Reading List: Winterstrike

Winterstrike coverAfter a great splurge in the 1990s — evident in the list of notable works compiled by John Joseph Adams in this 2004 IROSF article — Mars sf hasn’t had all that much play in the last decade, with the most notable recent entry in the subgenre aside from the book on the desk probably being Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2009). The original venue of planetary romance has, perhaps, lost some of its mystique, if not its allure: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road/Ares Express duology aside, it’s hard to think of examples that don’t make a point of treating Mars literally, now that we know enough to do so.

Winterstrike makes a play to reclaim Mars as a venue for mythic-fantastic adventure — it tells of high adventure and political shenanigans, all set in the far-distant future when a dying sun glowers over a land long since terraformed and colonised, and technology is far more than sufficiently advanced — and arguably its greatest success is as a venue. Its Mars is a vivid place, painted in rich colours and striking contrasts; it opens with a woman in “a mass of vitrified stone striped as white as bone and as red as a still-beating heart” — a tower in a crater at the centre of the city of Winterstrike — wearing, prosaically, “woollen mittens knitted by a grandmother” (1-2). The images we’re familiar with from Spirit and Global Surveyor and the rest are buried by such language, a ghost landscape beyond the novel’s present – several layers beyond, in fact. In a later scene, one of the novel’s narrators uses some of the powerful “haunt-tech” available to the elites of this Mars to view the memories of a ruined city; it is precisely a haunting effect, and in general the deployments of this technology, which also include strange organic machines and space travel that is a kind of death, provide some of the novel’s most visceral moments, all the while contributing to the sense of an ancient world, vastly different to the one we’re starting to know. Perhaps the one attribute retained from our associations with the planet is the chill promised by the title, complete with, wittily, frozen canals running through Winterstrike’s heart.

Across this landscape run two cousins. Essegui Harn and Hestia Mar are noble daughters of the Matriarchy of Winterstrike. The former is the woman we meet in the tower, ringing the bell that marks the start of the midwinter festival of Ombre. Soon after the novel begins, her younger sister Leretui — disgraced since she was caught with a vulpen man-remnant — either flees or is abducted from the lovingly restrictive embrace of her family, and Essegui is not just charged with finding her but cursed to do so by a compulsive “geies” cast by a “majike” in the employ of her family. Hestia, meanwhile, is a spy for Winterstrike; she voluntarily indentured herself to the same majike to escape life as a political pawn for her mother. Sent to the rival Matriarchy of Caud in pursuit of an ancient weapon, she also finds a remnant of an ancient library in the form of a “ghost warrior”, whose flayed body is sustained by more ancient technology — “She moved stiffly beneath the confines of her rust-red armour: without the covering of skin, I could see the interplay of muscles” (14) – and who accompanies Hestia more or less enigmatically through the rest of the novel. Before too long, both Winterstrike and Caud have been attacked, and both Essegui and Hestia are off on longer journeys, relating their various escapades in alternating chapters.

If the greatest strength of Winterstrike is its setting, its greatest weakness is how its narrators both rush across that setting almost without pause. It’s surely telling that even two hundred pages into the novel it’s not clear what the nature of the weapon used to attack the cities is, or even exactly what it did. When they are allowed to reflect on their situations, Essegui and Hestia have fairly interesting things to report, but they’re not often given the time to make meaningful choices. Far more often the end of each short chapter sees them thrown into another peril: kidnapped, chased, shot at or otherwise attacked, and so on and so forth. It’s all beautifully constructed, with the two narratives gracefully converging for the lightest of touches, and then separating dramatically. But it’s also often somewhat unengaging. The amount of artifice involved is clear from the neatness with which the closing chapters reflect the novel’s opening, and it could be argued as appropriate to the tale’s mythic ambitions (not for nothing are fairytales invoked with reference to some character’s storylines), but by virtue of some odd “interludes” that alert us to Leretui’s situation, and the involvement of a faction on ancestral Earth, the reader is pretty much always ahead of the not entirely dynamic duo. The ennui and looming inevitability that result can also be seen as apt for a story that repeatedly emphasises that it’s taking place on an old world, one where “You know how it is, these days […] everything’s breaking down” (160), but it’s still probably the case that neither Essegui’s story nor Hestia’s is as interesting as that of Leretui, who is right at the heart of what turns out to be a plot to restore “balance” to Martian society.

Said balance, as you may guess, has to do with the absence of anything we would recognise as men, devolved in the wake of ancient, unstable genetic adaptations for the inhospitable native Martian surface into what Essegui and Hestia certainly think are various bestial subspecies. Once again, the novel’s present is shadowed by its past: “The oldest legends tell of cycles,” Leretui is told; “first women dominated, and then men, and now women again.” As far as the novel’s prime antagonist is concerned, the citizens of Mars “need to get past that kind of thinking […] need equality” (147). Bestial men is a trope that’s cropped up elsewhere in Williams’ work — it’s a feature of her Darkland/Bloodmind duology — but this is the most interestingly I’ve seen her integrate it into the fabric of a novel, since it’s far from clear that “equality” is a meaningful concept to apply to what’s left of men. That said, it becomes frustratingly clear in the last thirty pages or so that Winterstrike is not a complete story, and I suspect that if sequels ever do get published (and in the end, despite Winterstrike‘s weaknesses, I hope they do), they will gradually move towards the reintroduction of men, not least because it turns out they do still exist elsewhere in the solar system. From another point of view, what the novel’s antagonists are struggling for is an escape from the weight of history that hangs on Winterstrike: this is in very literal ways a book about how the past remains and is reconfigured into the present, and I suspect that sequels would proffer a fatalistic opinion on the possibility of that escape coming good.

Some of the future history behind Winterstrike has, I think, been outlined in other of Williams’ novels, such as Banner of Souls (2006), that I haven’t read. But even beyond this, Winterstrike felt very strongly embedded in the science fiction megatext — perhaps partly because the central trope of a woman-only world has such an illustrious history, from Herland via Whileaway, but mostly, I’m sure, because I just happen to have read a set of contemporaneous books whose themes and content set up interesting resonances. I can’t help thinking, for instance, that it would have been fascinating to have read this novel in the context of the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; it could be compared on the one hand with Sherri Tepper’s approach to mythologising science fiction, and on the other with Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, which also features two first-person narrators drawn from the same clone stock. Williams’ narrators have the same problem as do Reynolds’, namely that they sound the same (give or take slightly more indications of confidence from Hestia, and a slightly less worldly perspective from Essegui), but reading Winterstrike and occasionally being reminded that, yes, everyone is female (for some reason, perhaps not helped by the fact that she’s most often referred to by name or title and not by pronoun, I kept having to snap myself out of visualising the majike as male) is a useful underlining of how Reynolds rigged his set-up. The other book that came to mind while reading Winterstrike wasn’t nominated for the Clarke Award, but did win that year’s Tiptree; it is of course The Knife of Never Letting Go, a radically different planetary romance that portrays a society in which the gender balance is massively lopsided in the other direction, and which is an interesting contrast if only because it makes clear how matter-of-fact Williams is about the fact that her women have spread out into every social role. Perhaps it’s this very backgroundedness, relative to the gothic intensity of the other elements of Winterstrike, that led to the novel’s slightly surprising omission from the Tiptree honour list; but for me such a normalised, grounded imagining makes a significant contribution to the unarguable distinctiveness of Williams’ Mars.

A New Feature

Over at Strange Horizons, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is starting a project to read and review the twenty-five volumes of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, which reprint work published between 1939 and 1963. He’ll be tackling one volume every couple of months. Read on…

I’m approaching much of this work as a first-time reader, presumably like many of you. I’m sure that in the course of this ongoing project, in which I’d like to review all twenty-five volumes in the anthology series, I’ll find plenty of surprises. My intent with this review series is as much descriptive as it is analytic. There are more specialized works which deal full-on with the philosophical implications of specific stories or which dissect them academically. The idea here is to gain familiarity with the material and an appreciation for its continued relevance.

So, let us step back in time. 1939: a watershed year for SF. The World Science Fiction Convention was held for the first time, and the field saw the first published stories of Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: Volume 1, 1939 (IAPGSFS 1) collects twenty noteworthy fictions, including those firsts by van Vogt, Heinlein, and Sturgeon.

Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

As most reviews of this story by Neil Gaiman point out, there’s not a lot to it. Two boys are going to a party in a very normal pebble-dashed terraced house somewhere in East Croydon. They’re going for the girls. One of them, Vic, is confident, something of a smooth operator; the other, Enn, is the narrator, and is all at sea, not knowing how to relate to girls who, he thinks, “just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you” when puberty rolls around. Vic gives Enn the piece of advice that, once you know this is an sf story, gives away the plot:

They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”

Guess what? These girls do, literally, come from another planet. The party itself is quite well done, dingy and claustrophobic as these things tend to be. Vic puts his moves on the best-looking girl at the party, with some success. Meanwhile, Enn ends up talking to two girls. The first, a girl with long white hair and a split little finger, says things like:

“I grow weary of the journeying, and I wish sometimes that it would end. On a street in Rio at Carnival, I saw them on a bridge, golden and tall and insect-eyed and winged, and elated I almost ran to greet them, before I saw that they were only people in costumes. I said to Hola Colt, ‘Why do they try so hard to look like us?’ and Hola Colt replied, ‘Because they hate themselves, all shades of pink and brown, and so small.’ It is what I experience, even me, and I am not grown. It is like a world of children, or of elves.”

To which Enn’s response is: do you want to dance? The second girl, this time with short dark hair and a gap between her two front teeth, says even more obviously revealing things like:

“But there was no reasoning with it, and I came to world. Parent-teacher engulfed me, and I was here, embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium. As I incarnated I felt things deep inside me, fluttering and pumping and squishing. It was my first experience with pushing air through the mouth, vibrating the vocal cords on the way, and I used it to tell parent-teacher that I wished that I would die, which it acknowledged was the inevitable exit strategy from world.”

To which Enn’s response is to try the casual stretch-out-arm-and-put-it-around-her trick. Strangely, this does not deter the girl: instead she starts talking to him about a poem that encodes the information of her people, which the aliens may or may not be here to disseminate, and which may or may not transform humanity. Just as Enn is falling under the girl’s spell, Vic, who has been upstairs with Stella, appears and insists they both leave the party, obviously traumatized by whatever he’s seen. The end.

So: the girls at the party actually are aliens, except that because Enn is expecting girls to be alien, he doesn’t notice. It’s a good thing the story isn’t any longer than it is; in any case, it nearly outstays its welcome. It rather strains credibility that even expecting girls to be aliens, even when drunk, Enn doesn’t twig that there’s something odd about the people he’s talking to, given some of the things they say. What gives the story the little edge it has, I’d say, is that there’s a grain of truth in the girls-as-aliens thing, for boys of the narrator’s age: the gap between being on one side of puberty and being on the other side of it is real, and can be daunting. But then, although girls often do mature sooner than boys, they don’t do so universally, so it’s as much a puberty thing as it is a sex thing. That is: as a young teenage boy, in many ways, older boys come from a different world just as much as do girls of your own age.

A few nuggets of discussion about the story from elsewhere. Megan Messinger at Tor.com, as an example of an unbeloved plot:

My least favorite of these is “a magic thing happened, and then it went away.” A prime example is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Yes, I know it was nominated for a Hugo, and yes, it was well-written, sentence by sentence and even scene by scene; I pick on it partially because the full text is available online. (With all sincerity, that’s pretty cool.) But the plot is, boys go to party, talk to girl-shaped clone-type alien beings, everyone tries to put the moves on each other, boys leave party. The story ends

The streetlights came on, one by one; Vic stumbled on ahead, while I trudged down the street behind him in the dusk, my feet treading out the measure of a poem that, try as I might, I could not properly remember and would never be able to repeat.

So there is a bit about growing up, and the magic thing going away is a handy metaphor for childhood or innocence, but the boys themselves don’t get it. They don’t change. There is a wisp of understanding that dissipates and leaves me unsatisfied at the end. Most of the appeal and cleverness lies in the story saying, “Look! Neil Gaiman has literalized a metaphor about teenage boys trying to relate to the fair sex!” and I don’t buy into it.

(This is fair enough although, as I say, the story’s brevity inclines me to let him get away with it.)

Betty at the Hathor Legacy:

Obviously, Vic makes a good point. Girls really are just people, and treating them as completely incomprehensible aliens is going to be a barrier to communication, or, in the case of this story, allow Enn to mistake completely incomprehensible aliens for girls. But, as someone who is actually a girl, pointing out that girls are people was not an insight that rocked my world.

There are interesting implications in the fact that the girl-shaped aliens want to impregnate Enn not with larvae, but with a memetic virus, a poem that will reshape humanity. Is this meant to contrast to a fear of the sexually liberated woman? This was not truly explored.

“Talking to Girls at Parties” is like watching a magician pull out of a hat, not a rabbit, but a hatpin, while a rabbit hops across the stage.

So the story failed to deliver that sharp twist which I particularly like in short stories, but it is quite decent at completely incomprehensible aliens. If you like your aliens with truly other biology and societies, this story is worth checking out.

(I’m not sure the aliens really are all that strange, but clearly that’s something on which mileage will vary.)

And Abigail Nussbaum:

I was expecting good things from Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”–the story has gotten a lot of positive buzz and I usually do better with Gaiman’s short fiction than with his novels–which might be why the story left me slightly cold. Which is not to say that “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is bad. It isn’t. It’s a Neil Gaiman story–funny, well-written, mildly original. It is also, however, so thoroughly Gaiman-ish that, three paragraphs in, I was struck by the perverse conviction that it had been written by a clever impersonator, or possibly a Gaiman-bot. It was, I believe, the sentence “While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends” that did the trick. That’s a Neil Gaiman sentence, I thought. I’ve read that sentence, or some tonal of stylistic variant on it, several times before. It’s an impression that persists throughout the story: here’s the shy, clever but socially inept narrator; here’s the narrator’s wacky friend; here’s the not-so-subtle setup (‘”They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”‘–you can write the rest of the story yourself from this point, can’t you?); here’s weirdness compounding itself around the oblivious narrator; here’s the lucky escape back into normalcy. None of it is done badly, and it’s not even the lack of originality that is my primary complaint against the story. I just prefer Gaiman when he’s writing outside of his comfort zone, actually working to elicit genuine emotion from his audience rather than trying to strike that half-wistful, half-knowing tone that permeates so much of his fiction and usually puts me in mind of a clever teenager whose writing isn’t nearly as profound as he thinks it is. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone, and so, like a great deal of Gaiman’s fiction, my reaction to it is a combination of admiration and distaste.

(I’ve read less Gaiman than Abigail, but comfort zone: yes, it has that feel to me.)

Reading List: Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music

I get the feeling I should have read this one first. Academic Ken McLeod (so noted to distinguish him from Author Ken MacLeod, unless the latter has taken to Banks-style additional letter obfuscation to keep separate his literary and scholarly careers) provides a basically chronological overview of “space, alien and technofuturistic themes” — science fictionality, basically — in popular music between the start of the space age and the turn of the century. As such, it’s not hugely revelatory, but it ranges widely and lays out a framework within which some of the other articles I’ve already discussed can be understood. For example:

Music is heavily involved in both the creation and literal colonisation of space — music creates an embodied but imaginary space that mediates our internal space (feelings, desires, dreams) with external space (the physical, the experienced) […] Thus music, in general, connects listeners to fantasy, pleasure, and an ever-elusive future.

While I might take issue with that “literal”, this is clearly the sort of understanding of music that underlies approaching it as a site for posthumanism. McLeod talks usefully about what you might call sonic nation-states, affinity groups supported by a musical genre, which is relevant to black music in America; about a political understanding of raves as seeking an “idealised raceless, classless and genderless plurality” on the dance floor; and about sampling as “aural time travel”. He also draws a distinction between the use of technology in hip-hop and its use in prog-rock, with the latter allegedly emphasizing “the desire to master, to dominate and to, in effect, colonise new and uncharted realms of technology and musical experimentation”. Perhaps that one is stretching a point.

McLeod also makes the point that so frustrated me in my reading of “Mozart in Mirrorshades“, that technology can be considered as natural:

For example, the use of technology, alien and futuristic imagery in various forms of African-American music seems, on first appearance, antithetical to the commonly held view of ‘authentic’ black music as natural, funky, or soulful. However, such images can also be interpreted as merely the result of human interaction with their environment.

Some of what Weheliye says also approaches this conclusion, but it’s never stated quite so clearly. At the same time, Lysloff offers a useful corrective to some of McLeod’s assumptions, when the latter writes that “the use of digital sounds and samples creates a synthesised global melange in which race, class, gender and ethnicity melt away”.

In general there’s less to argue here simply because there’s less argument. I did wonder at the assertion that —

As rock became a global phenomenon of the information cyberspace-age, space and alien themes were more prevalent than ever in the 1990s and into the new millennium — particularly in the realms of alternative rock and electronica/techno dance music.

— since McLeod goes from discussing Davie Bowie, George Clinton and Pink Floyd to offering as examples “Shonen Knife, Spacehog, Gwar, Star Kicker and I Mother Earth”, who aren’t really on the same level of influence. I wondered whether this narrative of increasing prevalence (increasing science-fictionality) was really accurate, when it comes to music. I suppose the evidence in favour is that we have Muse now.

Reading List: Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, with an admirable purpose. Taking as a starting point a history of posthumanism by N Katherine Hayles, Alexander Weheliye sets out to address what he identifies as a lack of attention to racial construction and formation, by arguing that contemporary R&B is “a pivotal space for the coarticulation of black subjectivity and information technologies”. Or, as he also puts it, “to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting emphasis to the aural”. There’s nothing like a good hegemony-realignment.

As in virtually all the other articles I’ve been reading, there are some eyebrow-raising moments. For example:

Even when giving examples of paradigmatic posthumans, Hayles falls back on white masculinist constructions by citing the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop […] It seems that one has to be always already “free from the will of others” (or think that one is) in order to mutate into the fusion of heterogeneous agents comprising the posthuman state of being.

The first part is surely a fair criticism; but suggesting that the creation of Robocop is an example of posthuman creation centered on being free from the will of others seems a bit odd. Similarly, at times Weheliye seemed to me to cross over the line from arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B has a unique meaning to arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B is unique. Given that much of his article explores the use of more-or-less mechanized voices, at times you start wondering how such use differs — in terms of constructing a virtual self — from, I don’t know, “Fitter Happier” (or “Karma Police”, or indeed quite a bit of Radiohead), or work by other not noticeably black American artists.

Still, there are probably less such eyebrow-raises than average, and in broad terms Weheliye is quite convincing. The first half of the article establishes that “human has had a very different meaning in black culture and politics than it has enjoyed in mainstream America”, having to do with the disqualification of blackness from the category of human for so long; and further establishes that this understanding of human is not well-integrated into posthuman theory (at least in 2002). The second half of the article has the more challenging task, in that it has to establish that “incorporating other informational media … counteracts the marginalization of race” in posthuman theory, and further that “sound technologies” are in this sense a meaningful informational media.

Whether or not you ultimately buy all this, I think, depends on whether you accept the construction of “posthuman” in the article. Weheliye is good on his contention that “black popular musical genres make their own virtuality central” by, for instance, foregrounding the role of producers, and employing the aforementioned voice-alteration effects. (He also manages to write about popular music without sounding like he’s trying too hard.) “Feenin” is brought in as a term for a sort of industrial mechanisation of desire, the implication being this is a central affect of contemporary R&B, which also seems like a solid point.

Here’s the conclusion, though:

Eshun provides a singular account of nonhumanist black popular music as it explosively interferes with sound technologies, but in doing so he fails to take in the ramifications of these discourses in genres that do not explicitly announce themselves as Afrofuturist, such as R&B. Hayles’s conclusions seem indicative of numerous studies of virtuality and/or cyberspace, where race is heard in a minor key, and computer-mediated communication is the sole melody of the song we know all too well: the virtual. I hope I have shown that any theory of posthumanism would benefit from making race central to its trajectory, not ancillary, as well as venturing beyond purely visual notions of subjectivity.

As in Colin Milburn’s article, I find myself struggling with this understanding of “posthuman” — a word whose meaning is largely taken for granted in both pieces. Specifically: in what way is it meaningful to consider the sort of audio virtuality discussed in Weheliye’s article as evidence of posthumanity?

Consulting Wikipedia, I see that there is more than one definition of posthuman in use, which clears things up somewhat. The first definition given is that “the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human”. That’s the understanding in this essay, with the “general conception” of human being specifically identified as the Enlightenment conception from which black people were excluded: the use of virtuality in contemporary R&B challenges this conception, and therefore is posthuman. My reservation, then, is that what Weheliye is outlining is itself a virtual re-writing: it has no transformative effect on the experience of an actual human in the way that becoming Robocop does, or being uploaded into cyberspace does. Perhaps that’s not necessary for the academic/theoretical understanding of posthumanism under discussion here; but this is part of the reading list for a class on science fiction criticism, and within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal.

Reading List: Machineries of Joy

Subtitled “I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly”, and available for you to read online here. This is rather fun; a self-consciously “outsider” take on “a form of music created at the end of the 20th century by Northern Europeans”, which scrupulously locates said music’s characteristics in the local environment and culture:

The geography and climate in Northern Europe (see Fig. 2) has historically necessitated the development of unusual personal mental stamina and perseverance — qualities evolved no doubt in order to survive the harsh months in the isolated villages and hamlets in that region. The long and dark winters favored a people who could look inward for months at a time and not go crazy. It would also favor intense social cooperation — rules and sets of elaborate prescribed behaviors — all designed to maintain the delicate social balance during those long difficult months. In addition, the inhabitants became accustomed to a monotonous diet and sporadic social contact. Naturally, all of this led to the evolution of a rather extreme but focused frame of mind.

Rather brilliantly, this is kept up right to the very last line of the piece, and even then all that is allowed is that it may be taken as “semiserious”, so that you’re forced to consider which bits of it you do take seriously. The actual argument of the piece is that a subgenre of electronic music labelled “blip hop” is “meant to be perceived as humorous and ironic”, and that its “imitation of machine processes and languages” are meant not to be taken at face value. To this end, three supposed characteristics of blip hop are offered: attraction to non-natural sounds, preponderance of “herky-jerky” rhythms, and an attraction to “structures and effects only possible through the use of the computer”.

Encountering this as an sf reader, it reads like nothing so much as a send-up of an introduction to the sort of territory-defining anthology so beloved in the genre: think of the Kessel/Kelly slipstream, post-cyberpunk and “secret history of sf” books, plus the two volumes of Interfictions and the VanderMeer steampunk and new weird books. So it’s somehow not a huge surprise to discover that it appeared first as the liner notes to “The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol 1“; both album and text being orchestrated by David Byrne, about whom I really know very little other than that he was in Talking Heads. Although blip hop exists in the urban dictionary, most of the google hits for the term feed back to the album in one way or another (complete with the sorts of reviews that those sorts of sf anthologies tend to receive, debating what exactly blip hop is and why it’s not what the work under review says it is), so I’m left none the wiser as to whether it’s something Byrne created out of whole cloth, or simply promoted. And I’m not actually unhappy about that.