Friday, November 30, 2012

Science Fiction Aesthetics and Sensibility

A couple of days ago, Jonathan McCalmont posted Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction to his blog. "Annoyed" notifies us, from the top, that it's to be read as a rant rather than a sampling of his thoughts on the subject of the history of science fiction. Fair enough. The title also-- unintentionally, perhaps-- conflates some hypostasized notion of all the existing histories of science fiction distilled into a single "history" with what non-academics usually mean by the word "history" (viz., the past, which inevitably becomes singularly dicey when treated as a conceptual entity). By "history," McCalmont, I believe, means the former. Rants can be interesting and useful, though, and "Annoyed" is both.

It seems a Locus Online piece by Gary Westfahl provoked McCalmont by making the sort of generalization that seems always to be with us in the sf/f sphere: "the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable." McCalmont explains his annoyance thus: "The reason I am singling out Westfahl’s essay is that it illustrates the field’s lamentable tendency to allow these types of broad historical claims to go completely unchallenged and unsupported." So far so good. But when he says
I believe that the historical approach to science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use this approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
Here, I have a bit of trouble with McCalmont's own generalization. Yes, I see what he calls "the historical approach" used by some academics and many non-academics in the field all the time, but unlike McCalmont, I assume they're doing so because they've chosen to ignore the variety of attempts quite a few smart academic critics have lately made (and continue to make) to grapple with the ungainly, difficult-to-grasp subject without falling into pitfalls Samuel R. Delany has often and effectively excoriated (and which McCalmont duly alludes to). A science fiction work's closeness to the culture and politics of its time means that any history necessarily has to take shifts in culture and politics (and scientific practice as well as science!) into account. There are scholars in the field attempting to do that-- taking a variety of approaches that try their damnedest to eschew generalizations like the one McCalmont cites about Heinlein's influence.

Now let me get on to the interesting and useful parts of McCalmont's post. He takes John Berger's excellent Ways of Seeing and David Bordwell's On the History of Film Style as examples of approaches to an aesthetic field's history (art history and film history, respectively) that is illuminating rather than stultifying. Bordwell, McCalmont tells us, pays special attention to the impact certain film techniques (particularly "deep focus," "long take" and "dynamic editing") had on film-making and how we watch films. I think McCalmont gets to something important when he writes:
Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.
If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.
I've long felt that the most difficult to talk (and therefore think) about aspect of science fiction is its special, particular aesthetics and sensibility. Aesthetics and sensibility don't easily fit into the discussions of a work's narrative techniques, and yet they matter tremendously. (McCalmont cites Delany's wonderful, still important "About 5,175 Words" as an exemplar for how one could go about discussing/analyzing sf aesthetics at the textual level.) Many reviewers and critics and fans and writers just generalize about aesthetics by proclaiming that such and such a work or description imparts a "sense of wonder"-- which for me usually indicates an inability to discuss the aesthetic passage in question in technical terms. McCalmont is right, I think, when saying that Delany shows critics how they could do this with a great degree of specificity. What makes this even more frustrating (for me, anyway), is that like all other aspects of sf writing, sf aesthetics and sensibility have changed over time, are at the moment, in fact, changing in ways that are making some of our veteran critics uneasy and unable to assimilate much current sf to sf as they've known and loved it.

 I'll add here that as a publisher and editor of a small press, I'm absolutely aware of there being a major shift in sf writing-- one that I think involves sf aesthetics and sensibility more than narrative techniques-- underway. I've been assuming that the reason I can't really put my impressions and conjectures into words is because it's very difficult to get enough distance at this point to do so: isn't that the nature of being inside a shift? But another reason might be that this is an aspect of science fiction that hasn't been as well worked as, say, narrative conventions and tropes, have.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? I'd love to see more discussion of this subject. Unfortunately, most of the emphasis in McCalmont's post and in the comments to it has focused on language and textual style-- important aspects of aesthetics, certainly, but doesn't cover issues of form (which is briefly alluded to with reference to Kim Stanley Robinson and John Brunner).

I'd be particular interested, of course, in a discussion that talks about the aesthetics and sensibility I recognize in the work of, say,  Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, and Kiini Ibura Salaam, or the particular aesthetics and sensibility of feminist sf  generally (which I can recognize by feel when I encounter it but have never tried to explain).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Heads Up!

Eleanor Arnason has become a columnist for Strange Horizons. Her debut piece, "Me and Science Fiction," was posted today, here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Aqueductista News

I've gotten way behind on this. First, before offering you some links pertinent to Aqueduct authors, I thought I'd begin by mentioning some of the books Aqueduct will be releasing in 2013. This spring, you can look forward to a new, debut novel from Aqueduct, Necessary Ill by Deb Taber, which tells a story set in a sophisticated, (literally as well as metaphorically) underground community of "neuters."

We'll also be publishing "a pseudotreatise of urbogony" titled Squaring the Circle, a collection of tales by Romanian author Gheorghe Sasarman, which was brought to Aqueduct by Ursula Le Guin, who read the tales in a Spanish translation and was so delighted by them that she began to try her hand at translating them into English. Her labor of love, assisted by Spanish translator Mariano Martín Rodríguez, resulted in Squaring the Circle. I'll just say that although they aren't in Aqueduct's usual line, I couldn't resist publishing Sasarman's tales. And finally,

I'd like to mention, also, that Aqueduct has just acquired another novel for which we haven't yet set a publication date, Stone Boatmen, by Canadian poet and scholar, Sarah Tolmie. (Sarah's scholarly specialty is Piers Plowman.) Curiously enough, Sarah's manuscript also came to me by way of Ursula. Ursula's recommendation warned me that it's not like anything she'd ever read before. "My feeling about it is that it's like Islandia or The Worm Ouroboros or Gormenghast-- a one of a kind." And indeed, that's just what it is. All I can say now is that it's something special, and I'm excited to be publishing it.

Now to some of the links I think you might find interesting:

--Karen Burnham has reviewed Christopher Barzak's Birds and Birthdays for Strange Horizons. Burnham writes: "Barzak presents us with three short stories based on surrealist paintings by women (one of which, "Birthday," is original to this collection) and an essay on the work and history of three female surrealist painters. In under one hundred pages, this volume delivers a neat package of beauty, information, and interpretation." She expresses particular appreciation for the book's prose style.

--Brit Mandelo has also reviewed Birds and Birthdays for  She writes: "These two refracted views of the paintings—through fiction, through scholarship—infuse the audience's own readings of the works in question, providing a delightful triple translation of art (painting) to art (fiction) to art (painting) to interpretation (scholarship/fiction). This is what makes the book so definitively interstitial, to my eye: It is many things, in many shades and forms, all looping back together infinitely.

"The end result is a joyful tribute to these three women painters in the form of handsome, lyrical fiction and precisely considered scholarship. Barzak’s awareness and sensitivity bring the project full-circle, as he considers the project/process/praxis of translating these women’s subjectivities to the page from his own personally-inflected position in cultural production."

-- Richard Larson has reviewed Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient, also for Strange Horizons. Larson writes: "The stories in Kiini Ibura Salaam's debut collection, Ancient, Ancient, from feminist science fiction publisher Aqueduct Press, are imbued with the urgency and expansive scope of imagination that we've come to expect from the best of science fiction. Salaam takes us to distant places but makes them familiar in unsettling ways, ably transforming the fantastic into a mirror through which we can examine—and reckon with—our own struggles."

 His particular interest is in the book's vision: "The world as Salaam paints it is full of harsh and beautiful things: she insists that we must venture into dark places to emerge as who we are meant to be. The best of her work is imbued with subtle interventions which ultimately provide the reader with sharply felt revelations, the secrets within the text that we must each decipher independently and which speak to each other to reveal a larger project. The stories work from mutual touchstones: the illustration of sex as an act of power; a visceral relationship to the human body as a mode of currency as well as a site of rebellion; and the examination of the struggle to find oneself, particularly as a woman, in a world that offers so few options. Few writers pay such focused attention to a specific set of ideas and concerns, and this accomplished collection provides a vigorous exploration into Salaam's unique vision."

--At Futuristically Ancient, Aker reviews Ancient, Ancient, too. Her review begins: "The ancient mysteries of life hold in their grasp the power of seduction. We find seduction, being led away, in a sexual experience, a sensual touch, the coming of a new life or death, the physical movement of bodies in a dance, the allure of magic, the call of nature, the possibility of a new truth or that a truth was a lie, or to experience the life of another. There is a freedom and danger, a pleasure and pain in seduction, and Kiini Ibura Salaam compellingly explores them in her collection of speculative short fiction stories, Ancient Ancient."

-- And speaking of Ancient, Ancient, its author has made a short video about it:

-- Brittainy Warman has reviewed Liz Henry's Unruly Islands for Stone Telling. She writes, "Henry's poetry is not at all the kind of poetry most people are thinking of when they say that "they don't like poetry." Viciously modern, biting, sometimes beautiful, and always fascinating, Henry's poetry is very much a product of the world she lives in."

Warman concludes: "My favorite poem in the text, however, was "Mother Frankenstein," which I was familiar with due to its first publication in Stone Telling. This poem has the reader from the very first line — "Mother Frankenstein swollen lightning / stitching needles where my lips kiss / in your smoke-ghost skull where axons / open fire with past love letters electric / little histories of the alphabet gathered / in your pathetic apron's outwash plain" (39). This piece is the perfect example of the way that Henry's poetic style can smack you in your heart and fill your mind with unbidden images and associations. The poem is haunting and I found myself re-reading it again and again.
Overall the collection is full of the compelling and unusual poetry that the world so desperately, constantly needs more of. Henry is a challenging and unique poet, a poet born of stars and the Internet, and I look forward to making more "weird trip[s] through [her] brain" (Henry 2012b)."

--Sue Lange has reviewed the latest issue of the Cascadia Subduction Zone at the Book View Cafe. She begins: "This latest issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone is one of their best, IMHO. The emphasis this time around is on the creative process with visual art taking center stage. Two essays stand out: Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “Painting and Writing: My Yin and Yang,” and Mark Rich’s “Line Improvisation: Notes by the Fly in the Web.”" Her focus is largely on the two essays she mentions and Nic Clarke's review of Birds and Birthdays.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Imagining Radical Democracy, in progress

Last year at WisCon, Alexis Lothian moderated a panel titled "Imagining Radical Democracy," that Andrea Hairston, Liz Henry, and I participated in. For most of the panel, we talked about examples of people creating radically democratic spaces-- in real life today, in fiction, and in history. It was one of the most exhilarating panels I've ever participated in (and that's saying something).

 Lately, I've been hearing and reading about "Occupy Sandy"-- in which Occupiers (whom the media had dismissed as done and over) have been bringing relief to areas ravaged by Sandy two weeks ago. The Occupiers, it turns out, have a much clearer notion of how to accomplish relief than the best-funded aid corporations (you know, the ones with high-paid executives that collect big bucks from people who'd like to help) do. (The Occupys are, you might say, a "do-ocracy.")

All of this reminds me of one of the aspects of radically democratic spaces we discussed during the panel-- the problem that such spaces frequently face of being required to fix everything for everyone all at once (which of course can't be done)-- and the potential for such demands to wreck the space. I myself remarked, anent this, that little drops of water evaporate in a desert; they need a humid environment to survive. The Occupys are like single drops of water. They--along, of course, with discrete other single drops--  inhabit a massive desert capable of evaporating every bit of precipitation that comes its way .

And yet, how welcome they are! Here's John Knefel, in his account at Truthout:
As the full extent of Superstorm Sandy's destruction begins to set in, Occupy Sandy continues to expand its effort to provide relief to ravaged areas in Staten Island, Coney Island, Red Hook, and the Rockaways. The work can roughly be divided into two categories: the primary distribution hubs at St. Jacobi Church on Fourth Avenue and 520 Clinton Ave., and the field, where organizers often go intersection by intersection, sometimes door to door to assess needs of the community.
What I've found, observing these efforts and increasingly participating in them, is that Occupy Sandy has provided the public with a concrete example of the virtue of Occupy's sometimes abstract ideals. One of Occupy's defining features is horizontalism, or non-hierarchical organization, which replaces traditional methods of control with, in theory, mutual affinity and respect. The media often refers to this as "leaderlessness" and calls it a weakness, and when trying to interpret Occupy through the narrow lens of corporate-captured electoral politics that may be a fair criticism. But the premise is completely incorrect. The establishment media never intended to understand Occupy on its own terms when it was in Zuccotti Park or in the streets, but now they are forced to. The fact that volunteers can be trained and assigned to tasks quickly - tasks they aren't compelled by any strict authority to do and so therefore take ownership of almost immediately - is a virtue rather than a fatal flaw. Likewise, emerging narratives of Occupy "refocusing," "reincarnating," or "resurrecting" similarly miss the point and instead rely on lazy, often condescending framing.
More interesting is Yotam Marom's post Occupy Sandy: From Relief to Resistance, written by a Hoboken resident who's been facilitating training for hundreds of people who've volunteered to help with the relief effort.
All along, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that this is what climate change looks like; but it’s also what the beginning of a climate justice movement might look like.
Hurricane Sandy is a crisis in itself; it flooded homes, turned off power, kept people from work, made families cold — it even took lives and put families on the street. And of course it’s more complicated than just bad weather. This hurricane is one more expression of the erratic weather patterns that we can expect more and more as a result of global warming, which is the product of our society’s dependency on fossil fuels, driven by multinational fossil fuel companies. Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that the climate crisis sets off a whole set of other crises, based on social, economic and political systems that are already in place, and that those things land on top of crises already in play. Many of the communities hardest hit by the hurricane are the same ones hardest hit by foreclosure, debt, austerity and mass incarceration. The flood didn’t create those things, but it made them worse and washed away all the crap that made them hard to see.
At the same time, Hurricane Sandy has brought new networks to life and put thousands of people in the streets to rebuild communities with an explicitly political framing. It’s now widely agreed that, despite setbacks, Occupy Sandy’s organizing has put the official agencies to shame. Equity, solidarity and mass participation have been at the center of the effort from the get-go, driven forward by committed organizers with deep politics and foresight. All along the intention has been to see this as an organizing project rather than just a volunteer effort. Still, the question remains of whether those networks in motion now can rise to the occasion and begin to address the underlying crises.
Marom sees success for the effort for as long as it's focused on the immediate crisis-- but worries that once the immediate crisis is past, involvement will decline, and all the problems exposed by the crisis will be allowed to slide, back to business as usual. (That is how such spaces usually work, I know...)
Flexible networks like Occupy Sandy are incredible machines — more fluid than big organizations, more dynamic than government agencies. But they rely on having people or strong communities to network. Networks connect dots, but you still need the dots themselves to be ready. Crises and opportunities — like Hurricane Sandy or Occupy Wall Street last fall — put people in motion, but they only become part of a movement beyond those moments when participants are grounded in stable frameworks to keep them going.
We have to build infrastructure and create the institutional frameworks that can sustain a struggle over the long haul. Every movement needs them. The civil rights movement had SNCC and the Highlander School, among countless other organizations, schools, training institutes, churches and foundations. Even Occupy has had institutions all along, from the occupations themselves to the many groups that rose to the occasion to support it; part of the reason Occupy Sandy could mobilize so quickly and effectively is that the Occupy movement already had enough building blocks in place, enough experience with alternative structures, enough relationships built and enough organizing being done behind the scenes to leap into action when it was needed.
If we want to last, we need to create the frameworks, processes and systems that keep us in motion — that keep the windows open — for long enough to win.
The rest of his post muses on the problem and what can be done to address it. Definitely worth our while thinking on, especially given that only a week after the election President Obama is already warning progressives that he's soon going to be making them swallow more bitter pills (just in case anyone might have gotten the wild, foolish idea that the elections themselves actually changed anything).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Quote of the Day

Obama won the Latino vote, 71 to 27. He also won the Asian vote, 73 to 26. Those voters all look the same to the losers. That's why they're the losers.-- Tom Scocca, Eighty-eight percent of Romney Voters Were White