Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Sept/Oct 2012 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The new issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, whose publishers generously sent us an advance copy, does some interesting things when you read its pieces as if they were meant to be published together.

It goes beyond a few pieces that have structural similarities, like the “life story” arcs of Ken Liu’s incredibly moving “Arc” (the story of a woman who chooses to die although her husband invents immortality technology) and Albert E. Cowdry’s “The Goddess” (which tells of a Indian immigrant living through the Civil War from the perspective of a devotee of Kali, the goddess of cyclical creation, destruction, and, ultimately, prosperity). It also moves beyond the thematic similarity of three pieces which deal with aching nostalgia for lost (or impossible) wonder and magic: Andy Duncan’s “Close Encounters” tells of a UFO visitee who misses his aliens, Lynda E. Rucker’s “Where the Summer Dwells” tells the story of a young girl who missed going to the world of Fairies with her friends because of an unfortunate traffic jam, and Richard Butner’s “Give Up” is about one man’s failed quest to climb Mount Everest due to a (possibly) malfunctioning virtual reality.

Choosing pieces for analogies like this can mark a smart, thoughtful editor.  But you can go further and look at the work itself as a kind of collaboration among people who aren’t directly communicating, much like Gilles Deleuze describes his work with Felix Guattari:

Our differences worked against us, but they worked for us even more. We never had the same rhythm. Felix would sometimes complain that I didn’t respond to the long letters he would send me: it’s because I wasn’t up to it, not at that moment. I was only able to use them later, after a month or two, when Felix had already moved on. And during our meetings, we didn’t dialogue: one of us would speak, and the other would listen. … Gradually, a concept would acquire an autonomous existence, which sometimes we continued to understand differently. … Working together was never a homogenization, but a proliferation, an accumulation of bifurcations, a rhizome.

Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to Uno: How Felix and I Worked Together”

The notion of collaboration without dialogue that never results in a single work or “homogenization” and just proliferates ideas is wonderful. It goes beyond praising the editor for finding different perspectives on the same topic (as this issue does with the Cowdry piece and the future-alternate-history-of-the-Civil-War-in-space of Michael Alexander’s “A Diary from Deimos”). Thinking this way also does more than just give us new insights into the individual pieces, which it certainly does. And it’s especially interesting of you think of the collaborations occurring both among the writers with each other and with the audience.

It’s always possible that trying something like this can lead to a confused hodge podge. Paul Di Fillippo’s always entertaining and thoughtful column (usually a satire or pointed fiction) “Call Me Ishmael: Choose Like/Dislike” takes this head on, imagining a novel written online in which “likes” and audience-enabled-editing produce a novel which is an instant hit but has no lasting quality. After working on a story whose sentences are altered by reader feedback even before the sentences appear on his word processor’s screen, he ends with a confused anti-climax:

In the space of a few seconds, I sold some 8500 books for ninety-nine cents apiece. Not a bad paycheck for a month’s work, tempered only by the knowledge that I’d never see another dime from the project. The spontaneous coalition of people who had worked on my novel with me – the only people in the world who could possibly be interested in such a random collage of a text – was already splintering and moving on to the next such project. Sure, I’d wistfully post my book on all the literary retail outlets with the millions of others like it. But chances were almost zero that anyone would ever see fit to sample or buy it. Audience and creators were one and the same.

But separation between reader and writers, and between writers, in an edited magazine leads to a much more satisfying type of interaction.

For example, I mentioned above that the theme of lost wonder crops up in at least two of the stories. We can imagine this issue as an analysis of that tendency. Duncan’s “Close Encounters” gives us Buck Nelson who had been visited by a spiritually profound alien from Mars decades earlier who introduced him to Martian and Lunar paradises with not only wonders but promises of spiritual renewal. Buck held outdoor “picnics” for years to teach the lessons of the good life he had learned and also to welcome another visit, which never came. Overcome by feelings of loss and neglect, he becomes a hermit, visited now only by the occasional reporter looking for a curiosity. His story is very sad, but Duncan offers him redemption, ultimately the reader’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, when the aliens finally return to show him that he wasn’t dreaming after all. This is the happy ending.

But Rucker’s “Where the Summer Dwells” tells the story of a young college student who knows that a magic “fairy world” exists, a kind of lost childhood. She knows because she experienced it once obliquely, and her, now lost, childhood friends seem to have disappeared into it. However, she lost her chance to go with them due to a freak circumstance of a traffic jam, and she lives her life wondering where the magic went. Unlike Buck’s last visit, Rucker leaves her story with both wonder and the loss of that wonder.

A third story, Peter Dickinson’s “Troll Blood,” finds an even more ambiguous resolution. Mari was the seventh child of a family with a legend that an ancestor had mated with a troll generations ago, which accounted for the occasional odd genetic traits that crop up. Of course, the legend turns out to be true, but the revelation that a fairy-tale-cum-fact accounts for her feelings of being a misfit does not resolve Mari’s life but rather changes it into another, perhaps weirder, form when she meets a troll who needs her to carry on his own (and her) lineage by bearing a child that isn’t (or isn’t wholly) her husband’s. Wonder is transformed into a difficult destiny.

Taken together, these three stories transform the idea of “wonder,” an idea which of course draws most readers to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the first place, into a challenge: why bother with wonder? “Close Encounters” tells the dangers of believing what others won’t, and, although it ends with the fantastic promise that Mars is a paradise, despite what the scientists might tell us, turns wonder into counter-factual credulity, no matter how attractive it might be. “Where Summer Dwells” speaks of the fragility of wonder and the casualties that are left behind when we don’t find our way down the rabbit hole. And “Troll Blood” is perhaps the most disillusioning, turning myth literally into history, and a history which becomes a past that weighs directly on the present, not with the promise of a wider world, but with burdens we end up having to take upon ourselves.

Each story, by itself, begins in wonder, begins in a way that draws on its readers’ desire for something beyond the everyday. But each finds a way to chastise the readers, even as they show a remarkable understanding of why F&SF readers come to the magazine. Taken together, the three stories leave little room for wonder to re-emerge as a promise for something more: we’re either offered a childhood delusion, a lost chance, or simply a forgotten history which, when uncovered, is just another history.

I don’t want to say that these stories are anti-wonder or suggest that fantasy is bad for the reader. Instead, when read together, the stories show how difficult wonder actually is to generate and maintain. (And, individually, the three stories are, well, wonderful.) Instead, what they all point to is that the easy part of wonder is the anticipation, the early part. It’s what happens after the encounter that becomes difficult, and each of these stories are about those moments after wonder happens.

Wonder itself is that moment captured by the single poem in this issue, an alternate retelling of what happened when we gathered to watch the moon landings. Sophie M. White’s “Contact” describes a family buying a new TV, sitting down to watch the moon grow larger and then slowly resolve into a picture of the surface where, suddenly, creatures moved around until:

One moved quicker
And came in closer,
Filling up the screen.

And then
It licked
The lens.

This is wonder: do we laugh? Gape? Exult in the promises of new life? Simply get freaked out? The response to wonder happens after the poem and is unspoken. It’s what the other stories try to narrate, and each, in its own way, shows that no response to wonder matches up to the experience. It’s why we read the next story, to find again that which was there but wasn’t there, that moment when the thing licked the lens, a moment when our sense of the alien was both given a shape but also confused and confusing. It’s a moment that no one story can tell because one story becomes, like “Troll Blood” says, a single history with its weight and consequences. But wonder only happens within stories, within maybe multiple stories that each pull the same experience in different directions. Maybe in the end, wonder only happens between stories, after the disappointment that the last one gave up its mysteries and the next one is still a promise. If that’s the case, then wonder was really on there among all four: “Close Encounters,” ‘Where the Summer Dwells,” “Troll Blood,” and “Contact.” There’s more of wonder in their aggregate than any could produce on their own.

In other words: a very good issue. It does what I want it do when I read F&SF, which I’ve done for over 20 years now, which is not just showcase my favorite writers, but push me to think more about a genre I love. And I now have a bit more to say about wonder than I did before, something that I don’t know if Duncan, Rucker, Dickinson, or White (or even the editor Van Gelder) specifically wanted me to take from what they wrote. But that’s the fun of treating this magazine as more than occasional pieces that happen to be between the same covers. They were collaborators without knowing it.


book cover

Telling a story about a philosophical question is hard. It’s easy to see the emotional significance of  certain ethical or religious problems. But how do you turn an obsession with a more abstract question like “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, much less a serious account of the different arguments and problems with various answers, into a story?

Jim Holt found a way to do it. And it’s something that anyone who teaches philosophy or “theory” or even any history of ideas can learn from. Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story isn’t really a “mystery” with a clear solution at the end. (I’m guessing that title was a marketing decision.) It’s not even a book with a particular answer in mind. It’s really the story of someone committed to a question who wants to approach it as authentically as he can, who really does follow the evidence and the logic wherever it leads, and who doesn’t at all know where he’s going to end up. He doesn’t even really offer a final answer to the question (although he gives it a tentative shot). Instead, what the book does best is show how someone can care deeply about a philosophical problem without turning it into either a melodramatic story of “self-discovery” or a dry academic exercise on the other.

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The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible. – Jacques Ranciere, from The Politics of Aesthetics

In a series of works translated into English over the past decade, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has argued for a renewed sense of the political power of aesthetics. Building upon Walter Benjamin’s critique of “the aestheticization of politics,” outlined in Benjamin’s famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Ranciere tries to imagine an art that is politicized, not by the appeals to imagination and representation in the democratic ideal of “consensus,” but by its ability to make visible the forms of “dissensus” on which any democratic vision is based. Against Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the city-state in the Republic, Ranciere attempts to put the artist back in the middle of our political lives. Art, for Ranciere, re-distributes our sensibilities for democratic and communitarian purpose, rather than simply reflecting what they should or shouldn’t be.

I have to confess that I often have a hard time understanding what Ranciere is up to. How, exactly, does art make us attuned to dissenting voices when, in America, contemporary art or poetry is easily co-opted by technology and capitalism? Why is democracy the question to consider about the politics of art in the 21st century? Why not violence, totalitarianism, ecology, or any of the other myriad forms of political and community engagement?

These questions are simply and quickly put to rest by Alison Klayman’s new documentary on the work of Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei.

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You quoted Nietzsche, but I’ll quote you:

What’s disturbing about this thesis is the collapsing of the one into the other: every act of criticism, every act of reading which acknowledges the fiction yet keeps on reading – like men in theatre – would thus be the genealogical symptom of the very original, very lost rites of Dionysus. Nietzsche makes it hard not to keep coming back to Nietzsche.

So I have a question: is the critic one who follows Apollo, or is the critic Socrates? There’s a huge difference for Nietzsche. The Apollonian dimension is still an artistic force, something which is integrally tied to the Dionysian in art. But Socrates is a theoretician who moves beyond art completely, to the idea given in art without the need for its experience. Apollo still leads the audience to dream; Socrates would live in complete wakefulness. So when you talk about “every act of criticism, every act of reading,” are you speaking as Apollo or Socrates?

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Perhaps others will recall, as I do, shouting out, sometimes successfully, words of encouragement in the midst of the perils and terrors of a dream: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ – Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 16

The contrast between this genuine truth of nature and the cultural lie which pretends to be the only reality is like the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the entire world of phenomena; and just as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternal life of that core of being despite the constant destruction of the phenomenal world, the symbolism of the chorus of satyrs is in itself a metaphorical expression of that original relationship between thing-in-itself and phenomenon. The idyllic shepherd of modern man is merely a counterfeit of the sum of educated illusions which modern man takes to be nature; the Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature at full strength – and sees himself transformed by magic into a satyr. – Ibid., 41-2

I recently mentioned to you, Craig, that I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ranks up there with Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin as one of the most important and elegant works of criticism.

What I meant is that it’s insuperable: once you entertain its thesis, you can’t ignore it. This is the case with Fish’s book. Try to teach Milton, and you can’t escape Fish’s description of our fallen love of Milton’s Satan as the poem’s central temptation, precisely designed to turn a critical lens back on ourselves as fallen readers of Milton.

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