumpet” by observing, extrapolating and manipulating laws of magic—the law of contagion and the law of similarity, IIRC—if that sounds very 1940 to you, that’s because it was. It’s good, though. The Harold Shea stories were published by Campbell in Unknown, so that’s also consistent with the previous definition.

For more recent examples of this form, the Wikipedia article also cites two of my favourite fantasy novels, both from the 90s: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick and Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams (the Wikipedia page for the latter claims, forlornly, that it is “arcanepunk”, which naturally is a red link of death: a sign that it’s not so easy to coin a new genre. After all, if adding -punk to stuff was enough then @everypunk has already invented twenty-five thousand new subgenres. No, genre/canon formation is a more complicated business than that, but more on that another time.) Both books treat magic in a much more complex way that the Harold Shea stories (unsurprisingly, given the half-century gap between them); both posit magic as wild, numinous and in some configurations transcendental, but nevertheless both mostly present it as a learnable skill, so I suppose it still fits. But at this point one has to ask, what isn’t hard fantasy by this definition? The same argument would do for the Chrestomanci books by Dianna Wynne Jones, the wonderful Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and of course, Harry Potter—perhaps even more than the original, the fascinating Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic by Elizier Yudkovsky, which is basically a hard(er) fantasy remake with smarter versions of the characters. Magic is now very frequently treated as a rule-based system in popular fantasy. It seems that fantasy’s hardness has become a kind of chronic priapism since the days of Harold Shea.

Meanwhile, Jane Lindskold argues for a more rigorous definition in an 2009 essay at Tor.com: that the fantasy should aim for better “realism” in the non-fantastical parts. So magically intelligent wolves are ok; magically intelligent wolves that nod and wag their tails are not ok, because those are not wolf behaviours; magically intelligent wolves standing on their hind legs wearing natty waistcoats and inviting you a tea party, presumably, would be extremely not ok. Marie Brennan talks about another version of hard fantasy in a 2008 essay, arguing that hard fantasy, by analogy with hard science fiction, is concerned with deep rigour in some aspect of worldbuilding, such that you might say that Tolkien wrote hard linguistic fantasy or GRRM wrote hard political fantasy, and also that such stories are (again like hard sf) significantly concerned with how and why those things work.

These are similar but not identical arguments. The Lindskoldian version has a purist neti-neti quality that I find appealing (despite being terribly disinclined to actually write that sort of thing myself. I like reading it done by others, though). The Brennanian version, on the other hand, freely admits that a given story might only be rigorous in some aspects and therefore leaves so much room open that I’m not sure whether it holds up as a workable genre definition, though it can be an accurate description of Brennan’s own Midnight Never Come, for instance, which is clearly hard Elizabethan-political fantasy in her own terms. It’s good, incidentally, if you haven’t read it.

Arguments in favour of greater rigour and “realism” are, despite their own problems, a bit more useful than just requiring magic to have rules. Harry Potter has rules, for instance, but is manifestly lacking in internal consistency and rigour because much of it is fable-like and was obviously not intended to work under hard fantasy constraints in the first place (this is why I find the Methods of Rationality fanfic so fascinating; on the one hand, it’s “fixing” something that was never broken, but on the other hand the changes it makes are often very interesting). A genre definition should able to rule Harry Potter out of hard fantasy, on the grounds that if it can’t, it’s not doing anything.

Lois Tilton’s definition of “hard fantasy” does not meet that bar, since it implicitly counts Harry Potter as hard fantasy. Tilton only requires that hard fantasy not be “soft fantasy”: i.e., the fantastical element must be unambiguous and not visibly or potentially a metaphor. But Mordor is industrialization amd Aslan is Jesus and Cthulhu is probably black people or whatever? It’s not unusual for the ‘realism’ of fantastical elements to be ambiguous, is what I’m saying; ambiguity about whether something is ‘really’ happening or not is an old technique. All of Narnia is deniable because no time elapses in the wardrobe. All of the Land in Thomas Covenant is deniable, which was even an actual plot point as I recall, about Covenant not being sure if he’s hallucinating or not. In fact, if I remember right, the exact same ambiguity also applies to Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which is by all accounts otherwise an exemplar of hard fantasy.

Or here’s a different angle: in a great many fantastic fictions (and, for that matter, in journalism) the reading differs greatly depending on whether you read the fantastical element of ‘race’ as a metaphor for morality (“this character is racially predisposed to be violent”) or for the narrator’s bigotry (“this character is perceived as monstrous because the protagonist is a gigantic racist”). Have we not just softened vast swathes of formerly-hard fantasy merely by adjusting our perceptions to recognize overlooked ambiguities? Is a critical reading the ultimate boner-killer?

I do think “hard fantasy” might be an interesting idea: it has a tradition and an argument, at least, not in the Tiltonian “that which is not soft” sense but the rigour-oriented arguments summarized earlier. One could hazard that it is a sort of cousin to grimdark, perhaps, and a more distant cousin of hard sf, all of which are preoccupied with penetrating the unreal with their erect realisms. One could also argue that there are much more interesting critical models just lying around for the taking if anybody wanted to up their game a bit. But whatever.

This is not a pile-on on Tilton, incidentally. I respect that the attempt to drink the entire firehose of sff short fiction every month (and worse, to find something to say about it all) is bound to give someone a very different perspective than either being able to take the time to really step back and theorize academically on a big scale (Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, for example, as above. I have got to actually read this at some point) or to pop in and just opine randomly, dilettante-style (which, er, is what I’m doing). I imagine that this different perspective is mostly one of exhaustion: what is sought is not so much a critically sound model that makes sense at a theoretical level, but a quick sorting algorithm to put stuff into different piles.

The problem, as I see it, is that the hard/soft dichotomy doesn’t work for this purpose either. They’re not balanced. Even if “hard fantasy” could theoretically be rehabilitated as per above, “soft fantasy” doesn’t seem to work at all. First because it’s impossible to pin down, as per above; second because it’s tied to a technique (hyperreal metaphors) rather than an ideological position (such as might fit into a manifesto, like mundane sf) or themes or content or style (like grimdark or cyberpunk or “hard fantasy” or “portal fantasy”), any of which might have made more sense. A scheme of categorization that files Harry Potter as “hard fantasy” and Thomas Covenant as “soft fantasy” is funny but not useful.

Some of the stories that Tilton would like to classify as “soft fantasy” might be just called magic realism, I suppose, not just for how fantastic elements are treated but for the aspect of social or political critique. But perhaps magic realism is not for white people (boom, hashtag) so this might be, as ppl say, “problematic”? How about “post-expressionistic fantasy” instead? It means the same thing and sounds posh—I’m going to start using that with a straight face from now on, btw—and I also feel like genre names really need to up their game. Fantasy is being shortchanged with these monosyllables: high, low, hard, soft, &c., which people can just navigate by connotation and rumour. Whereas with post-expressionistic fantasy, you’re at least forcing people to look it up, which should result in a better class of mockery if nothing else. Everybody wins.

Can’t believe I actually said all this with a minimum of dick jokes.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “When The Seltzer’s Like ‘Nah’ and You’re Like ‘Oh Please, Please Be Cold’ and the Seltzer’s Like ‘Nah’” by Rahawa Haile in Midnight Breakfast: “The thing about ugly is ugly’s okay so long as you’re tall. Men figured this out early and now they’re everywhere: tall, ugly men.”