Category Archives: The Shit We Read

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.

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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

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.

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.

Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I’ll admit, right off the bat, that I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work in the comic book world.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m a great admirer of Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, particularly its ability to valorize an immigrant, non-white perspective within the confines of the Marvel universe while also making the protagonist appealing to girls of every culture.  Which is why I was excited to read Wilson’s non-comic novel, Alif the Unseen.  Indeed, I remember fondly Neil Gaiman’s transition from comics to prose: when Neverwhere was first released, and I was in the last year of high school, I saved up so that I could buy it in hardcover at the bookstore near my school – I was extremely excited by its very existence.

Two decades later, and lacking the same fanboy manic energy, I waited for years to read Alif the Unseen, picking it up when it appeared in my local branch of the public library.  But I was still just as excited: it was about Arab Springs, quirky characters, magical jinn!  On one level it did not disappoint: Wilson is just as deft with prose as she is with comics – the writing was beautiful and polished, the characters danced off the page – and Alif is definitely a promise of great work to come.  But on other levels I found this book quite bothersome.

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Alif the Unseen is about a fictional Arab city-state on the edge of the Empty Quarter that resembles various autocratic governments that were targeted by the movements of the squares that collectively formed the so-called Arab Spring.  And taking its cue from the Arab Spring, Wilson’s novel is about the resistance to autocratic middle eastern dictatorships and the “hacktivists” invested in this resistance.  Specifically it focuses on the titular “Alif” (an internet handle, the character’s real name is [predictably, because of the story] “Mohammed”), a hacker whose response to his love life gets out of control and ends up sparking an uprising, as well as a conjunction with the world of the jinn.  All in all this would very interesting… except that it rubbed me the wrong way.

1: proselytization

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a Christian family that was marginally invested in shitty religious literature that I’m extremely allergic to literature that is religiously didactic.  I’ve got no problem with authors who are invested in a particular faith trying to sell this faith through myth and allegory, but my hackles rise when I encounter literature that boldly and unapologetically proselytizes x religion.  Anyone who is familiar with this kind of literature (in particular the first world Christian “literary” industry [yes, I intentionally scare quoted literary] which has pumped out Left Behinds and a whole bunch of other shit) is aware that it functions with conversion in mind.  That is, the story orbits around the significance of conversion, about recognizing that the Bible contains the answers, and that any skepticism regarding the true faith will be challenged by supernatural events.  And look the Bible and some random preacher answers all your questions, an easy resolution is achieved, and yay this particular expression of faith!

Needless to say, as a consummate secularist I find this approach to reality quite dubious.  More importantly, as someone who appreciates literature I find this approach to narrative downright insulting.  Hence, I found Alif the Unseen similarly insulting because it read like the Muslim equivalent of this shitty Christian literature: at many points it read like thinly veiled religious proselytization – that is, piss-poor religious apologetics masquerading as a story.  The point of this kind of literature, regardless of its religious affiliation, is to result in a conciliation between the main character and the religion in question; on the way it presents many arguments as to why this religion is the truth, why its doctrine is sacrosanct, and why unbelievers are fucking idiots and/or hypocrites.

Over and over Wilson presents the Quran as an infallible doctrine of reality, greater than all religious doctrines.  While I’m happy to accept that Wilson is a Muslim and that her perspective about belief should be just as respected as those invested in other beliefs (and, to be fair, I’m even more happy to protect the right to be Muslim in the face of some of the most abhorrent Islamophobia), as someone who believes in the importance of secular demystification, I can’t help but cringe when Wilson waxes eloquent about the Quran’s monopolization of truth.  Isn’t this what all religions claim, with similar arguments, about their holy books?  And isn’t this the problem of religion that necessitates a secular movement?

But Wilson goes to great length to present the Muslim doctrine as the doctrine of reality, greater than secular science.  Her jinn characters claim it is truth!  Because it protects itself from translation betrayal it must be correct!  Because it possesses some esoteric truth that reveals itself at the moment of translation it knows more than science… Seriously, at one point she argues that because an English translation uses the word “atom” the Quran has predicted particle science!  Never mind the fact that the word “atom” – as well as the notion of infinitesimal building blocks of existence – preceded the Quran by millennia.  I found myself quite offended that Wilson wanted me to think that the Quran was aware of modern particle physics when, in point of fact, it was tailing ancient philosophy – as so many religious texts were.

Even worse is the claim, made by the character called “the convert”, that Islam is some “matrix of social justice.”  Okay, on some level every religion possesses a “matrix of social justice”, which is why there is such a thing as liberation theology.  To assume that Islam possesses a better corner on this social market is pretty strange when the truth is that only a secular movement can permit social justice.  Why?  Because movements based on a particular religious expression must necessarily bar people who from other religions since the point of any religion is about conversion, about the afterlife endgame.  Social explanations for social phenomena require a secular, irreligious movement to be the foundation of struggle.  And the experience of liberation theology confirms this: it is no accident that liberation theologians decided that they should be subordinate to larger, secular struggles.  Ever since the French Revolution, no religious movement by itself has produced anything resembling progressive social justice; rather, purely religious expressions of resistance have tended to generate the kind of cultural nationalism that Frantz Fanon, among others, warned about.

But since Wilson is invested in proselytizing, everything about Islam must be the best thing ever.  In this sense, the character of Dina was particularly cloying.  Aside from the fact that it was clear, from the get-go, that Dina was the formulaic authentic love interest of a protagonist who was initially unable to understand who really loved him, I was more bothered by the fact that someone who was a traditional religious conservative was overly valorized.  Although Wilson attempted to characterize Dina as someone who was not the typical conservative Islamist – she doesn’t like censorship, she has problems with the regular Islamists, she likes music – the character’s fundamentalism annoyed me. Deference to the patriarchal convention of being owned by her father, her complaint about how metaphors are lies, her ideological certainty of religion… These are virtues of a reactionary.

Sure, Dina is more like your beloved avuncular conservative – that red tory religious individual who is somewhat sympathetic to the liberal rule of law – than a fanatical reactionary, but so what? The fact that my conservative family members can complain about ISIS doesn’t mean very much when they also complain about the accessibility of abortion, the institution of gay marriage, sexual education in public schools, and a whole host of other “moral dilemmas” that place them in the same constellation as the conservative militants they fear.  Only the problematic of Islamophobia in my social context made me find Dina even half-ways interesting as a character, but in the fictional context where she exists she should be understood as politically backwards. Replace her devotion to Islam with a devotion to US Christianity and she would be a Trump supporter.

2: liberal social networking bullshit

Even worse than her proselytization of her religion is Wilson’s proselytization of abject liberalism.  Alif the Unseen takes the worst analysis of the Arab Spring: a) that it was extremely revolutionary (never mind the fact it that it was immediately contained, that no revolution actualized); b) that it was brought into being by social networking hacktivism.  Even more problematic is its assumption that the liberal values of such a “revolution” (meaning, the values of US-style “democracy”) are the apex of ethics and morality.

Alif’s moral significance is based on his pursuit of a liberal anti-censorship ideology, regardless of political substance – the value of liberalism is his moral substance.  He is a “hacktivist” who shelters anyone who is censored by his shitty autocratic state, whether they be Islamists, communists, or pornographers.  The morality that is valued in this book is a morality of allowing everyone the right of free expression and nothing beyond this, i.e. the “American Dream.”  Obviously, I could not help but find this approach to reality somewhat disturbing.  If you’re going to defend Islamists, pornographers, and communists altogether just because they’re all repressed, you’re not a hero – you’re a bloody opportunist.  Pornographers are anti-women; Islamists of the ISIS type are anti-people; communists should disdain both camps along with people, like Alif, who shelters reactionaries.  Because let’s be honest: a society based on the freedom of speech of everyone and everything, even people who are anti-people, is pure capitalism.  While it is indeed the case that the US is Islamophobic, it uses the language of free speech to defend Christian reactionaries, pornographers, and anti-capitalists all alike: this is its justification for being a state of “freedom” and we know that it is complete and utter bullshit.

There is a moment in Alif the Unseen where a movement of the squares develops and the masses emerge, but in a way that replicates the most simplistic understanding of the Arab Spring: all these people of different ideological commitments are getting along because they want bourgeois democracy!  Alif and his friends are excited to discover that Islamists and communists are marching together “IRL”, and that their hacktivism has produced this “non-sectarianism” that is a hallmark of liberalism.  Never mind the fact that any anti-capitalist movement worth its salt should not collaborate with reactionaries; never mind the fact that the history about these collaborations is very clear – the religious reactionaries have liquidated those secular communist forces that have marched with them (in Afghanistan, in Iran) because maybe they are natural enemies.

But if we begin by assuming that an American style democracy is worthwhile, then we have to accept that the core value is a capitalism defined by vague “anti-censorship”.  Worse: social movements are governed by social networking, by hacktivists like Alif, who are determining “IRL” by virtual activities.  All of which runs contrary to reality where movements are determined and destroyed by on-the-ground organizing.  Which is why, despite the vaunted power of social networking, there was eventually a military coup in Egypt because the Egyptian military was an organized on the ground force – the social networking meant shit, just as it hadn’t really meant shit in the initial uprisings.  Rather, it was a symptom of mass spontaneous rebellion, not at all a cause.  The very American ideology of maverick individuals setting themselves against government conspiracies, however, generates the “hactivism” and social networking narrative; Wilson bought into this wholesale and, in buying into it, was completely uncritical of the liberal discourse that it mobilized.

Just take this crowd-sourcing, hacktivist understanding of social transformation away from Alif‘s simplistic understanding of the Egyptian intifada and what we have is an “Anonymous” idea of the world. You know, those scary internet blokes whose symbol is a Guy Fawkes mask – because, you know, they all decided they were rebels upon seeing V for Vendetta when they were eight and that’s about as far as their social analysis goes. Those rebel leaders who are great at making ominous videos but whose rebellious activities consist mainly of shutting down websites, social networking accounts, and doxing. Their politics, based as they are on a juvenile anarchism (which is pretty much “question everything and rebel dude”), tend to endorse the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Like when they got on the #iamcharlie bandwagon, or when they endorsed Gamer Gate’s claims (but not the people running Operation Gamer Gate because they thought they were snitches), or when they decided to target Black Lives Matter. Alif the Unseen‘s protagonist might as well be part of Anonymous; he certainly acts the part.

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If it wasn’t for Alif the Unseen‘s didacticism I would have enjoyed it far more than I did; the characters were interesting, the urban fantasy was well developed, the writing was well crafted. I am not saying that I’m opposed to didactic fiction – hell, I happen to like a lot of didactic fiction – but only that if one is going to craft a didactic novel they should realize where the didacticism becomes cloying: when it enters the realm of religious proselytization, or makes political points that feel entirely juvenile. These aspects tended to undermine what would have otherwise been an enjoyable read by an author who is doing excellent work elsewhere. (Indeed, the statements made about Islam in Ms. Marvel are far more sophisticated, while still being didactic, than what Wilson writes in Alif the Unseen.) I look forward to Wilson’s future novels; it’s too bad her first attempt wasn’t as great as it could have been.

Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories

Months back when I posted a list of my top twenty favourite fantasy series I was unaware that Sofia Samatar was going to release a companion piece to her brilliant A Stranger in Olondria. Now that this book has been released, and I purchased and devoured it almost immediately, I would definitely edit the list to include her – not sure who I would remove, but someone would definitely need to be removed.

As I’ve mentioned before A Stranger in Olondria is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, both in form and content, and was also one of the three favourite novels of any genre that I’ve read in the past decade (the other two being Bolaño’s 2666 and Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Her recent novel, The Winged Histories, is just as amazing as Stranger – I’m still going back and forth about which one I like more – and, just like Stranger I’m annoyed with myself for having finished so quickly.  I really tried to stretch it out, and it’s not like I don’t have excuses to stretch it out (what with all the professional development and work related reading I should have been doing), but I couldn’t last more than a month and a half, even though I rationed myself to small passages a day at one point. But since I could have finished it in a couple days, I have to congratulate myself on demonstrating some self-control.

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And Samatar herself already described the kind of feeling that comes with reading a beautiful book, when you’re reaching the end, near the end of A Stranger in Olondria when her narrator proclaims:

The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window: there were still a few pages under your thumb, still sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? – No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining word! And there – the end of the book. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields. […] Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.

I’m not the first reader who has noticed this passage and compared it to their experience of reading the book in which it resides (and now will compare it the experience of reading The Winged Histories. Of course I don’t believe Samatar intended this passage to apply to herself because, based on what she has written elsewhere and the interviews she has given, she is not like some Lars Von Trier of the literary fantasy world: a pompous asshole who knows they are talented and wants everyone to know it as well. Rather, since Stranger was a book that was a love letter to reading and writing – so much of a love letter that its world building invented entire libraries, literary traditions, a phenomenology of experiencing this imaginary literary universe, literary theory, religions built on the written word, and an emergent new literate culture (I especially loved that early passage when Jevick discusses all of the Olondrian writers describing reading and writing). And the book that Jevick is haunted to eventually write leads to the above passage. Even still, it applies to Samatar along with other writers of her calibre.

Hence, like A Stranger In Olondria, the experience of The Winged Histories is the kind of experience you can only get with a book that possesses a story that grips you deeply and a formal quality that, like Angela Carter’s prose, makes every want-to-be writer who cares about form feel a deep anguish that their craft will never be as good. At the beginning it takes some difficulty to get into, because Samatar doesn’t lead you by the hand patting you on the head, but then something clicks. I found myself stuck between the impulse to speed read because I wanted to know what would happen and the desire to slow down and savour each sentence. The impulse to reach the end; the impulse for the book to be eternal.

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Moreover, these books do what very few “world-building” fantasy novels have succeeded in doing: they like high literature and yet still present a world you can tell that Samatar has crafted ahead of time, like a Tolkien or those in his tradition, with pain-staking detail. As if Proust decided, one day, to not write the quintessential modernist novel and spent years crafting an intricate fantasy world that functioned according to its own internal laws – with its own mythologies, religions, artifacts, geographies, cultures, languages, conventions – and then wrote stories about its people with his skill in prose. (What sort of quintessential modernist novel would that be?) Or if Tolkien, after making his world, spent a few years learning how to write like a Conrad but with an attention to the actual political dimensions his mythologies would necessitate.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually get elaborate fantasy world building with the English prose craft of, say, the Joyce of Portrait of an Artist as Young Man or The Dubliners. (Joyce is also, obviously, a stylist par excellence with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake [though I haven’t had the energy to labour my way through the latter], but this is a different kind of style than what I mean here.) Okay, maybe Vandermeer and Valente, but their world building still possesses a magic realist dimension that, intersecting with a Borgesian approach, tends to build worlds that are surreal and weird – that aren’t primarily concerned with expressing a concrete fantasy world with the same geeky attention to detail as Samatar’s Olondria. Or maybe China Mieville, though his prose craft has only become more ingenious after his big world building fantasies (although, according to Strange Horizons, his recent book just might be part of the Bas-Lag universe). So when you get someone who writes like a Joyce, a Conrad, a Bolaño, a Carter, etc. and does so within a context that the nerds of “epic fantasy” have claimed as their territory, you’re dealing with something possibly unique.

The thing is, this world building ethos was not as prevalent in Stranger as it is in Winged, and so part of the brilliance of the former is to prove that both books proceed organically from a previously developed and thoroughly thought out fantasy universe. In Stranger there was only a glimpse of this universe, mainly because we were gleaning everything through the perspective of an outsider obsessed with Olondrian literature: Jevick, coming from the margins of Empire, arrives in Olondria only to discover that its literary output is different from its internal state, becomes haunted by a dead woman from another marginal culture, and gets caught up in events he cannot fully understand because he lacks the compass; we receive glimpses of the depth of the world through which he is moving but, like him, they are only glimpses – aside from the literary world he understands so much cannot be known. There was a map, of course, which is a key indication that the author might be a world builder, and there was evidence of a richness lurking beneath the surface of the narrator’s perspective, but it would take another book to reveal how thoroughly and previously constructed and thought-through this fictional universe was.

In Winged, however, we are provided with the entire story of internal politics and historical conjuncture that was partially experienced by Stranger‘s Jevick. The perspectives of four women, one of whom was a tertiary but important character in Jevick’s tale, frame this book, each one revealing a unique insider understanding of the Olondrian fictional universe. Add to this the complex and worked out genealogy, historical fragments that function as non-intrusive info dumps to convey the weight of history, an attention to cultural distinction, a language glossary, concrete explanations of religious history and formation, a fabulous mythology, and everything anyone would require from world building. Unless they just want elves, dwarves, and some pseudo Middle Earth.

It is actually quite depressing, at least in my opinion, that she would invent all of this only to say that it marks the “completion of the project. Never say never, of course, but I do see this book as my farewell to epic fantasy.” That is, when you think of the background geek-like obsession that it would take to compose a fantasy world in which you could write two novels, neither of which reads and behaves like the typical world building fantasy novel (I mean this in a good way, obviously, and I also mean to say that Samatar’s world building is far more transgressive, when it comes to content and form, than any of the recent “grim dark” iterations), it’s tragic to be told that this is all we’ll get. I want to know more about some of the historical background she outlined! Like those vampire rulers who used a war between human nations to intervene and impose a dread hegemony upon the continent that would eventually become Olondria. [quote about them.] Or the story of [writer that the Stone people disliked] who was mentioned both in Stranger and Winged. Or what about the future openings, first presented in Stranger, where the centre of knowledge production shifts to the former margins due to the upheavals between religious sects?

I want to know more! (I want a serialized television series!) But sadly – and necessarily – this desire to know more, and have the story of this universe told and retold over and over and over again is precisely the reason why, unfortunately, Samatar should close this book, giving us “only this leather stamped with roses and shields” so that “the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.” Over-serialization is indeed the death of her kind of literary world building.

*

One of the difficulties of judging The Winged Histories in comparison to A Stranger in Olondria is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I would have enjoyed the former as much as I did if I hadn’t read the latter. Whereas Stranger follows a single narrative of an outsider coming to grips with the reality of a culture he idolized from afar, Winged is an encyclopedic take on Olondria from several insiders involved in the upheaval the protagonist of Stranger drifted through.

What is most remarkable about Winged, aside from its composition and literary style, is that it skirts the theatre of action. Although it opens with the character Tav and her experience as a “swordmaiden” – a rare woman warrior amongst men – and though the violence of a social upheaval and a separationist movement form the basis of the book, warfare is relegated to the margins. We are intentionally not shown, as in so many of these world-building books, scenes of violence and sword-swinging action with the set pieces of armies of facing armies. Tav’s tale breezes through her experience fighting a border war which is a political distraction, concluding with her desire to fuck up the Olondrian Empire in the favour of familial connections based in subaltern populations. She conspires with her cousin, a secondary character from Stranger to start the rebellion against the emergent theocracy that was the focus of that book, but then her narrative ends. The following parts of Winged focuses on the experiences of other women involved in this unrest, all of whom are significant to the unfolding events but who aren’t at the centre of violence, and so the violent narrative arc of this war becomes an object of reflection that is only experienced as a violent aftermath by the other protagonists. Indeed, it is concluded halfway through the second section, even though it started at the end of the first, and relayed to a woman under house arrest.

Dodging the action of epic war, while building the world in which it takes place, is one of Samatar’s strengths as fantasist. She can narrativize all of those mythic events that determine a concrete world with distinct cultures, mythologies, languages, and organic characters while avoiding the very events that this kind of world-building is meant to valorize: kick-ass battles and quests. While it is indeed the case that Tav, her first protagonist, is a character who possesses the privilege to establish her agency in the midst of war, the fact that she is unique as a woman in a patriarchal world (she had to trick her way into the army based on a forged letter and an appeal to gendered exceptions to the rule) necessarily demands that her narrative be disrupted by those women who will experience war in a different manner. And isn’t it far more interesting, Samatar invites us to consider in the face of the typical epic fantasy fare, that we investigate the ways in which these massive upheavals might be experienced by excluded women?

Following Tav’s narrative is the story of Tialon, daughter of Ivrom the militant priest of the Stone. Here is where Winged positions itself directly with the narrative of Stranger: Tialon, lover of Jevick’s teacher Lunre (once Ivrom’s disciple), who helped Jevick escape when her father, Ivrom, arrested him because of his possession. Now she becomes a primary character and narrates the story of her father and his austere religion. In Stranger this religion, which tried to place itself in the service of rationality while suppressing the irrational, ends up facing the return of the repressed so that Jevick becomes the unwitting tool of the destruction of all that he valued in Olondria (books and libraries) only to experience their regeneration in his islands.

Here, we learn how such a rational religion could become an austere theocracy: this graffitied stone pulled from the wasteland and worshipped as a message from god became the locus of Ivrom’s desire to challenge the supposed infiltration of Olondrian society of decadent intermarriage between Olondrian nobility and non-Olondrian subject populations that produced Tav, her rebel cousin, and her sister. Ivrom, patriarch that he is, is obsessed with outflanking the great aunt of Tav, her sibling, and her cousin who has spent a lifetime trying to take over Olondrian society from within. In doing so, he has turned his daughter into an appendage of a religion he himself has adopted. In the rebellion that Tav helps initiate, Ivrom is executed and Tialon is placed under house arrest, where she attempts to excavate the history of her father’s fanaticism. And as the rebellion is suppressed, and Tialon nears the end of her house arrest, the conflict she feels over her father’s project and his venal patriarchy results in an ambivalence over his execution:

I think he went easily to the noose, slipping earthward like a leaf, and gave the prince one stern, cold look before he died. I think he died so quietly that the crowd was awed for a moment and fell silent, and the prince himself quaked with fear. I think he did. No, I think my father begged for mercy. I think they dragged him from his chair and made him crawl to the foot of the tree. I think he loosed his bowels and his murderers laughed. I think he thought of me and feared for me and thanked the Nameless Gods that I was not there. I think he cursed and threatened them, he swore the gods would smite them. I think his bones were so light he took a long time to die. I think he is still hanging there. I think they cut him down. Let me go… Let me see him. Let me go.

Tialon’s story is followed by the narrative of Seren, Tav’s lover, in the time when the war is over, Seren’s people are liberated from the Olondrian yoke (but at great cost), and Tav has returned to her to abdicate the her life as a warrior. This narrative is told as a fragmented prose poem, a way of making sense of a subaltern culture devastated by war and in the midst of reconstruction. Seren is obsessed with the ways in which a patriarchy imposed by conquest has effected her people, particularly the ways it has caused her family to fall apart: her grandfather died in a previous uprising, her grandmother spent her entire life demanding revenge, and this legacy has always been one that has forced its way into the construction of masculinity at the expense of the women.

Remembrance becomes the remembrance of patriarchy, something which Seren hopes will be broken – especially since she has seen this way of life devastate her family and prevent her from having the kind of lover she desires. A remembrance that reproduces itself in the song and saga of her people:

This is why I say that music should not be for remembrance. We remember too much. We need music to forget. Songs that leave no scars. All these women with scarred faces and the men would say, “She goaded me to kill.” It was the common defense in the case of murder, so conventional, like a song, every case of murder seemed to be the same, even long blood feuds among hundreds of people, always the same, it was always the case of honor and there was always a woman who goaded the man to kill. […] I always felt that this defense was true but also false. True because of the way my grandmother tried to goad my father to make him kill. False because something else was standing behind my grandmother. A vast and terrible logic. Formulaic, like a song. The closed and shining logic of men and women. All of us, singing ourselves to death.

Finally there is the story of Tav’s sister, Siski, that takes place after the rebellion fails – when Siski and her lover/cousin, Tav’s co-conspirator – flee into obscurity. But this is a tale that also excavates the the past of Siski and Tav, the way that family trauma has affected them, and at many points is quite heart-breaking. This was the most difficult part of the book to get through, even more so than Seren’s story, put it was also the most rewarding. All of the disparate strings are tied together in a melancholy way, in the midst of a dread transformation. The world of the fathers, the world of women attempting to assert themselves within this world in a way that is not healthy. I tried so hard to savour the end of the book, to stretch it out for as long as possible.

*

There were so many moments in A Winged Histories that caused me to shiver. Like when the matriarch of the family – the same woman that the priest of the Stone, Ivrom, despised and who pushed Tav, Siski, and their cousin to the forefront of Olondrian society – loses everything in the rebellion but is trying desperately to reclaim her hopes for imperial power. She is attempting to write letters to Siski that vacillate between angry directives and apologetic explanations. The letters accumulate like litter, all of them expressing her contradictory emotions, until she writes one about how she was working “on a single painting for half a century. And now imagine a child tears it with a razor.” Then she finally she cries, a single “tear on her knuckle,” and attempts three more missives: “Siski you children are all the same. Siski your duty. Siski your failure”; “Siski the lives of women”; “Dear Siski. Forgive me.”

We are left with a novel that is composed of the voices that are usually suppressed in epic fantasy, voices that simultaneously suppress the normative conventions of this same fantasy. The doors are closed on the fictional universe Samatar initiated in Stranger even though Winged reveals the historical and cultural depth that could be explored in later novels. In this way The Winged Histories is a book as it is defined by Seren:

The is the book of song, which means the book of laughter. In Kestenyi, song, yai, is related to laughter…  But in the che we have another word for book. We call it hawan, lamentation. I don’t know why. Perhaps long ago a woman saw someone weeping over a book. Or perhaps it’s because we call every long poem hawan. Our many hawayn, histories of death and mourning. We, we women, we sing them, but we don’t compose them. It is said that we don’t compose them. We are always too late for the battle, we come behind it, we compose little songs, yaili, we don’t have time. […] So: the book of song. The hawan of kyai, the lamentation of laughter. […] The mourning of laughter, the sob of mirth, the tears of joy, are you finished yet, have you got it all?

Remembering Kathy Acker

“You create identity, you’re not given identity per se. What became more interesting to me wasn’t the I, it was text because it’s texts that create the identity. That’s how I got interested in plagiarism.” (Kathy Acker, Hannibal Lecter, My Father)

When I was moving books around on one of my bookshelves today I noticed, for the first time in a long time, my Kathy Acker collection.  It’s been years since I’ve read Acker, and I’m sad to say that these days I don’t think about her as much as I used to, but it’s always surprising to notice the amount of books of hers that I own and have read – pretty much most of her catalogue.  This was because, from the middle to the end of my undergraduate, I went through a serious Kathy Acker phase.

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I first encountered Acker, at the end of my second undergraduate year, in the University of Western Ontario bookstore with the book In Memoriam To Identity.  This was during a time when I tended to purchase and read a book due to combination of availability, author blurbs, the publisher, a cool sounding title, and whether or not the first and last sentence of the book in question were interesting.  In Memoriam To Identity possessed blurbs from Burroughs and Winterson, was published by Grove, had a neat title, and had an intriguing first and last sentence (“Why didn’t I have a scorpion?” and “Since all the rest is unknown, throw what is known away.”).  So I went through a serious Acker phase, that only ended halfway through my MA because I ran out of Acker books to read.  Hell, I even ended up owning the soundtrack – that Acker made with the Mekons – of her last novel Pussy King of Pirates.  Indeed, I first encountered her in the year that she died – too young and because of cancer.

Despite the fact that, years after having read all of her novels (and owning most of them), I’m a different person than the undergraduate who first picked In Memoriam To Identity out of a university bookstore, when I really reflect on this period of my life I cannot help but recognize its significance.  Acker was the feminist post-Burroughs US avant garde novelist that anyone who went through that Burroughs phase in high school needed to read when they grew up: she represented, in so many ways, the completion of a particular kind of American experimental fiction.  That is, following the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up experiments we had the Acker iteration of this experiment that functioned according to a plagiarist cut-up of fiction and theory where intentional plagiarism of texts that the author despised was spliced into similar plagiarisms or translations of texts the author liked so as to produce a set of literary contradictions.

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My favourite of these experiments is still Empire of the Senseless where a surreal version of Neuromancer is spliced into the Algerian Revolution.

With all of these interspliced plagiarisms, that Acker usually referenced at the end of chapters, I ended up being introduced to a variety of authors and theorists.  For example, it was because of Acker that I first encountered Antonin Artaud.  But most importantly, it was because of Acker that I found the basis of my “gateway drug” out of Anarchism and into Marxism… This was not because Acker was a Marxist but because, at the time (around the third year of my undergrad), I was reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and for a while thinking it was the coolest thing since margarine, but then ended up reading an essay by Acker where she attacked Baudrillard’s nihilism in favour of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which she saw as a foundational theory to her fiction, which caused me to pick up Anti-Oedipus. Indeed, my initial undergrad interest in Deleuze and Guattari was because I’d heard about it from Acker… And because I temporarily lost myself in the D&G rabbit-hole I ended up locating myself upon a Marxist route: from Anti-Oedipus to the autonomists, to the kind of Marxism I adopt today.

When reflecting on Acker I also remember a third year literature course that I took as an option (one of those non-philosophy credits I was obligated to take in my undergraduate) where I tried to convince the professor to let me write an experimental essay on Acker’s work.  The course was called something like “Literature of Protest and Transgression” – and was also important because it was where I first read Brecht, namely Saint Joan of the Stockyards – and my idea for an essay was to write about Acker’s novels and method according to her method and novels, i.e. by doing a plagiarized cut-up of her writing in the form of an essay.  That is, I proposed an essay that would consist mainly of creative plagiarism of Acker, which I would note at the end, in a way that was blurred completely with my own writing.  Unfortunately, the professor didn’t like the proposal and I ended up doing something different that had nothing do with Acker but that I can’t remember… Weird that I remember what I proposed and not what I actually wrote, but these days I can’t remember most of the essays and assignments I wrote during my undergrad.

Kathy Acker is one of those authors who possessed an experimental antipathy to the literature of her social context.  The motivation for her method of appropriation and detournément (she never used, to my memory, the term detournément, but she did start writing about the same time as the Situationist International) was based on a love-hate relationship with the literature of her social-historical context.  USAmerican literature is trash, she declared multiple times, and because of its anti-intellectual puritan roots – which were also roots of violent colonialism and slavery – Acker claimed that the US possessed no worthwhile literary tradition.  Hence she made the corollary claim that the only “worthwhile” USAmerican literature was an avant garde tradition that played with the trash literature of colonial puritanism, challenging its assumptions by disarticulating its narrative form.  Her literary heroes in her social context were people like William Burroughs who wrote according to transgression and cut-up, as well as a handful of science fiction authors who attempted to make literature by embracing genre “trash”, but otherwise everything was pulp and pornography.  With this pseudo-literary basis in mind, the point for Acker was simply to play with the trash that was at hand, replicating it into rearrangement so that, in its disarticulation, it was turned upon itself.

Acker was both the heir and replacement of Burroughs but, unlike Burroughs, she was more aware of the literary environment in which she operated.  The fact that she interviewed Burroughs, was named a literary successor by Burroughs, and delivered a eulogy at his funeral establishes her lineage in the American avant garde tradition.  But more importantly she transcended Burroughs, and should be seen as far more important than Burroughs ever was in the avant garde and experimental milieu, because she was able to theorize her operational environment and develop a literary machinism that thought through the meanings of producing literature in her social context.  Unlike Burroughs, Acker thought through the multiple problematics of class, race, gender, sexuality, and etc. in order to generate a literature that was not only conscious of its anti-literary environment but could embrace it in an ironically political manner, thus transforming it into something wild.

“It is here that literature strikes, at this base, where the concepts and actings of order impose themselves. Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.” (Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless)