Monthly Archives: July 2016

*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.

*

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.

*

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.