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


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, though I started marginally later with it than I did with Sinhala, if you totaled up all the sentences that I have spoken in my life, they would be more in English than not; my parents spoke English as often as they spoke Sinhala; my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents spoke English, though not on the paternal side; my newspapers speak English (there are faultlines between the newspapers in each language and the communities they imagine); my street signs speak English alongside Tamil and Sinhala, every sign a trinity. 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?”


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.”


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.

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. 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 fascinatingly nerdy Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic by Elizier Yudkovsky, which is basically a hard(er) fantasy remake with intelligent 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 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.

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 fascinating; on the one hand, what it’s “fixing” was never broken, but on the other hand the changes it makes are 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 and 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.

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, and 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-expressionist 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-expressionist 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.”

The Grove

Outside my window is a bamboo grove. I grew up beneath one just like this: it means home to me, where I’d climb the roof, warm asbestos under my feet and bamboo towering over my head, to throw fallen leaves shaped and sharp like knives and watch their arc. Now, in my first-floor apartment—that’s second floor in American—I’m submerged as if the grove were an ocean. The distant sun filters greenly from the surface and the grove creaks and groans against my hull—my first night in this apartment, I couldn’t sleep for the noise. I got used to it. It’s just my turn to be the knife, no, the leaf. At least, I tell myself, I’m thrown now.