Speak, Fremde, And Enter

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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