I’m interested again, but only to the extent of wanting to find out where all the balls they just threw up in the air will land, and unfortunately, I suspect I can guess. Heroes arcs are almost always structured around an effort to prevent a story from happening, which (1) is almost always less interesting than the prospect of the story happening, (2) encourages the more solipsistic and rebarbative habits of any long-running TV series, and (3) usually leaves you running in place. Especially when your enabling device is time travel, and several of your characters have a healing factor.
My review of Michael Chabon’s non-fiction collection Maps and Legends is up at Fruitless Recursion:
The title of Michael Chabon’s first collection of non-fiction is taken from one of the shortest pieces in the book, a brief essay about growing up in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland in the late sixties and early seventies. There is a literal map described, a partial streetmap that Chabon acquired from the city Exhibit Center, and was fascinated by, for its relation to an incomplete reality. Many of the street names alluded to the work of American writers and poets, but to Chabon they were most notable for referring to places that hadn’t been built yet. “They were like magic spells,” he writes, “each one calibrated to call into being one particular stretch of blacktop, sidewalk, and lawn, and no other” (31). Chabon then describes growing up, and feeling disillusioned about some of the lessons he had taken from life in Columbia, such as the extent to which America is racially integrated. Still and all, he says, he remembers the Exhibit Centre map with fondness, “however provisional” it and Columbia proved to be, and he attributes this fondness in part to the way the map steered him into the literary world. I’m not sure the word “legend” appears anywhere in the essay other than the title, but in that context it seems clear to me that it refers both to the literary legends — the stories — implicit in the map, and the legend of his own youth that Chabon is creating, not least because Maps and Legends, as a book, is divided between those two subjects.
Also in this issue: Paul Kincaid on Mike Ashley’s Gateways to Forever, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro on Gabriel McKee’s The Gospel According to Science Fiction, and Jonathan McCalmont on Studies in Modern Horror, edited by NGChristakos.
This is worth breaking out into a separate post:
I mentioned in the links roundup that Gwyneth Jones has put the full text of her Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel Bold as Love online; this came to me via Futurismic, since the feed of Gwyneth’s blog seems not to be playing nicely with Bloglines at the moment.
Anyway, after scanning the other recent posts, I discovered that Gwyneth has also put up a pdf ARC of her new novel, Spirit: or the Princess of Bois Dormant, which is not due to be published until the very end of December. Enjoy. (And don’t forget the related stories. Oh, and on a different note, see this response to the recent-ish discussion of Gwyneth’s Guardian top 10 sf novels by women.)
- This week’s debate: should sf be more optimistic? Kathryn Cramer has the right of it, I think, but there are robust responses from Lou Anders, Jetse de Vries, and Jason Stoddard.
- Semi-relatedly, Charles Stross is fretting about near-future sf again: “Put yourself in the shoes of an SF author trying to construct an accurate (or at least believable) scenario for the USA in 2019. Imagine you are constructing your future-USA in 2006, then again in 2007, and finally now, with talk of $700Bn bailouts and nationalization of banks in the background. Each of those projections is going to come out looking different.” To which my response is, largely, so what?
- John Clute on The City’s End by Max Page
- Stephen Mitchelmore on Night Work by Thomas Glavinic
- Nic Clarke reviews The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
- Abigail Nussbaum on “Stories for Men” by John Kessell
- From Locus, Gary K Wolfe reviews Anathem, and Paul Witcover reviews Cecelia Holland’s Varander
- Rudy Rucker on Anathem
- Elizabeth Hand reviews Allegra Goodman’s dystopic YA The Other Side of the Island
- In the Guardian, Christopher Brookmyre enjoyed Anathem, Stephanie Merritt wasn’t impressed by The Gargoyle, and Peter F Hamilton talks about sex: ‘”I’ve got a friend who writes a lot of chick lit. Compared to what goes into that genre we’re absolute puritans, yet the reaction you get is ‘Oh my God, it’s a sex scene,'” he says. Sex is a tiny part of his books.’ I promise, it’s not the quantity I have problems with. Except in Misspent Youth. (Oh, and he does talk about other things as well.)
- It is now possible for any and all to vote in the SFX Awards. Deadline is 28th of October, although the eligibility period seems to cover all of 2008 …
- A new award: The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy, which has a slightly intricate process but looks like a good thing in general. Opens to nominations at the end of the year.
- Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go has won the Guardian children’s fiction prize. And why is sf successful in YA?
- Paul McAuley is serializing the opening chapters of his new novel, The Quiet War
- Martin Lewis has a new blog, where among other things he is blogging about the contents of Feeling Very Strange
- Your free book of the week: Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones (pdf link)
- Paolo Bacigalupi has sold a book. I’m waiting for The Windup Girl, personally, but this should tide me over.
- Jake Seliger has more thoughts on science fiction, again
- And finally: the trailer for the new Charlie Kaufman film looks, well, like a trailer for a Charlie Kaufman film. Can’t wait, personally.
In a week where one blog I read regularly shut up shop (for now? he said, impishly) and another expressed general boredom with the blogosphere, and given that I haven’t been posting much for the last few weeks, I figure it probably wouldn’t hurt to say: I aten’t dead, or bored, I’m just busy.
August was a sufficiently busy month that I managed to read a grand total of three books, and though I’ve done a bit better this month, that’s mostly because I’ve been the sort of busy that allows me to factor in reading time (i.e. train journeys). Between Vector (the next issue of which should be going to the printers in a week or two, which means hitting doormats in about a month) and SH reviews (which I’ve now been running for just over three years — where does the time go?) I’ve not had much time for writing of my own, although I do have a review of Anathem coming up at IROSF, and a review of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends in the next issue of Fruitless Recursion. I’m also behind on email, so please bear with me if you’re waiting for a response on something. I’ve not even had much time for TV — I haven’t seen Heroes yet, and though I’ve fallen in love with The Middleman I’ve only watched half a dozen episodes.
However, it looks like — famous last words — things might be quietening down a bit, and I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the pipeline for here. I’ve been running a discussion about Flood, which is just waiting for final contributions, and hope to get discussions about Karen Joy Fowler’s Wit’s End and Anathem done soonish. I’m working on a series of posts about Sword & Sorcery/Heroic Fantasy, inspired by the lovely reissues of some of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks earlier this year. So far I’ve got draft posts about The Broken Sword, Elric, Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, and The Steel Remains, all of which need polishing, and some of which need me to do a bit more background reading. I’m also debating adding Lankhmar to the series, although that would delay posting it even longer. (I was originally planning to get them up at the end of August.) I also have a post about Gwyneth Jones’ late-eighties novel Kairos drafted, and posts about Benjamin Rosenbaum’s collection The Ant King and Other Stories and Ian R MacLeod’s new novel Song of Time gestating; the latter may end up combined with thoughts on the book I’m reading now, Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, given that both have made me think about strategies for describing future history. Or, it may not. Other stuff I want to get to soon or soon-ish: the rest of the October/November F&SF; Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo; and the recent Chris Beckett special issue of Interzone.
Of course, the thing that’s got lost in all this is the Baroque Cycle Reading Group. I have to admit, I don’t know when I’m going to get round to The Confusion; I was sufficiently unenthused by Quicksilver that it’s a matter of making time for it. Liz had nobly volunteered to write the post about it, but I gather she’s had computer woes and probably lost the draft she’d been working on. But if there’s still an appetite for discussion (it had seemed to be dropping off quite dramatically with each installment), I’ll bump it back up the reading stack. Thoughts?
The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Farah Mendlesohn, author of Rhetorics of Fantasy, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and much else. She’ll be interviewed by Tony Keen.
As usual, the venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.
The meeting is free (although there will be a raffle), and open to any and all. The interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people in the bar from 6 onwards.
The problem was not Obama; the problem was that at the instant when Hillary Clinton at last conceded, the nature of the campaign changed. It was, I considered (perhaps under the influence of the kind smile and exhortatory squeeze on the arm bestowed on me by Jimmy Carter, president of my darkest adolescence, as he passed me in the doorway of a LoDo Mexican restaurant), like the change that might occur between the first and second volumes of some spectacular science fiction fantasy epic. At the end of the first volume, after bitter struggle, Obama had claimed the presumptive nomination. We Fremen had done the impossible, against Sardaukar and imperial shock troops alike. We had brought water to Arrakis. Now the gathered tribes of the Democratic Party—hacks, Teamsters, hat ladies, New Mexicans, residents of those states most nearly resembling Canada, Jews of South Florida, dreadlocks, crewcuts, elderlies and goths, a cowboy or two, sons and daughters of interned Japanese-Americans—had assembled on the plains of Denver to attempt to vanquish old Saruman McCain.
Michael Chabon, of course.
Although “Legolas Does The Dishes” (in Postscripts 15) is the least sfnal thing I’ve read by Justina Robson, it’s not a radical departure from the themes she’s been working with at novel length – identity, consciousness, relationships. In fact, it’s arguably her most careful expression of those themes to date, drawing out the inherent science-fictionality of the first two, and laying bare the tensions they inflict on the third. According to the header notes, the story was written between the completion of Living Next-Door to the God of Love (a book I admire greatly) and the start of Quantum Gravity (a series I wish I could admire more), and it does function as a kind of pivot between them. Both of the longer works have at their core relationships between (more or less) human women and otherworldly men, and what you get in “Legolas Does The Dishes” is a similar relationship, but reframed in terms of uncertainty.
Elizabeth is a patient in an unnamed North American asylum. She claims to have a curse of sight, to be able to see “other planes”, and to be uniquely aware that “the world is the product of the mind”. As the story begins, she describes her introduction to a new member of staff – a dishwasher – whom she becomes increasingly certain is, in fact, Legolas. She knows full well that The Lord of the Rings is fiction, but —
… the meme of Legolasness and all it implies must have been spreading around the general population like a plague and so, even though I cannot really be looking at an Elf of Middle Earth, but surely am only looking at someone through a voluntary delusion I am prepared to entertain as True, nonetheless, here he is. Legolas is washing our dishes. Because reality is of the mind. And my mind says this is the real thing. And so he is. Unless he thinks he isn’t. And then of course, he won’t be.
Elizabeth is like this: open, a little breathless — you always feel she could stand to take a deep breath — and well aware that we might consider her crazy. (And aware of the ways in which popular culture can be used to help us understand her craziness. When introduced to Legolas, she describes herself as moved towards him by an “unstoppable force”, until the “immovable object” of a kitchen counter stops her.) She was committed for poisoning her mother for “poisoning me with ideas” or, more specifically, with a story: “She brought me up believing that I was living in a fairytale.” For Elizabeth, ideative poisoning is no less severe a crime than the more traditional kind, and her actions were a kind of self-defence, but we’re left wondering. The intensity of her fascination with Legolas (he never acquires another name), and the strength of her confidence that he really is the reincarnation of a fictional character, are a disconcerting couple of degrees beyond normal. And when he doesn’t deny her initial questions (“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in Valinor?” … He muttered hesitantly, “I forgot about that, I guess”) we may see it as a man humouring a woman he thinks is less than entirely sane, but she takes it as a license to believe the story in her head: as license, if her understanding of the nature of reality is accurate, to make the story true.
The pair are introduced by one Nurse Driver, who is aware of Elizabeth’s claims about what she can perceive, and seems to take a perverse pleasure from placing her with unsuspecting folks and seeing what happens. Nurse and patient are locked in an odd duel of wills and wits, in which neither party is ever quite sure of the other’s position. Elizabeth notes that, “[Driver] and I always had this thing going on where I could never tell if she were serious or simply playing me for the sake of being entertained”. Driver’s introduction of Elizabeth to Legolas certainly seems frivolous, until Elizabeth starts taking it seriously, at which point Driver gets more restrictive (possibly jealous) and Elizabeth is forced to employ both bribes and blackmail in order to achieve her self-imposed goal of waking Legolas up to his true heritage. (She notes that at first he is distinguished by “farm-animal calm”, perhaps in contrast to her awareness of her own supposed position as Nurse Driver’s “domesticated animal”. By the end of the story, both are certainly more alive.) Yet for all that Driver seems a less than honourable employee, we can never be completely sure that Elizabeth should get her way, because we are constantly reminded of her instability. Although Elizabeth’s first conversation with Legolas ends when Driver inaccurately blames her for breaking one of the dishes being washed, Elizabeth is alarmingly fascinated by the shiny shards that result, and apparently has a history of stabbing people.
Legolas’ motivations remain as tantalisingly vague as Driver’s, and the question of whether or not Elizabeth is correct about him is never fully resolved. For every bit of seeming corroboration — watching his eye movements for tell-tale signs when she’s quizzing him, for instance: “He glanced up and left. I knew it. People look that way for Visual Recall” – there is an excuse. The evidence available is either on the edge of extraordinariness, not clearly over the line — throwing something into a bin, “a throw of about eight metres and he did it with a gesture no more studied or powerful than simple pointing” — or its flaws are recognised by Elizabeth herself, such as her observation of pointed ears, usually covered by hair, in a very grainy photograph. Over the course of the story, during which Elizabeth sets in motion various legal moves that will end with her release, and aims to persuade Legolas to travel with her to her family home when that happens, Legolas either decides to use Elizabeth to his own advantage (she gives him access to her money), or is dumb enough that he starts to believe what she’s telling him about a past life (Driver characterizes him as a “born idiot”), or is genuinely changed by her mind, and awoken to some awareness of his true nature. Like Driver, Legolas’ actions – or what Elizabeth tells us of his actions – somehow don’t add up to a complete whole.
We do gradually get a better picture of what Elizabeth means when she says that reality is of the mind, and a sense that she might be on to something – even if she isn’t quite sane. It’s equipoised science fiction: Elizabeth has a complete, coherent, explanatory view of the world, but it differs from the consensus. When she says that the existence of Middle Earth can be defined by “a place in spacetime and a position in someone’s mind”, we have no way of judging whether she’s perceived the nature of reality or just making up things to fit the pattern her broken mind observes. We can at least be confident, probably, that Elizabeth isn’t consciously lying. At one point, she notes that “One could never trust to theories of mind alone to bring plans as important as these into fruition”: it could be simple pragmatism, or it could be a subconscious acknowledgement that she’s delusional, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing that a deliberate fantasist would say. She also tells us that her therapist, Dr Lucy, has confirmed that the fact Elizabeth’s scrupulous honesty, to the point of not understanding why one would lie, is part of her pathology; although Elizabeth thinks she’s spotted holes in Dr Lucy’s theories, and in a way that chimes with the portraits of Driver and Legolas that she offers:
Most of Dr Lucy’s beliefs about minds relies on a heavy emphasis to their regularity, stability and cohesion – the entire theory under which she’s trying to make a name for herself is in fact called Cohesive Behaviourism: the Integrity Glue That Holds Us Together. Because of this she missed the significance of my self-determination (excusing herself by saying that abstract elements of mathematics were unsuitable tools for dealing with psychological analysis) so I never got to the part where I could whisk the cloth off my big revelation and tell her that some probability distributions have no mean, or average value. And neither do objects, or atoms, or people.
Whether or not Dr Lucy’s theory is accurate in this story’s world, it certainly seems to be the case that the Quantum Gravity series, in particular, is intended to test something very like Cohesive Behaviourism to destruction. The premise of those books is that a “quantum bomb” has fractured reality into a number of different realms; one corresponds to the popular conception of fairyland, one to hell, and so on. Like “Legolas Does The Dishes”, it never fully commits to one genre, although Quantum Gravity is at least unambiguously fantastic; a collision of fantasy and sf, which to date has been pacy but uneven. (Depending on your perspective, the level of inventiveness on display is either exhilarating or suffocating; I tend towards the latter view.) At the tale’s centre is a cyborg heroine, Lila Black, who ends up with several personalities cohabiting in her head, challenging her sense of self; in another story, she’d be as crazy as Elizabeth. Lila also finds herself in a relationship with an actual elf – a rock star elf, in fact – in which the intensity of sudden attraction is in part explained by an interaction of energy fields. Similar fields apparently surround humans in “Legolas Does The Dishes”, although a closer match for Elizabeth and Legolas’ relationship can be found in Living Next-Door to the God of Love. In that novel, teenage runaway Francine winds up in a “high-interaction sidebar universe” in which something very like Elizabeth’s theories about the nature of reality is provably true, and meets a man who turns out to be literally defined by, among other things, her love.
What “Legolas Does The Dishes” adds to this stew of ideas, though, is an answer to the implicit question: if mind shapes reality, what shapes mind? The answer, almost inevitably, is recursive, and goes back to why Elizabeth killed her mother:
In retrospect I think the mathematics could all go in my sessions with Dr Lucy and I should stick to aphorisms and cilches, affirmations and the like, with their dripfeed of empty hope into the consciousness.
This is also how poisons and drugs work, but they are for the body. The mind requires stories. Dosage is very important. The right measure at the right moment.
Another way of phrasing the story’s central question is to say that it’s not clear whether the arrival of Legolas represents the right dose of story for Elizabeth, or the wrong dose. Certainly it seems that it was a wrong dose of story — her mother lying to her — that provoked Elizabeth into committing murder. And Legolas provokes Elizabeth into getting out of the asylum, after twenty years of incarceration, through a combination of legal and more practical scheming. (Elizabeth also wonders whether confronting Driver with incriminating evidence of an inappropriate liaison will be too much story for the nurse.) But it could simply be that Legolas drives Elizabeth deeper into her delusion, since another way of describing Elizabeth is to say that she believes in a different story to us.
“Legolas Does The Dishes” feels, to me at least, more controlled than Robson’s recent novels. There is the electric sense that Elizabeth, even if she is right, is a fundamentally unstable individual; the casualness with which she hides a shard of Pyrex under her nail (because glass is much less dangerous than steel to a body’s energy field) is squirm-inducing. But there’s an equally powerful sense of what a wonder it might be if Elizabeth is right, such as her description of spray from Niagra falls as “world’s tears” that give sight like no other. There’s a good amount of humour undercutting the seriousness of Elizabeth’s pronouncements; having asserted that story is medicine for the mind, she reveals that her preferred tonic is Oprah Winfrey. There are deft inverting observations, such as Elizabeth’s reaction to a Porsche in terms that we would more commonly associate with, well, encountering an elf — its “ineffable strangeness”. And holding it all together is an expertly managed tension between reality and delusion. The care with which each element of the story is shaped and positioned with relation to the whole, in fact, reminds me of the last story of Robson’s that I read — “Little Bear”, in Pete Crowther’s anthology Constellations a couple of years ago. That was good enough that I’ve been keeping my eye out for more; and “Legolas Does The Dishes” fulfils its promise.
- Reviews of Anathem: Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (grumpy), The Complete Review (snobby), Laura Miller in the LA Times; Paul Witcover in Locus; Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons; Jeff VanderMeer at Barnes & Noble review.
- Abigail Nussbaum on William Gibson’s Spook Country and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl: “Much as I enjoyed the substance of Brasyl, the experience of reading it was marked by an ever-increasing sense of unease at McDonald’s treatment of the real country in which his story is grounded.”
- Gardner Dozois will be reviewing short fiction for Locus; some discussion here.
- Jonathan Strahan announces the final contents for Eclipse Two … including new stories by Margo Lanagan and Ted Chiang!
- Adam Roberts reviews Peter Ackroyd’s Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. Three times.
- Roz Kaveney reviews The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson in The Independent: “Though completely crackers, this is a powerful and engaging book”. Tim Martin in the Indie on Sunday is less keen.
- Rick Moody reviews Victor Pelevin’s lates novel
- Dustin Kurtz reviews Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams
- Graham Joyce is a finalist for the O Henry Award, for a story which became this book.
- Jonathan McCalmont writes about the uncanny valley of near-future sf.
- Paul Kincaid’s latest “science fiction skeptic” column plays with the idea of sf awards as a “rolling canon”; though I can’t help pointing out that the most immediate reason Kathleen Goonan’s In War Times wasn’t shortlisted for the Clarke Award is that it hasn’t been published in the UK.
- Time machine time: Ellen Datlow’s year in horror summation, 1987.
- Tor UK have a couple of sales on: 20% off these titles, and 3-for-2 on these e-books until the end of December.
- Dirk Maggs will unfortunately not be attending LX
- And Lou Anders has details of a new sf imprint: “Angry Robot’s first titles will be published in July 2009 … Michaels told The Bookseller that it would be a completely different model to HC’s existing Voyager imprint. ‘We really see Voyager as the gold standard for science fiction,’ he said. ‘They take big name authors like Robin Hobb or Terry Goodkind. At Angry Robot we will be building the next wave of authors, people like Cory Doctorow or Fiona McIntosh who are on their first books with us at Voyager.’”
The problem is under control now. No one would think of getting an abortion. There’s already talk about cutting back the program in a few years and I feel kind of sentimental about it. I’ve grown up with executions and can’t imagine what kids will watch instead. Not that I would wish this on anyone. It’s a miserable thing to be in my situation.
So speaks Lisle, the young narrator of M. Rickert’s most recent story, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account“, published in this year’s October/November double issue of F&SF. The sentences above are fairly typical of Lisle’s style and tone; what’s significant about them, I think, is where they place their emotional weight, and which emotions they invoke. By this point in the story, for example, we know that “the program” is the systematic capture and public execution of any American woman who has ever had an abortion, but it’s still a shock to realise that Lisle is so used to it as a background fact of her life that she would miss it if it were gone, and still hard to imagine anything so brutal as entertainment for children. We also know that, as the daughter of a “disappeared” mother, Lisle is something of a social pariah. Having an executed mother is “not necessarily that bad”, purely because it’s so common; “a lot of women of my mother’s generation,” Lisle explains, “were swayed by the evil propaganda of their youth, had abortions and careers even, before coming back to the light of righteous behaviour.” A missing mother, on the other hand, is cause for suspicion: where has she gone, and what is she doing? So Lisle resents her mother’s perceived selfishness in leaving, which explains the miserableness, even if it’s difficult for us to accept.
I start with Lisle because, although her worldview is not the first indication we get that the world has gone wrong, it’s the most enduring testament the story offers to the way in which it has gone wrong. Lois Tilton, at the Internet Review of SF, argued that for her, Rickert doesn’t do enough to make the setting plausible:
With the example of the Taliban before us, no one can really say anymore: This couldn’t happen. Yet it is up to the author to convince us that it could have actually happened, or at least to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into the mutual pact between author and reader in which we accept the scenario for the sake of the message the story is meant to deliver. The problem with such fiction, however, is that the Message can outweigh the story, and I think that in this case it has done so, going too close to the line between chilling and absurd.
While I can take issue with various bits of this assessment, I do think the question of plausibility is hard to avoid when talking about “Evidence of Love”. The idea of an authoritarian, theocratic government presiding over the continental United States is, at this point, something close to a cliché, but even so – and despite the fact that the magazine blurb introduces Rickert’s story as “a chilling glimpse of how the near future might be” – this version of this future is not one I can believe in, Taliban or no. It goes too far, too fast. I can believe (with depressing ease, in fact) in the advent of an American government that criminalizes abortion, even to the point of enforcing the ban with the death penalty. And I recognise that there are people who would like to go as far as the story does, and kill everyone who’s ever had an abortion; one of them provides the story’s epigraph, taken from a 1995 speech: “When I, or people like me, are running the country, you’d better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we’ll execute you.” You don’t need to know who Randall Terry is (I’d never heard of him) to understand that “Evidence of Love” is a story where he, or someone like him, has made good on his promise. My difficulty is in believing that a regime capable of enforcing a retrospective ban could arise in the United States within (as “Evidence of Love” must be) a generation. The distance between Randall Terry’s current residence and the White House seems too great to cover in that time, never mind that – so far as I’m aware – there has never been a retrospective act of criminalization on such a scale, and with such severe consequences for those convicted. So I can’t see “Evidence of Love” as a story about “how the near future might be” in anything more than a technical sense and – to return to Tilton’s criticism – I don’t think any writer could have rendered the story’s world convincingly enough to withstand post-reading reflection.
I wouldn’t normally spend this much time discussing whether or not I found a story’s premises plausible, because for an awful lot of science fiction the question is something of a blind alley: execution is all. (And in twenty-five years, when “Evidence of Love” is just one more of yesterday’s tomorrows, the question will be all but irrelevant.) I’ve spent some time on the issue here because, as I indicated, I think you can’t not. “Evidence of Love” gives every impression of being an Awful Warning, which is probably one of the exception categories where plausibility is concerned. If it’s not likely, after all, how urgently can we need to be warned against it? But in both “Evidence of Love” and Rickert’s only other straight sf story (so far as I’m aware), “Bread and Bombs“, the future is presented to us as a fait accompli. Both stories, in fact, draw their power from a gradual accretion of detail, not about the world, but about its inhabitants.
Which leaves us back where I started, with Lisle. Rickert, it seems to me, is intensely interested in subjective experience; a story like last year’s “Holiday” succeeds because it makes its narrator’s worldview both convincing and absorbing, and I think “Evidence of Love” pursues the same goal. (This view of the story means that, for example, I find Chris Barzak’s comparison of the story to “The Lottery” somewhat odd; Shirley Jackson’s story is third-person, and much more interested in a group dynamic than in an individual.) Here too the story has been criticized. Abigail Nussbaum wrote that “Evidence of Love” is “shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think”, and attributed this in part to the setting, but in part to Lisle:
there’s also the fact that the narrator is so clearly brainwashed. She’s someone we can pity, but not sympathize with, because her reactions are so obviously wrong and twisted. Rather than putting us in her head and inviting us to feel her pain (and there is real pain there – this is a child who has lost her mother and been raised to believe that that mother is a horrible person), the narrative stands apart from her and regards her – or rather, what’s been done to her – with disgust.
I read the story differently. I don’t think, for example, that it’s accurate to describe Lisle as brainwashed, since she had no original convictions to destroy and replace. Rather, her personality and beliefs are the result of simply growing up in this future. As indicated in the quotes above, Lisle’s worldview has been shaped by the regime under which she has been raised: she talks of “righteous behaviour” entirely without irony, and resentfully assumes, as the title suggests, that she has been abandoned — the possibility that her mother has been taken never seriously crosses her mind.
What we pity her for is not the pain in her life, but the absence of pain. Here’s what she recalls of a time when her mother caught her with a list of boys’ names, and asked if they were boys Lisle had crushes on:
I don’t know what she was thinking to say such a thing because there were seven names on that list and I am not a slut, but anyhow, I explained that they were baby names I was considering for when my time came and she got this look on her face like maybe she’d been a hologram all along and was just going to fade away and then she said, “When I was your age, I planned on being an astronaut.”
My cheeks turned bright red, of course. I was embarrassed for her to talk like that. She tried to make light of it by looking over the list, letting me know which names she liked (Liam and Jack) and which she didn’t (Paul and Luke). If the time ever comes (and I am beginning to have my doubts that it will) I’m going to choose one of the names she hated. It’s not much, but it’s all I have. There’s only so much you can do to a mother who is missing.
This, to me, is heartbreaking. Nothing in the passage stretches beyond what it is conceivable for Lisle to have noticed or for her to be describing, yet it evokes so much in subtle ways: the long run-on sentence indicating how much the memory troubles her, the mother’s simple statement indicating how bad things have got, the choice of names extremely suggestive of the type of people who are responsible. There is, I think, just a hint in her final sentence that her feelings about her mother’s absence may come from more than one source; a suggestion that, however much she professes to be angry, knows she should be angry, Lisle misses her mother. But that’s powerful precisely because Lisle herself is unaware of it, and for Rickert to make more of it would be to betray her character’s integrity.
So I don’t know that I can agree with the idea that we should be able to sympathize with Lisle. It seems to me that the distance we are kept from Lisle is the major source of the story’s strength, since it enables the emotional misplacement I talked about at the start of this post, and the feeling of hopeless dislocation it engenders in the reader (or, at least, me). When it is strongly implied that, as the daughter of a disappeared mother, the best Lisle can expect later in life is to be a “breeder”, we should indeed pity her; but we should also notice that the problem with being a breeder (for Lisle) is not the idea of being forced to have children per se (since what could be more natural?) but the idea of having to give those children up to other people, every time; the idea of never being allowed to be a mother.
Perhaps most striking are Lisle’s reactions to the public execution she attends with her father. Her depiction of the event itself is unsentimental. It is implied that Lisle’s father takes her in an attempt to show her how horrific it really is — since her mother’s disappearance, Lisle has been obsessed with watching executions on television — but all the trip does is reveal that her desensitization is complete. “It’s way more powerful,” Lisle tells us, “than how it seems on screen”; but her descriptions of the fear and nervousness of the convicts are for the most part those of a person enamoured of a spectacle, detached and dispassionate. “No one wants to be away from his seat when the criminal gets close to the red circle at the center of the field”, she says. And if one of the criminals looks like not breaking down, and not giving Lisle (and presumably the rest of the audience) the emotional catharsis they crave, this is her reaction:
Occasionally there is a stoic one, but there aren’t many of these, and when there is, it’s easy enough to look away from the screen and focus on the big picture. What had she been thinking? How could she murder someone so tiny, so innocent, and not know she’d have to pay? When I think of what the time from before was like I shudder and thank God for being born in the Holy Times. In spite of my mother, I am blessed. I know this, even though I sometimes forget. Right there, in the football field bleachers, I fold my hands and bow my head. When I am finished my father is giving me a strange look. “If this is too upsetting we can leave,” he says. He constantly makes mistakes like this. Sometimes I just ignore him, but this time I try to explain. “I just realized how lucky I am.” I can’t think of what else to say, how to make him understand, so I simply smile.
We stand with her father here: we expect Lisle to be upset by what she’s watching, but of course, believing as she does in the rightness of what is occurring, she finds it reassuring, draws strength from the ways in which (she thinks) it keeps her safe. It’s all the more disturbing because her thoughts are clearly those of youth, and unconsidered. After the shot, this is her reaction: “I see the gaping maw that was her head, right where that evil thought was first conceived to destroy the innocent life that grew inside her. Now she is neither stoic nor alive. She lies in a heap, twitching for a while, but those are just nerves.” It is, to Lisle, justice.
To me, what ultimately makes “Evidence of Love” a success is that we never doubt Lisle. She makes the world real, which is to say that the tale gains what power it has not from the abhorrence of the society in which it is set, but from the shock of what that society has done to Lisle; and the trick at the tale’s heart is that if the society in which it is set were more plausible, Lisle would be less shocking. Put another way, if “Evidence of Love” were merely an Awful Warning against the rhetoric of anti-choice positions, if it were merely a Message story, it would be somewhat facile. The awfulness is fairly obvious. We would indeed, as Abigail puts it, be being invited to sneer. But I don’t think the same follows from the fact that we’re held apart from Lisle. We may not be able to fully sympathise with her, but I think we can certainly understand her, and most particularly we can understand that she doesn’t understand herself. After all, the only certain evidence of love that Lisle displays comes in the very last line of the story, and is its final sting: it reframes everything that came before as a denial.