On the Dead-Beat Dad Trope

The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized.  The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.

Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.

But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.

The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.

In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.

We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.

Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.

In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.

Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.

This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.

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When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.

All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!

Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.

 

Adaptation and Nostalgia: on the Preacher series

As I’ve discussed before, adaptations are tricky things. On the one hand there is the fannish tendency of attempting to perfectly replicate the source material that might end up mummifying the original work in a formulaic representation. On the other hand there is the adaptation that is attached to the source material mainly in name and has little to do with it otherwise. The Preacher adaptation is hard to pin down: at points it feels like it has veered to far in the territory of the latter case, at other points it does come across as trying to faithfully replicate the key aspects of the graphic novels.

My interest in the series, though, is driven by a nostalgia for the comics I consumed at the end of high school and the beginning of my undergraduate degree. Preacher was one of the series I followed at that time, and at one point I thought it was pretty amazing, but then my tastes changed both politically and aesthetically. Hence, I wasn’t overly concerned with whether or not the show would faithfully abide by its source material because I had ceased caring about the comic series as anything more than something I used to enjoy, that I had fond memories of, but no longer counted myself a fan. Indeed, the fact that it took me so long to watch the series is probably evidence that I was not overly excited by the idea of the adaptation let alone committed enough to care if it managed to stay faithful to the original version of the story.

Some background… One of the reasons I stopped caring about this particular comic series (and in fact culled all the dusty Preacher collections from my bookshelves years back) was because I eventually realized it was a US libertarian trash heap that worked too hard in passing itself off as transgressive. Trying to offend religious sensibilities by writing stories about God being an asshole, the inbreeding of Jesus’ blood-line, and an irreligious Texan who wanted to kick God’s ass was not, in my mind, that radical in an ideological context that promoted some white maverick John Wayne loving Texan named after a colonial murderer as a cowboy protagonist. The series persistently valorized some of the most insidious aspects US mythology (i.e. the sacredness of the Alamo, the heroism of Confederates, the cowardice of the French in WW2, the supposed “amazingness” of US society, etc.), had a pretty offensive treatment of Vietnam, mocked the Easter Rising and John Connolly, and at the end of the day was about a small group of white folks “sticking it to the man” through their own piss and vinegar. Let’s be honest: politically, Preacher was pretty shitty.

The fact that Seth Rogen of all people was one of the adaptations producers did not help renew my interest in Preacher. Aside from the fact that I cannot stand his comedic hijinx, he is also responsible for making that extremely racist film about the DPRK and is one of the people who saw fit to publicly chastise Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz for daring to criticize colonialism and apartheid. Lovely fellow.

So I approached the television adaptation with an attitude of tired interest: let’s see what they do with something I used to like when my tastes were different because there’s small chance that it could be worse than what I remember. (This attitude is similar to what I feel about the new Star Wars films.) Thankfully the series cleared this low bar and, in the choices it made to stray from the source material, made me interested enough to keep watching and look forward to a second season. I’m not saying it’s pure gold or some masterpiece everyone should watch, only that the way in which it cleared that low bar was intriguing enough to take notice. In fact, the series was often more interesting when it strayed from the source material than when it remained faithful.

Of course, the television was barely faithful to the way in which the comic’s narrative developed. The writing team threw multiple characters from the comic, some of whom would be encountered later and in different contexts, into the same town at the very beginning. Whereas the comic began with Jesse Custer’s church being destroyed by Genesis’ arrival, leading Jesse to leave town, meet with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and the vampire Cassidy, and begin the road trip story that would define the entire series, the adaptation brings multiple characters to the same town so that it feels a bit like a Twin Peaks affectation. You know, throw a bunch of creepy and quirky characters into one place and see what happens. So you get a situation where Jesse knows the Roots rather than encountering them first as antagonists. Where Odin Quincannon knows Jesse’s family because he’s from the same town, rather than being the sinister figure Jesse encounters at a much later point of the series in another town. Where Tulip shares a childhood and then a life of crime with Jesse rather than being someone he meets as an adult. Even still, the gist of the story (Genesis entity, God fleeing, Heaven in crisis) remains the same and most of the characterization remains quite faithful. When such characterization differs, or at the very least is given depth, the show is in fact superior to the comic.

Take, for example, the character of Tulip. In the comic she’s a white woman from a privileged background who was taught to shoot by her NRA loving single dad who somehow becomes an amazing gun-toting vigilante. Most of the character tension between her and Jesse has to do with the latter’s southern boy macho bullshit getting in the way of recognizing the former as an equal (i.e. he’s always trying to protect her when she doesn’t need protecting but somehow that’s okay because of LOVE), which is utterly boring. In the adaptation, though, Tulip is played by Ruth Negga: she’s a black woman from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up in a situation of violence, claimed a subject position in this violence, and possesses the kind of rebel agency that the comic Tulip couldn’t believably possess. Moreover, television Tulip’s tension with Jesse has nothing to do with this macho-protector bullshit; they possess a different and more equitable shared history. Really, and mainly because Negga’s a phenomenal actor, Tulip is the best character in the adaptation: she’s introduced as some kind of kickass MacGyver assassin that little girls want to be like but, at the same time, possesses significant character depth.

Then there’s the character of Eugene Root who was little more than an extended politically incorrect gag in the comics: a Nirvana fan who tried to suicide with a shotgun after Kurt Cobain killed himself only to survive the attempt with a severely mutilated face. In the comic he’s mainly called “Arseface” (a name that appears here and there in the adaptation as fanservice but is in fact treated as insulting) and exists for comedy relief – the “joke” is that the protagonists laugh at his disfigurement only to demonstrate their magnanimity by befriending him. But in the adaptation he possesses a real subjectivity – at one point he even challenges Jesse which leads to a tragic development – and the story behind his failed suicide disfigurement is given more nuance than “Nirvana fan”.

Even more interesting, to my mind, was the adaptation’s refusal to celebrate USAmerican mythology, a key element of the comic, and instead treat the foundations of the US with cynical contempt. The flashbacks to the “Saint of Killers” origin story, for example, are also flashbacks to genocidal settler violence: frontiers towns that hang Indigenous people from trees and encourage scalping – the “western” history of the US is given the serial killing dimension that it actually possessed. As critical scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have pointed out, settler men, women, and children were united in the ideology of genocide and these flashbacks depict this ideological unity as historical fact. Obviously this depiction is not perfect, and at points it feels more about shocking the audience than being truly critical, but at the same time it rejects the asinine settlerist mythology that the comic often promoted. Low bar clearing? Maybe.

None of these changes are enough to render the show perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons I didn’t finish the series until recently was because, when I watched the first episode back when it initially aired, I was turned off by the opening scene that happened in “Africa”. No country or region within a country, just the name of the continent and a scenario that felt like the “this is what all of Africa looks like” trope: shanty-towns, a dust-ridden place of worship, dusty roads in the outback, superstitious enthusiasm. Seriously folks, this is some retrograde shit. Only the fact that, in the last episode, Tulip made sardonic comments about God’s whiteness allowed me to (partially) stomach that.

In any case, compared to the other recent (and network) DC-Vertigo adaptations – the underwhelming Constantine and the eye-rolling Lucifer – Preacher stands out as a franchise that could be better than its source material. Hopefully the second season improves on the faults of the first and does more than simply accommodate my nostalgia.

The Organic SFF of Sridaungkaew

First, a caveat… Okay, in more than one post made in the past four months I’ve discussed, mentioned, and reflected upon Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work so this one might seem like overkill. To put it in perspective, though, since summer is when I get the time to focus on reading fiction in a manner that is more serious than using it to fill in the spaces of my commute to work, I often end up discovering that one author’s work dominates this reading experience. For example, last summer was dominated by my experience of reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The experience was so singular, and absorbed me so wholly, that I’ve pretty much forgotten what other novels I read in the Summer of 2015. Sriduangkaew’s short fiction did the same to my Summer of 2016: although I had read her novella and some of her “Hegemony” short stories in the past, upon reading some of her recent 2016 fiction (beginning with The Beast At The End of Time) I was so taken by the experience that I went back and read a number of her past short stories I hadn’t yet read as well as followed much of her 2016 fiction – some of which was being released while I was being absorbed by her authorial imagination. I bought an ebook of the Flesh anthology so I could read her contribution to that book; I concluded my summer reading as my teaching semester began by purchasing the most recent Apex Magazine so I could read what would be her last work of 2016 before it was released online.

As my close friends will be aware I tend to focus on the fiction I love to the detriment of conversations about literature, turning everything back unto what I’ve found the most evocative in my recent reading history. In 2015 they wondered why I was going on and on about a book written in an approximation of old English about the Norman Invasion of the British Isles. In 2014 they were most probably rolling their eyes whenever I said the name “Sofia Samatar”. In 2012 at least one person must have complained that I was figuratively beating them over the head with the heavy tome that is Bolaño’s 2666. In 2008 I kept trying to lend people my copy of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and someone who finally relented still has it and has not read it (come on, it’s amazing!). In 2004 more than one of my friends/acquaintances was most likely exhausted by my blather about China Mieville. None of these names go away because I remain a devoted fan of these books and their authors, and I consistently bring them up again and again (seriously if you have not read 2666 or A Stranger In Olondria then what are you doing with yourself?), but it is true that I tend to be singularly focused on whatever fiction marked my summer reading to the detriment of everything else. So at the moment, yeah, it’s the name “Benjanun Sriduangkaew” that I keep feeding into conversations about SFF or literature in general with my friends and colleagues; most of them are probably annoyed that I keep sending them links to her stories with repeated invectives to “read this now.”

Normally I don’t do much about this habit aside from a review and various mentions in other posts (i.e. in 2012 and 2013 references to 2666 found their way into multiple posts on my other blog) so this time I thought it might be interesting to say a few things about my impressions of the fiction that seized my imagination this summer. Moreover, in the case of Sriduangkaew I think this is important because of all the backlash she has received since Mixon’s article, and the people mobilized by this article, because I fear that this reprehensible affair might further marginalize the voice of an author whose contributions ought to be treated as significant.

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There is something entirely organic about Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction. On a surface level she crafts stories that evoke fantastic depictions of the organically weird. “Within her the next batch of bees is fruiting,” she writes in The Bees Her Heart The Hive Her Belly, “and each of their small hearts flutters in time to the monkey chants… She can hear them between her ears, in her stomach, secret communication through the hive that is her torso.” In The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire the author describes a temple gate composed of eldritch limbs that require the protagonist’s flesh in order to open; before that a birth in a womb grown from resin. In In Them The Stars Open Up Like Doors she writes of women who conceive universes in their wombs. In Under She Who Devours Suns the protagonist is introduced as a strange mutated organism that drips with “meteor blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints.” And in nearly everything she has published to date there are lush moments of the organic weird, descriptions that fuse technology or magic with the body, the landscape, the visceral fauna of her fantastic landscapes.

But her work is organic in a sense that is larger than these stories that are burgeoning with the incredible imaginations of organs and organic matter thriving or decaying. Indeed, when I reflect on my experience of reading Sriduangkaew’s work a passage from Antonio Gramsci comes to mind: “millions and millions of social infusoria building up the red coral reefs which one day in the not too distant future will burst forth above the waves and still them, and lull the oceanic tempest, and establish a new balance between the currents and climes. But this influx is organic, it grows from the circulation of ideas, from the maintenance of an intact apparatus.” Although the apparatus Gramsci is describing is an ideal communist party, the passage reminds me of Sriduangkaew’s best fiction where the “intact apparatus” of the story unleashes a circulation of ideas that is analogical to organic life. Reading a good Sriduangkaew story is like experiencing the development of a “coral reef” upon which the waves of a raging “tempest” crash. In her best stories (of which there are many) one feels inundated by multiple interweaving ideas, so many concepts and wild conventions, that are focused upon a story that is revealed, at the end, to possess the same elegant contours as a coral reef.

With an attention to style that is reminiscent of Angela Carter, and that is only equalled in genre fiction by Sofia Samatar’s brilliant novels, Sriduangkaew drops the reader in the middle of a thick forest, slowly guides them unto a path, and demands that they find their way through the winding trail that will lead them to the wilderness that awaits at the conclusion of every good story––the feeling of wanting it to go on forever. In novels this wilderness is delayed by hundreds of pages (and the aforementioned Samatar even wrote a lovely exposition of this wilderness experience at the end of A Stranger In Olondria) which is why Sriduangkaew’s stories are more terrible: we are only given several thousand words before we’re met with the wilderness.

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Many years ago when I was reading a lot of Angela Carter I was struck by how Carter spent so much time on every single sentence. No word was out of place but, at the same time, she did not sacrifice beauty to the kind of mechanical precision demanded by that terrible George Orwell essay that high school creative writing classes shove down the throats of their students. Sriduangkaew’s prose left me with the same impression: the nature of her style was such that it felt natural while also being complex. Again: organic.

While some nay-sayers (generally those mobilized by the Mixonites who are trying to find reasons to dislike Sriduangkaew’s work) complain about “purple prose” the unfortunate fact is that there is vocal group of SFF fans who despise anything that appears even remotely literary and would most likely complain about the literary skill of Roberto Bolaño or even Joseph Conrad (but not the latter’s colonial affectations). It is interesting how the backlash against SFF’s current new renaissance, best represented by the “Puppy” attempted take-overs of the Hugo Awards (a group in which Mixon and company should rightly belong), is opposed to both literary and progressive expressions of the genre. They want everything to be simple, boring, derivative, and retrograde… But, as Samir Amin once remarked, ideas that are connected to transforming society are generally superior to ideas that seek to preserve society as it is – this is because, he argued, societies do change and transform and thus any idea that denies this is, by its very nature, banal. Perhaps we can extend this logic to creative expressions such as literature: any story or novel that seeks to challenge and transform the genre, whether in form or content, is superior to those that are the same old, same old.

It is not that SFF hasn’t lacked literary and/or avant garde voices in the past (an example that immediately springs to mind is Delany’s Dhalgren) but that the past two decades have given us evidence of a new renaissance that seeks to institute a genre transformation. China Mieville’s so-called “new weird”, with Perdido Street Station and the other “Bas-Lag” novels, was an early signal of this transformation: it was not only an epistemic break with traditional fantasy, a rupture in continuity with various past elements, but betrayed a progressive political commitment (hell, in Iron Council Mieville straight up quotes Rosa Luxemburg), and became stylistically more interesting with every successive work. Add to this, for example, the work of Jeff Vandermeer, Cat Valente, Hal Duncan, Steph Swainston, and K.J. Bishop… it is clear we have an example of an actual SFF literature that is not stylistically boring or derivative in the process of emergence. But most important to this new renaissance are the voices of the traditional margins that would spread so much angst amongst the ranks of genre conservatives: Sofia Samatar, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, etc. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work belongs to this sequence, though the genre conservatives and gate-keepers have worked to prevent her recognition because she had the audacity to challenge their game. But yes, she deserves to be recognized as part of this renaissance. In fact, she was being recognized as part of it and probably would have found herself in the company of Samatar had she not been doxed and re-marginalized.

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The organic nature of Sriduangkaew’s work, with its narratives that stretch out through multiple complex sites of story, is the kind of lush terrain that twists and interweaves parallel to political non-fiction because, like the best fiction, it evinces (but without being didactic, thankfully) a progressive political sensibility. This is why, because Sriduangkaew’s fiction dominated my Summer 2016 reading experience, these stories ended up infiltrating my own non-fiction work. In an article intended to promote my upcoming book I used a Sriduangkaew story as an analogy, an avenue into a discussion about my narrative backdrop. Or why I used another Sriduangkaew story as the analogical opening of a draft for future publication. Because every one of her stories, organically deep in the sense of a coral reef, lend themselves to analogical appropriation by progressive non-fiction works while, at the same time, being eminently quotable due to the beauty of the prose.

As I mentioned above, Sriduangkaew’s style is reminiscent of someone like Angela Carter. Where you look at a single sentence and wonder if the author spent an hour working to make it a perfect construction. There was a time when I hoped to publish fiction and spent a lot of time writing novels that nobody would read except for my closest friends. In that time whenever I read the work of someone like Carter I felt that I had no right to publish because my attention to formal detail could never be as good. This was not jealousy but simply a moment of being in awe of an author who truly represented the craft of the written word. Sriduangkaew generates the same kind of awe-inspiring feeling, making me feel that maybe I should remain in the realm of non-fiction publishing because no fiction I’ll craft will ever be as good as hers. Because, let’s be honest, the ability to construct a complex story that is organically connected to an equally complex style is something that is rarely achieved, particularly in the SFF genre. There are very few stories that are “organic” in the manner of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”; often style is sacrificed to story and even the story is mechanical and formulaic.

Hence, I truly look forward to the future stories published by Sriduangkaew and hold my breath for a novel. Mainly because I want to dwell in her fictional universes longer than 7000 words – I want 10, 20, 30, 40 thousand or more words! And if you have taken the time to read any of her stories you should as well because it is impossible to read a Sriduangkaew short story and not want it to go on for longer, to not wish to delay the wilderness that awaits the end of the dense forest of each and every narrative she produces.

Two Steps Back, One Step Forward: reflections on 2016 Hugos

Now that the 2016 Hugos have come and gone, and this year’s “puppy” slate has been defeated again, it’s worth reflecting on the state of SFF in the aftermath. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin’s deserved victory for The Fifth Season is a lovely punch in the face to Vox Day and his supporters, particularly since Day’s genre counter-revolution was signalled by his racist comments about Jemisin. On the other hand, this victory is rather dismal: the “puppy” interference with the Hugos in fact reveals deep-seeded problems with the SFF mainstream that might in fact be reified by these liberal common fronts against obvious reactionaries.

But first the good. Victories by the likes of Jemisin and Okorafor should indeed be celebrated. The “puppy” slate functioned according to the racist proposition that works by women and people of colour were only winning awards, or even being nominated, because of some PC conspiracy: true to racist form, Day and his ilk simply assume, a priori, that any SFF book that isn’t written by a white dude could only win because of some affirmative action liberalism. Such an attitude is common to a pseudo-meritocracy approach to art where a privileged artist-to-be presumes that if there was no affirmative action or multicultural ethos affecting the cultural industry then their work would not be excluded from an establishment that supposedly is only accepting work from oppressed people groups. “If only there was a level playing field based on merit,” they crow, “Someone would look at my book/art/music/etc.” The ignorance of this attitude should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to study society, culture, and the cosmetic “affirmative action” ventures that actually do exist. There is no level playing field based on merit, the game was rigged for people who occupy sites of social privilege for a long time, and these paltry “PC” ventures are generally cosmetic attempts to make the playing field even so that merit can be considered in a broader sense – cosmetic because they really haven’t accomplished that much except open some cracks. Cracks through which thankfully creep, for example, the victories in the 2016 Hugos.

For anyone who has bothered to read the winners it should be clear that the works indeed merit the awards and that it’s only because of tireless activism amongst fans and activists who care about more voices being published and heard – who are tired of the bland work of the singular muscular male golden age voice – as well as SFF being taken seriously as a literary object. That is, the so-called “PC conspiracy” is about “merit”, the fact that other voices and their works have merit. You really have to be a committed racist to believe otherwise, although most people who push this “I-want-to-back-to-the-days-of-merit” argument pretend otherwise: unless they’re like Day and his friends, who are pretty honest about their racism (though completely dishonest about their assessment of “merit”), these kinds of people are simply average liberals who refuse to accept that the good old days of the culture meritocracy were the good old days of excluding large swathes of humanity for consideration of potential merit. The literature and arts industry does not exist in a vacuum cleansed of all the shit that determines a social formation; it operates according to the messiness of multiple social relations.

So in this context it is definitely worth celebrating the victories of the 2016 Hugo winners. Let’s be clear: the books that won deserved to win because they merited the win and not, as the “puppy” conspirators (they’re the ones who really launched a controlled conspiracy movement) would have it, because of an affirmative action attitude. For example, Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was one of the best fantasy novels in the past year: it had an extremely creative world-building conceit, it was uber-epic, it had an organic history and back story, its characters were compelling, its story punched you in the gut, and it was very well written. The real victory, here, is that we now have people who have been traditionally excluded from SFF being published and being read by the establishment… Prior to this crack opening social exclusion would have been such that similar possible works would have never been published let alone received the promotion necessary to make it to the Hugos. This is a good thing… But is it enough?

The thing with the “puppy” controversy is that in some ways it functions to help obscure a larger problem. If we’re all completely honest about Vox Day and his slate supporters we would have to admit that they don’t really represent the average SFF reader and consumer let alone critic and producer. Day runs a shitty little vanity press that puts out mind-numbingly boring, derivative, and hackneyed work that anyone who has been reading SFF seriously for even a year – even if all they read was Tolkien and Asimov – would dislike. The fact that Day’s followers are “fake sci-fi boys” was brought home by We Hunted The Mammoth‘s article on the 2016 Hugos where the authors screen-cap reddit comments from “puppy” supporters that demonstrate their ignorance of the genre: they talk about reading Asimov and Herbert as children, as if their SFF experience is in the foggy past and not contemporary; they complain that The Fifth Season was a novel about “climate change” (and by a black woman, no less, which is their real problem) when in fact the “climate change” it is about has no real world resonance; they have nothing interesting to say about the genre’s history, and most probably the old names they mention (and that they can barely remember) would hate them as well. It’s pretty easy to dismiss Day and his followers as being SFF outliers trying to “game” the SFF establishment because they’re a bunch of illiterate “philistines”.

That is, the outlier status of Day and his noxious ilk function as convenient scape-goat for the SFF establishment (of which Day was never a part, and that he is resentful of) which is generally liberal. The SFF liberals can lament how Day is ruining their game, even though he’s playing it at its utmost boundaries: “he’s gaming the Hugos,” they complain as if it was never a game to begin with, and one that should necessarily generate people like Day. It’s a bit like die-hard Hilary Clinton supporters complaining about the “stupidity” and “philistinism” of Donald Trump supporters as if US politics was not an imperialist game that always permits a troubling fascism to develop in its underbelly; an elitist and establishment imperialism pretends to be horrified by a movement that isn’t playing the game according to liberal racism but out-and-out racism. The Democrats can endorse “Blue Lives Matter” and send out drones to annihilate Third World bodies, but lord help us when a Republican openly proclaims an honestly extreme version of US capitalism and mobilizes a largely under-educated white garrison population with populist rhetoric.

In order to illustrate what I mean here, let’s think back on the 2015 Hugos where the “puppies” were first accused of “gaming” these awards much to the horror of the SFF establishment… Just like the entire rotten US political establishment reacted in horror to the “gaming” of its elite ranks by Trump’s populism. In 2015 the “puppy” takeover was also temporarily defeated. Left liberals probably congratulated themselves on beating back the reactionaries and preserving the sanctity of the Hugos by generally rejecting the “puppy” slates. The victory was more moralistic than substantial. And yet many of the same people who were opposed to the right wing “gaming” of the Hugos tended to be the very same people who voted for Laura Mixon’s Hugo in the best fan writer category. They didn’t seem to realize that the politics behind the “puppy” slates were the very same politics of Mixon’s article. The fact that they condemned the “puppies” and not Mixon means that the former was victorious, that it was justified to game the slate again, and that you don’t need reactionaries to “ruin” a prestigious genre award when social fascists will do it for you. Indeed, George R.R. Martin lamented in one breath that the Hugos was “ruined” by this “gaming” but in another breath endorsed the Mixon article (which was basically white supremacist character assassination of an author from the global peripheries using identity politics as cover) which was beloved by people who were simultaneously condemning the “puppies.” Hence the establishment can still remain an exclusive operation as long as it functions according to the logic of supposed “good sportsmanship” and not the openly racist logic the “puppies” whose real sin was breaking with said sportsmanship. Mixon’s article might as well have been a “puppy” nomination (and apparently Day liked it) and yet, with the “puppies” as the convenient enemy and Mixon as an ally of those who hated the “puppies”, it in fact represented a declaration of the SFF establishment.

The problem, then, is that we have on the one hand an explosion of SFF work that is challenging the status quo (what I have called elsewhere a new renaissance in the genre) and two responses to this eruption: i) the establishment attempt to contain it according to acceptable boundaries; ii) a reactionary attempt to denounce it entirely along with the genre history as a whole. While the first response seems preferable to the second its logic in fact permits the reactionary option: a tactic of containment and boundary preservation will always signal the supposed necessity to cleanse the contained, the nostalgia for a supposed golden era of SFF is not easily defeated. Nostalgia is most often conservative.

Hence, while we should indeed celebrate the victory of the 2016 Hugo winners over all attempts to silence excellent SFF produced from the margins (which is where, in my opinion, great literature is usually produced), we should also think through the boundaries produced by the SFF establishment. If the same people who complain about the “puppies” can also promote racist hit-pieces (i.e. Mixon’s fan fiction win in 2015) then we are dealing with an establishment that possessed problems long before the “puppies” decided to play its game.

The Failure is Disappointing But Interesting: Meillassoux’s essay on Science Fiction

Quentin Meillassoux’s Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction is a worthwhile read in the same way that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism was worthwhile. I read the latter shortly after reading Being and Event and its shorter and clearer form was helpful in elucidating much of the difficult conceptual terrain of Badiou’s ontology. Similarly, this short piece by Meillassoux, ostensibly about science fiction literature, was helpful in explaining aspects of his larger After Finitude. Beyond that it was a rather impoverished text if I was to treat it, without any interest of his larger philosophical project, as an authoritative analysis of Science Fiction literature.

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To give the reader a brief overview of the philosophical concerns of this Meillassoux piece, the author is interested in using Science Fiction [SF] and what he calls Extro-Science Fiction [XSF] as analogical material to elucidate his concerns with Hume’s problem of induction and how it has been misunderstood by 20th century philosophers, most notably Karl Popper. His contention is that Popper misunderstands Hume’s critique of induction as an epistemological problem when in fact it is an ontological problem. He uses science fiction, a literature that can imagine all of the epistemological problems and mysteries of science, to describe the ways in which the Popperian solution to Hume’s problem are in fact still trapped within the boundaries that Hume critiqued; he hypothesizes the possibility of extro-science fiction to account for what Hume really intended. Whereas proper SF is the literary imagination of science, and all of the epistemological impossibilities can be unified by the unfolding of scientific discovery (to simplify, analogical of Popper’s solution to Hume’s riddle, and one that Meillassoux does not think is a true solution), XSF can possibly illustrate the ontological problematic of a world deprived of causal order. “The guiding question of extro-science fiction is: what should a world be, what should a world resemble, so that it is in principle inaccessible to a scientific knowledge, so that it cannot be established as the object of natural science.” (6) And this inaccessible world is precisely the world that Hume’s arguments about causation are meant to provoke.

Since on this blog I’m more interested in the cultural dimension of critique, I’m not going to spend time engaging with Meillassoux’s philosophical points than what I explained in the above paragraph. Rather, I’m interested in how this extended essay functions as an analysis of the genre of SFF and whether or not this analysis works. My contention, here, is that it only partially works; it’s limited by the author’s ignorance of the genre. Maybe this is due to the fact that he relied on someone to furnish him with genre examples (Tristan Garcia), or that he was never interested in producing an actual analysis of SFF… But the problem I had with this essay, despite its usefulness in explaining aspects of After Finitude, is that it only partially functions as a thorough apprehension of the literature it attempts to represent.

The reason I say it partially functions as an analysis of SFF is because, on the whole, it does draw up an interesting dichotomy that is worthy of consideration. In fact, its pairing with Isaac Asimov’s story “The Billiard Ball” is one of its strengths. Meillassoux treats this “classic” SF short story as an example of the Popperian (mis)understanding of Hume’s problem, significant insofar as it even names itself after Hume’s analogy of billiard balls. This story “works” as SF because “it rests on the fact that the event, which is unforeseen in fact, as not unforeseen in principle, because a physical law can explain it. […] The [scientific] prediction has to be possible for the story to work; thus the event has to be subject to a theoretical law.” (22-23) Meillassoux then defines Asimov (and writers like Asimov) as those who paradigmatically demonstrate fidelity to SF because SF can never conceptualize anything other than a science fidelity that is bound by the very order that Hume ontologically critiqued. It’s all about stretching the epistemological horizons of a science that is taken to be ontologically acceptable rather than challenging its metaphysical assumptions.

Very well. I’m more than happy to see Asimov and other “classical” SF writers as avatars of a rugged and grounded way of looking at the world. They wrote in this manner, and were only slightly more interesting than Popper because they were telling fictional stories with characters that were kind of interesting, but were otherwise quite dry. In a context where reactionaries are demanding a return to this “classical” period of the genre I appreciate Meillassoux’s concerns about this period being no longer philosophically salient except to demonstrate Popper’s impoverished understanding of Hume’s dilemma.

What I don’t appreciate about this extended essay is the author’s general ignorance about his object of critique. In the past I have complained about how literature scholars treat philosophy as theoretical smorgasbord – where they eclectically mine philosophy like it’s an all you can eat buffet, where you can put anything on your plate just because – but now I think it’s fair to say that the inverse is also true. Philosophers can sometimes treat literature in the same way, and without any serious investigation of the literature they’re attempting to examine, speak with authority without having done the minimal work that should in fact necessitate this authority. That is to say, and as noted above, Meillassoux’s understanding of SF and even what he calls XSF is premised on a very antiquated and pedestrian knowledge of the genre.

Generally Meillassoux treats SF and the possibility of XSF as something that ended in the late 1970s. He also dismisses Fantasy, almost immediately, by assuming that entire connected genre is either the high fantasy of feudalism lite or something akin to Lewis Carroll; he can’t even grasp the SFF conjunction that might indeed provide examples of what he wants to call XSF.

Meillassoux’s only contemporary example of the genre is Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia that sticks out like the proverbial sore, throbbing thumb. It’s not even a good example of a possible XSF, what he calls the “Type-1” example of XSF that introduces “a single break, a unique physical catastrophe that would plunge the protagonists, overnight, into a world in which an inexplicable phenomena is massively produced.” (46) A much more interesting break that better demonstrates this XSF concept is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy because it not only demonstrates this break but moves towards Meillassoux’s category of Type-3 XSF where “the real would go to pieces, progressively ceasing to be familiar to us.” (48) More to the point, all of this is contingent on an understanding of this “Zone” kind of SF first described by Soviet science-fiction authors the Strugatsky Brothers with A Roadside Picnic that Tarkovsky adopted into Stalker. M. John Harrison played with this XSF theme before Vandermeer in Nova Swing. Wilson produced a derivative and far less interesting iteration on this older theme with Darwinia that could not hit the level of XSF surreality Vandermeer finally consummated. This is not surprising: Wilson has always been, in my opinion, a derivative author. Hell, he even wrote a book about online AI sentience decades after this theme was already rendered stale by Neuromancer.

But what is significant about the history of the genre that Meillassoux’s use of Darwinia invokes is that he seems completely ignorant of what the Wilson book was derived from, and that was much more strange and appropriate to his XSF categorization. Meillassoux claims at multiple points that his XSF hasn’t blossomed into a sub-genre of speculative fiction (45-46) when in fact this blossoming pre-dated his essay and he did not do the work necessary to discover all of the examples within the confused SFF milieux that would give him a better appreciation of his own theory. What of the New Weird and its icons like China Mieville? What of Benjanun Sriduangkaew‘s clearly “XSF” short-stories that take place in her “Hegemony/Cotillion” universe? What of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales or Prester John books? What of N.K. Jemisin’s latest Fifth Season or Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga?

The list could go on and on and on. We don’t even have to deal with what I have often called a “new renaissance” in SFF but skip back to the decades closer to Meillassoux’s impoverished understanding: what of the New Wave Science Fiction wagered by Moorcock and Ballard that pissed of the Asimov’s because of its rejection of properly “Science Fiction”; and what of Samuel Delany’s surreal queer SFF Ulysses, Dhalgren? To claim that this alter version of SF, XSF, is something that hasn’t really existed except for the few pedestrian examples Meillassoux uses really does demonstrate an ignorance of the genre. What he wants to describe already existed, already articulated itself in examples that were much more interesting than the ones he chose, and was for more heterogeneous than he supposed. In this context, Meillassoux’s entire analysis of SF is disappointing, a big proverbial face palm.

Now perhaps part of the problem of this analysis is the fact that genre faction is overcoded by anglo-hegemony, i.e. that most genre offerings are not translated into French. But since this is a known problem maybe Meillassoux should have chosen someone who was more aware of what the genre offered in English translation than the person he chose.

In any case, what is greatly disappointing about this attempted analysis is that in some ways it is a really worthy project in its attempt to describe an alter-SF articulation that does something more philosophically interesting than traditional SF. In many ways Meillassoux’s diagnosis and theorization is correct; its failure is in its inability to recognize an entire tradition of literature that would have fit these XSF categorizations and thus the analysis runs the risk of appearing amateurish to anyone who has been reading genre fiction over the past several decades. What I would like to see, and what maybe someone interested in Meillassoux who works within the field of literature could produce, is a revision of this essay that is properly aware of the genre. Then we would have a piece of philosophical analysis of SFF that is truly interesting.

*Stranger Things* and the Problem with Genre Nostalgia

Since I’ve been watching the new Netflix series Stranger Things [slowly since we don’t always have time/energy to watch television] I’ve been thinking about the science-fiction/fantasy/horror pop-culture of my youth, particularly the way it functions as cultural artifact. Clearly, as anyone who has watched Stranger Things will know, this series does not hide its influences and in fact is trying to celebrate 1980s and early 1990s genre television and film. From the soundtrack, to the title font, to the lovingly recreated 1980s setting and look, to all the nods to 80s mass culture and film/television references, it has worked hard to become pure simulacra. Hell, they even cast Winona Ryder (darling of weird but popular films in the late 80s and early 90s), follow a bunch of kids driving around on their bikes looking to solve a memory, had an episode where the character “El” was dressed up almost identically to the way Drew Barrymore’s character in ET dressed the titular alien, and etc.

One thing that has struck me during my viewing experience of Stranger Things is that the quintessential 1980s-90s sci-fi/horror thriller could only be made now, decades later and looking back through the lens of nostalgia. Being a copy of an original that does not exist Stranger Things functions as the way we remember these older shows rather than the way they actually were. That is, it is only possible to make the perfect late-80s/early-90s genre thriller in retrospect, filtered through successive layers of memory and desire.

Everything about the appearance of Stranger Things is dead-on: the sets, the costumes, the mass culture references, the ways in which teenagers are supposed to act, the stock characters, the fashion, the technology, even the bloody colour pallets. The viewer who grew up watching what Stranger Things references is meant to think, after experiencing the first episode, “holy shit this is exactly like a show/movie from my childhood!” Except it’s not really like any of those shows or films; it’s more like the way we wanted these films to be, the ways they were supposed to be, the way we tend to remember them. Taking these cultural memories as artifact, and aware of everything that has happened up until the present, Stranger Things is better able to do what those shows could not: largely avoid dating itself by placing its narrative in a past that is already understood, demarcated by nostalgia. On the accompanying technical level, 21st century special effects are able to reproduce the look of cutting edge late 20th century technology, even if it’s “secret government” technology, due to an understanding of an imaginary possible that, unlike the 1980s/90s imagined future, violate the course that technological development would actually take. We are being shown a retrospective that does not, in contrast to the shows Stranger Things channels (and as long as we accept the fictional universe’s boundaries), look or feel fake.

The best way to explain what I mean is to look at some of the genre thrillers, particularly those based on government conspiracy and supernatural/alien activities, of the late-80s/early-90s. X-Files, for example, dates itself and violates one’s original memory of its broadcasting the moment it is rewatched: FBI agents trying to uncover the truth their own agency is trying to hide, and the alien technologies hidden by this conspiracy, seems entirely hokey when it is re-encountered. Just why the FBI would bother covering up the existence of aliens when we know, especially after Snowden, that it has better reason to cover up what it is actually doing – that it is in the business of political and not extra-natural repression – and that this is a more terrifying (and confirmed) “truth is out there” scenario than whatever overly complex secret business Mulder and Scully are pursuing. This dated nature of X-Files is most probably why the recent sequel series didn’t work: we wanted the show to remain a dormant part of our fond (or not-fond, depending on your taste) TV genre nostalgia rather than try to reestablish its same conceits in an era that had passed them by. Since Stranger Things locates its subject matter in the past, however, it avoids dragging the nostalgiac cultural artifact into the present and simply becoming an updated X-Files: its narrative happens in a past imaginary that could have existed within the universe of genre thrillers; it is not happening now, it is a window into the genre past but with better special effects and verisimilitude.

Or take another example that I recalled when watching Stranger Things and that the show provokes by its attempt to place itself within past genre offerings of television/film: Nowhere Man, the Prisoner of the early 1990s. The protagonist of Nowhere Man is chased by secret government organizations because he is a photographer who made the mistake of capturing part of a conspiracy on film and has hidden the negatives of the photographs. Although it ends up being the case that the protagonist’s memories of the negatives have also been altered, and that the meaning of the negatives becomes more and more ephemeral, the very fact that the viewer could take this part of the thriller seriously relied on an acceptance that the photograph could at some level represent the truth of an event and that journalists could threaten a government conspiracy. We don’t even need the fact of digital photography and Photoshop, which emerged as normative very soon after Nowhere Man‘s airing, to recognize the dated nature of this show. The very fact that journalistic revelations have not challenged hegemony for a long time (if they ever really did) is revealed by the fact that the aforementioned Snowden leaks do not matter to the average US citizen. Add to this some of the weird representations of technology in Nowhere Man that were written in an attempt to demonstrate the secret technological acumen of the US shadow government: that episode where the protagonist met a hacker who used “VR” technology (remember the whole early-90s imagined VR obsession?) to take him into some early imaginary online world, a very shitty cyberpunk reference, where you can actually “die” from computer viruses and system crashes.

What Stranger Things does is place itself in the world of these older shows as a fond memory of what these shows should have been. It possesses the budget and technology to make itself look more authentic than the cultural offerings it takes as its influences as well as the benefit of historical hindsight. Aware of the limits of the time period in which it has built its fictional universe, this show will not make the error that Nowhere Man made with its [now embarrassing] “hacker” episode, for example, nor will it push the limits of government conspiracy beyond the limits of what it can possibly describe as “strange” in retrospect. Yeah, we got alien stuff happening in this show but it’s not run-of-the-mill Area 51 bullshit; it’s thoroughly weird because it knows all of this Communion era pale men with giant-ass eyes is a parody of itself. And if it does end up landing in this territory it can justify such conventions by appealing to genre irony. Its genre irony is most apparent in the way it simulates a social existence that belongs more to mass culture depictions of the US than reality, and irony that is only possible because Stranger Things functions as a throwback that is more perfectly constructed than what its influences.

Indeed, this show’s genre reconstruction of small town America seems intentionally ironic: an imaginary place, like a whole bunch of movies and shows, where all of the actual problems of US settler culture do not really exist… Racism is not a real issue (even though it has never stopped being one), the chief of police can be a hero (even though #BlueLivesMatter pigs are gestapo), and some creepy stalker with a camera (that like Nowhere Man‘s camera can reveal truth) who is also okay because he’s a poor intellectual – though maybe not because the woman he stalked doesn’t just accept his creepy photo-taking but challenges him, just as she ignores the dude who, if we were following the earlier conventions of the genre, should have ignored her after they had sex. The show is very conflicted in its attempt to recreate 80s/90s sensibility from the perspective of the 21st century; but this conflict, as simulated as it is, makes Stranger Things feel like a show that really did exist in the past even though we know, at the same time, it could not have been made in the era we feel it perfectly replicates.

In this sense, Stranger Things is a period piece. Not a period piece that attempts to accurately represent a historical period as it truly existed, but one that excavates a periodical imaginary; a history that never really existed except in genre television and film. It works to make this imaginary history correct, according to the boundaries of its conceit, and thus to aestheticize nostalgia. While it is an enjoyable experiment, and while it proves that the 80s/90s genre film cannot be truly constructed until well after its time, decades after it has become artifact, it might also function to aestheticize actual social relations, i.e. become the aestheticization of a politics it simultaneously obscures by imagining a perfect nostalgiac fictional universe of an America that never existed. Where the bad guys are secret conspirators, the good guys are good old American kids and lawmakers, and all the shit of vicious mode of production is partially obscured (though sometimes revealed in easily cognizable class warfare, shitty father figures, etc.). White male mavericks emerge to help save the day, even if they are more gritty than their nostalgiac influences, and an apolitical geek squad ride their bikes to solve mysteries. If the quintessential 80s/90s genre show/movie is salvaged and reclaimed in its rearticulation decades from the original, then maybe we can also say that the quintessential early 21st century genre show/film can only be made in future decades.

Better Days For SFF are Upon Us: reflections on Sriduangkaew’s *Under She Who Devours Suns*

On my other and [far] more popular blog I recently reviewed a short piece of non-fiction so I got to thinking that I could do the same, here, with a short piece of fiction. After all, shortly after I read the article discussed in the link above I read (and then reread) a rather compelling short story, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Under She Who Devours Suns (published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies), that I loved so much that I wanted to do more than just read it but engage with it, albeit in a loose blog post kind of way. At the same time, my appreciation of this short story made me want to reflect on my appreciation of her short-form fiction as a whole and the significance of short-form, as well as the current emergence of a new speculative fiction renaissance and her part in this.

So bear with me, the introduction that precedes the review of the story in question will be overly-bloated due to the aforementioned concerns…

For over a year I have been reading Sriduangkaew’s fiction for reasons that will not be a surprise for people who read my other blog or for those who have read most of the posts on this one. Indeed, when she was first doxxed and the liberal mea culpas began, the dubious political line underlying her targeting was so obvious (pro-tip for those who can’t figure out what political line is in command: if it by-and-large mobilizes the sewage of rightist shitlords beneath a thin veneer of liberal ideologues then it is not progressive) that I wanted to read her fiction that, until then, I hadn’t heard about. This interest was also generated by the fact that I used to read her now dead blog, Requires Only That You Hate, on a regular basis and enjoyed, even if I did not always agree with, her polemical reviews.

[EDITORIAL WARNING: I’m only mentioning this background because I have a sneaking suspicion that, based on some of the weird comments I’ve received on this blog, merely reviewing Sriduangkaew’s fiction will encourage trolling. So for you would-be trolls I am very aware of what you think Sriduangkaew did, I think your analysis is garbage just like your politics, and I’m not going to engage with your concern-trolling comments because I’m very aware that most of you are not interested in challenging your warped view of reality. I think Mixon’s “analysis” is garbage, and there have been those who have demonstrated how terrible her sourcing is, and refuse to conflate polemical reviewing and counter-trolling with “abuse”. As someone who has read thousands of polemics between leftist organizations that span the last century I think this impoverishment of language is close to fascistic. You arseholes, if you lived in pre-fascist Germany, would attack Luxemburg for “abusing” Bernstein and, in the process, salute her murder at the hands of the Friekorps as social justice. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get back to talking about a great fucking SFF story.]

My first instinct was to read her novella Scale-Bright and, since it wasn’t available in dead tree format in any bookstore nearby, used some of my PayPal money to purchase the ebook. [And damn, now that I read and reviewed that article about the alt-right/neo-reaction movement I hate PayPal.] I tend to be a sucker for long-form – not because I think it is superior to short-form but mainly because I use fiction to take a break from my professional development of reading non-fiction academic texts and I want this break in a particular fictional universe to last as long as possible. Moreover, I think quality short-form fiction is very difficult to master, just like it’s difficult for my students to write short papers on complex subject matter. Those canonized or semi-canonized authors whose short-form I’ve consistently appreciated are few: Carter, Borges, Ballard, O’Connor. And in the contemporary speculative fiction scene it’s been difficult to discover an author who is consistently excellent, i.e. who can be precise and limited while at the same time drawing the expansive boundaries of a particular fictional universe. Novelists have it easy: they have hundreds of pages to info-dump, characterize, sketch out a narrative arc; a shitty novel is better able to absorb its errors than a flawed short story… The short-form fictionalist must work much harder than the long-form novelist to achieve passable quality; elegance is immediately required. (And this is why Borges and Carter immediately leap to mind whenever I think of the short-story: they were masters of precision and elegance.)

Although I started with Scale-Bright I found this reading experience partially unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that I loved this novella’s prose and fictional universe I still felt it was missing something vital: at points it was too obscure, on the whole it read like a very promising first book by and up-and-coming author. There was a certain lack that I wanted filled, a promise of something more substantial, which is why I turned to Sriduangkaew’s short-form fiction and, in doing so, discovered her brilliance. Beginning with the short stories written in her fictional Hegemony universe (which I still think should all be published in a single volume) I’m of the opinion that Sriduangkaew is the Borges of the new SFF renaissance.

What do I mean by a “new SFF renaissance”? Simply this: we’re living in a time where SFF literature is being transformed, in large part by marginal and/or radical left voices, and that this is an amazing thing, despite the efforts of those who want a return to a “golden age” that never existed. This transformation is the golden age. In the early 2000s we have the emergence of the so-called “New Weird” with writers such as China Mieville pushing the boundaries of speculative fiction; now this pushing is revealed as an opening for writers such as N.K. Jemisin, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley, and others to develop a SFF ethos that demands recognition, is not some nerd club of white boys who want to keep their pithy euro wizards and warrior and dragons, and is doing something altogether interesting. Sriduangkaew is part of this emergence because, as I just said, she is its Borges. This is not to say that she will never write, or is incapable of writing, a novel (because I really wish she would) only that her stories are as strong as the long-form leading lights, and are significant as being part of this renaissance, and that more people need to read them as part of a protracted consolidation movement regarding how and why SFF is becoming something better than it was (of course with many significant influential exceptions) in its mainstream past.

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So now, with this long introduction in mind, let’s turn to Sriduangkaew’s short story in question, Under She Who Devours Suns. I guess I have to say spoiler alert, a convention that has become hegemonic in the past decade, because I’m going to talk about the story. (I happen to believe that any good review will necessarily include “spoilers” which is why I think this whole spoiler alert business is conventional nonsense.) So go read this short story now before I spoil it for you. It will take less than hour of your time, or maybe more than an hour if, like me, you want to read parts of it again and again.

The reader of this short story is immediately struck by the beauty of its prose. The first paragraph is lush and demands attention; those who would prefer a paired down utilitarian prose of description will wince and cower back into the folds of the “puppies” slates of the Hugos:

By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace. Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.

So we have the story’s protagonist returning to her city, transformed by an as yet undescribed history of exile. Meteorite blood, limbs infected with insects. Decay accompanies her motion. The protagonist is an entropic figure; her history is immediately compelling – how the fuck did she become like this?

Melishem failed to win a duel with another woman, Sikata, that decides the governance of a given polity in this story’s fictional universe. Despite the fact that Melishem and Sikata were close friends who believed their near equality would allow them shared governance, Melishem still lost to Sikata in the duel “with mirror-gun and sliver-knife,” even though it took an exceptional three hours, and so Sikata became the city-state’s guardian and Melishem, rather than excepting defeat, chose exile. She returns after years of honing her skills in the world outside of her homeland so as to return an reinitiate her failed duel. Upon returning, however, she discovers [and this happens within the first five paragraphs of the story] that Sikata is dead. Melishem’s opposite died in a duel to defend Talyut against an enemy; she succeeded in this duel and “purchased… another year of peace,” while Talyut was already reduced to victim warzone, but eventually succumbed to the wounds she had sustained. (And these wounds were “in her shadow,” a vague but gripping description.)

Refusing to accept the death of her double, Melishem requests residence in a city-state under siege by an undescribed enemy. Altered by the vaguely described experiences of her exile, she is something other – more than less than the humanity she had once embraced. A very important narrative fact that is eventually revealed: Melishem can transform herself, alter her flesh.

And refusing to accept that her duel has ended, or that her other cannot compliment her any longer, she uses the abilities she has discovered and mastered in her exile to raise a version of of Sikata to life. At first it seems her motivation for this necromancy is to reinitiate the duel, her very reason for returning, but these motives are unclear. The resurrected Sikata cannot immediately remember her identity; she is simply an approximation wrenched from this fictional universe’s afterlife who, at first, is only certain of the fact that she is a resurrected being. Melishem withholds key information, more interested in placing her in training simulations to ready her for a duel.

One of the many interesting passages of this short stories concerns the conceptualization of necromancy in this fictional universe:

On burnt paper she pins the anatomy of Sikata’s span; in jars and nets of sluggish time she simulates and experiments. She finds that while she could repeat the process, she would—literally—repeat the rest; she can pluck Sikata’s spirit forth again, from the point after her death but before this summoning. What she gets would be a simulacrum, an image copied from a certain moment that will know nothing of what has transpired since. The next iteration might ask different questions, might not say My thanks, stranger in a way that eases the pressure inside Melishem. There is no constant. Sikata-in-fugue is a variable without limits.

Here is representation of the germ of a magical system (one amongst several in fact), intrinsic in all of those lauded “world-building” fantasy ventures, but it passes as a single exciting paragraph. What the hell does this mean for a fantasy system of magic? The prospects are intriguing: the raised cannot remember any identity after their death, even if they were raised before, necromancy is simulated nostalgia.

Eventually Sikata begins to remember herself through the training trials exacted by Melishem whose motives are partially unclear, even to herself: is she developing her other into a warrior who can face her and properly repeat the duel she lost? At the same time it seems that Melishem wants her other to remember, to become a non-sexual lover/friend, despite Sikata’s repeated appeals to locate her wife.

When Sikata’s revelation comes, after enduring a training session where she encounters the ghosts of violence incarnate, Melishem is asked to explain what she did when she fled the city, leaving Sikata to govern and deal with the problem of invasion. Melishem says:

I’ve ranged the breadth of the Occident, fought and crushed their heathen warriors. I hunted demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests. […] I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.

This statement is evidence that this short story could have been a novel while, at the same time, is elegant in its ability to collapse a possible novel into short-form. Demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests – what the hell? What fantasy reader doesn’t want to read pages upon pages explaining these statements, an entire back story of Melishem’s exile? Good lord, I hunger for this kind of story that took up no more than single sentence and ended with the still inexplicable “I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.” Melishem has somehow become other, has transformed herself into an alien creature that is not only capable of raising the dead but can also alter her very self in a hive-like (“her articulated arms murmur with live moths”) manner. What the fuck happened to Melishem in her self-imposed exile? Seriously: I want to know. Good gods, this really should be a novel; its currently obscure fictional universe can easily be adapted into five hundred fucking pages! Sriduangkaew condenses this fantasy universe into a short story, like Borges describing a possible novel.

I will not describe the conclusion, where duty and love confront each other, the way that Melishem’s love of her other is consummated, and how all of this is motivated by various details that hang like Chekhov’s gun on the gorgeous walls of Sriduangkaew’s prose. Despite my disdain for occasional disdain for avoiding “spoilers” I won’t spoil that for you, especially if you’re reading it right now.

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Work such as Under She Who Devours Suns demonstrate that we are indeed living in a SFF renaissance, even if there are those who resist and desire to pull us back into a “golden age” that was never that golden and didn’t really exist. While there has always been excellent SFF the genre sections at bookstores and libraries were usually dominated by a sea of mediocre and derivative shit that, for some reason, is still defended by a group of MRA-type nerds who are content with mediocrity. Now things are beginning to change; more interesting work is being published and becoming popular. The fact that some people are pushing back with an eye towards backwards literature is just a sign that the best days of “genre” fiction are upon us.