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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Stranger Things* and the Problem with Genre Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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?

Martyrs and the Remaking of Films that Shouldn’t be Remade

The USAmerican remake of Martyrs was released on April 1st like a massive April Fools joke. For many of those familiar with the original French film by Pascal Laugier the remake was yet another example of remaking-blasphemy: take a foreign film that has subtitles and that possesses some level of cult importance, write and film another version that is palatable to an audience that might have never heard of the original. The argument that the audience can’t be bothered to read subtitles and so deserves a remake in their own language is asinine: the masses who lack access to literacy aren’t going out of their way to see niche horror films and, if they were, the technology of voice dubbing is far more advanced than it was in the past. Let’s be honest about these remakes: they’re cash grabs for an industry that, having lacked any unique ideas for a long time, seeks to plunder other industries in the hope of a quick profit.

I’m not a purist who thinks that remaking films is essentially wrong; I don’t think it makes sense to proclaim fidelity to an unqualified originality. Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu was a great film because it translated a silent film into the realm of sound. Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs was good because it took a shitty action film with an interesting premise and embraced this premise while refusing to be a shitty action film. I don’t give a shit about the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur because I don’t care about the original and have no desire to see the remake. John Carpenter’s Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were excellent remakes because they departed so wildly from the originals, and in fact eclipsed them, that they ceased being remakes.

But there are those films that should never be remade, that the remakes are terrible copies, and that one wonders why so much money was spent making them in the first place. Like remaking Tarkovsky’s version of Lem’s Solaris: as much as Soderbergh pretended that he was just re-adapting the novel every critic who saw the movie realized it was influenced by Tarkovsky… And really, when it comes down to a choice between Tarkovsky and Soderbergh who are you going to choose? Or what about the recent USAmerican version of Old Boy: a perfect Korean film turned into a fucking asinine English speaking reinterpretation that worked so hard to outdo the original to the point that anyone who had seen the original knew they were watching a reference. When it comes down to remaking a film that was perfect in its own right you will either end up with a substandard copy or, in very very rare cases, something that is just as good because it’s mainly a shot for shot remake (i.e. as I’ve been told that Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In, is). The latter possibility is extremely rare.

As aforementioned, the justification for remaking even the great films is based on foreign films that English speakers wouldn’t watch – especially in the US where illiteracy is more commonplace due to their shitty public education system – but as I also pointed out above this is a weak excuse. Why spoon feed the supposed illiterate masses with remade versions of great movies when these same and supposed illiterate masses are more likely to attend a second showing of Batman versus Superman than a limited run of a remake of a French horror movie? More to the point: studios aren’t concerned about what the viewing public that can’t read subtitles is deprived of being able to watch because of the language barrier; they’re more interested in what is possibly sellable, because it was successful elsewhere, for people who hadn’t heard of the original. These are the same people that remake even English movies, anything where a pre-existing idea can be hastily redone, and hopefully quickly with as little money as possible spent, in the hope that because it was successful before it will be successful again.

Why the hell would anyone remake Martyrs anyhow? The original was never commercially successful: it was undermined by French censorship, destined for cult status from the moment it played in film festivals. Nor was universally beloved by critics: it is only now, almost a decade later, that it is being reconsidered as a critical masterpiece. The cult status it received was due to some horror critics realizing what it was trying to do, its unapparent avant-garde sensibility, that is only now – when faced with the shitty remake – leading some critics to declare it the greatest horror film of the 21st century. Indeed, the Guardian critics, who initially gave the original film a poor rating because they were so bemused by its content and form, scorned the remake for reminding the viewer of “just how much Laugier’s film had going for it.”

martyrs-movie

This from the original with shotgun viscerality…

martyrsbaileynoble

…versus this remake 9mm gun hero bullshit.

The fact is that, like all remakes that strive to capitalize for god-knows-what-reason, on brilliant films in another language, the USAmerican Martyrs is something I won’t bother watching because it has no reason to exist. Like a remake of Citizen Kane or Battle of Algiers or 8 1/2 it cannot justify its emergence. You only need to look at the trailer to realize it has immediately missed the point: the protagonists are white women instead of women of colour, an oversight regarding what the original was trying to do – comment on both gender and racism in the militarization of torture. Every review has pointed out how the remake broke with the discordance of pacing that was essential to the original and instead, as the aforelinked Guardian review points out, “cuts up each sequence like a Nine Inch Nails video to drive home the presence of its editor.”

In resistance to the remake I recently rewatched the original Martyrs with a group of friends, most of whom had never seen it. After the experience we spent over an hour arguing about the film: everyone, even those who disliked horror films, were impressed. One thing that was pointed out as essential to the film, and that the remake resists, was this change in pacing. There is that moment where, as my friend who saw it with me at Midnight Madness when it was first released pointed out, the viewer slams into a brick wall that is like the endless battering of the remaining protagonist. And as my friends in this rewatch elaborated, this was a moment where everything that made the film exciting in the first half was turned back on the viewer resulting in a split consciousness: you identify with the victim while at the same time being complicit, as a voyeur, with the actions of the victimizer because you celebrated certain aspects of the first half.

So what Martyrs does is provoke the viewer and draw a line of demarcation across the horror sensibility. When I first saw this film, during its premier at the TIFF’s Midnight Madness, the person on the other side of me from my friend cheered on the first half of the film but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the second to the point of muttering and swearing – he actually booed the film when it ended. Better yet, the director came unto the stage after the showing to mock traditional horror fans for their conservative commitment to violence and state that he intentionally made the decision to shift the film’s pace and tone to throw this commitment back into the collective face of horror fandom. This splitting of fans and critics alike is what makes Martyrs greater than those films that is beloved by every fan or every critic. Good films achieve a level of consensus amongst viewers with their 80-90% approval rating on, say, Rotten Tomatoes (like, for example, a piece of entertainment fluff like the first Avengers movie).  Great movies might be those that provoke an agitational divide where critics and fans are completely split and the split is monumental. Better yet, they force reconsideration years later. For example Battle of Algiers holds a 99% rating on these aggregate sites now, but what would it hold on these same sites if they existed when it was made: critics were indeed split when this film was first made, when it threatened their understanding of the state of affairs. The demarcation has stood the test of time.

In any case, now that I have rewatched the original and am of the opinion that the remake should never be watched because it has no business existing, I feel it’s time to promote my old article – written back in the days when my other blog was just becoming popular – about Martyrs that has the distinction of being a wikipedia link for the New French Extremity “genre”: The Transfiguration of Horror. I’m sure it won’t be as painful to read as the remake is painful to watch.