Reading List: Mozart in Mirrorshades

After a slight schedule adjustment, I’m onto the first of the articles: “Mozart in Mirrorshades: Ethnomusicology, Technology, and the Politics of Representation”, by Rene TA Lysloff.

The first thing to say is that the Sterling/Shiner story is used as a frame, not the article’s central concern. How it’s used is interesting, though:

To summarize the story, Mozart’s life is radically and irrevocably altered with the arrival of rapacious time-traveling technocrats (ostensibly from America’s near future).

The actual viewpoint followed by the story is that of one of the said rapacious time-traveling technocrats, Rice. Mozart is arguably the protagonist — he’s ultimately revealed to be the driver of the story’s climactic events — but it’s surely significant that he’s in the background of the tale, particularly since what Lysloff is primarily concerned with is not the position of the exploited culture, not the Mozarts, but the position of those who exploit, the ethnomusicologists and musicians, the Rices.

To summarize: Lysloff presents an argument for the need for ethnomusicology to take account of technoculture (a word I have a feeling I’ll be encountering a lot over the next few weeks): “social groups and behaviours characterized by creative strategies of technological adaptation, avoidance, subversion or resistance”. Much hay is made out of the use of recording technology, and in particular “the implicit and often contested notions of authenticity and authority related to such technology”; Lysloff is equally critical of “romanticized” attempts to capture authentic versions of “native” (his scare quotes) music by including the whole soundscape, and of the use of samples of such music, either self-consciously or unselfconsciously, that reduces the originators to “unknowing collaborators in an Orientalistic narrative of cultural exoticism”. He insists:

The pleasure of listening to recordings like these is not in cultural advocacy, despite the rhetoric of the Deep Forest project; nor is it to provide the listener with a kind of “authentic” aesthetic experience, as with many New Age music compositions employing world musics and/or natural sounds. Instead, the pleasure of such techno ambient music lies in the technological artifice itself — in “natural” sounds (and music) being made “un-natural” through sequencing in the context of synthesized rhythms and sounds.

It cannot, apparently, be either/or. The suggested resolution is, it seems, sufficiently advanced sampling technology — it’s impressive how much more normalised some of the language in the article has become since it was published in 1997 — which enables the creation of “audio simulacra”.

What the article doesn’t really address, to my mind (although it does feint in this direction early on), is the presumed distinction between “natural” and “artificial” music. I suppose the concept of an audio simulacrum is in part a suggestion that the artificial has become natural, within our technoculture (see, I’m getting the hang of this), but Lysloff doesn’t ever pay much attention to the obvious counter, that the whole distinction is bogus to start with, that all musical instruments are technologies. Of course, this may be the danger in reading one article that is outside my field of interest: it may be that this point is so obvious that it’s assumed before the debate is begun. But I didn’t feel that Lysloff was arguing for the translation of music between two technocultures so much as its importation from outside into a technoculture.

What has all this to do with science fiction? Certainly sf writers are influenced by music, as in the case of, say, Ian McDonald, who sought out Indian and Brazilian music as research for River of Gods and Brasyl, respectively (although wrote the climactic sequence in the former, if I remember rightly, with Godspeed You! Black Emperor on a loop); or as in the case of Tricia Sullivan, who responded to the question about influences in the survey (in part) by noting that she thinks she thinks more like a musician, and draws inspiration and ideas out of music. And those influences are filtered through a technologically-structured perspective. Lysloff suggests the following “lessons” for ethnomusicologists from the Sterling/Shiner story, if Mozart is seen as a trickster figure (he notes he could equally be seen as tragic):

(1) That “native” is not necessarily a naive and passive recipient of media technology; (2) that media technology may be especially empowering for those people with little or no political or economic power; (3) that people may use media technology in radically new and surprising ways, and infuse it with meanings specific to such use; and (4) the social meanings associated with particular technologies often change as these technologies traverse cultural boundaries.

You could, I’d suggest, strike out every instance of the word “media” in that paragraph, and re-read it as a list of issues sf writers should bear in mind.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

The big critical work on the Masterclass reading list, this. so as you can see from that schedule I’m taking it chapter by chapter; the aim not to review it so much as to annotate it with my thoughts. Per the comments, I’m going to post about the first and last sections, and get through as much of the rest as possible. But first: as the book itself has a preface, so I give you a prefatory post.

(1) What the book does and does not attempt, as set out in its preface: “The main purpose of this book is to inspire better ones, not to have the last word” may be fairly standard boilerplate, but we also get:

  • “My greatest challenge has been to design arguments that will account for both refined artistic examples of sf and the popular commodity forms of “sci-fi”.”
  • “My goal is to understand science fictionality as a way of thinking about the world, made concrete in many different media and styles, rather than as a particular market niche or genre category”

We also get this: “My ‘beauties’ … are perhaps cognitive attractions, intellectual gravitational fields that draw our attention. They are perhaps mental schemes, through which we organize our thinking. They are perhaps tools for thought, so well made that we admire their design at the very moment we are using them.” And I’ll try to take them in that spirit.

(2) The table of contents:

  • Preface
  • Science Fiction and This Moment
  • First Beauty: Fictive Neology
  • Second Beauty: Fictive Novums
  • Third Beauty: Future History
  • Fourth Beauty: Imaginary Science
  • Fifth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Sublime
  • Sixth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Grotesque
  • Seventh Beauty: The Technologiade
  • Concluding Unscientific Postscript: The Singularity and Beyond

I should also note, perhaps, that if you want to play along at home it looks like you can read a decent chunk of the book via Google Books. And there’s what looks like a very early version of some of the thinking that went into the book in this SFS article, from 1996.

(3) Resources. Or, mostly, reviews.

(Roger Luckhurst also has a review in SFS, but that won’t be online for another seven months or so. Curses!)

Reading List: “The Second Inquisition”

The first time I read this story (first published, according to the book I have it in, in 1970 in Orbit 6; I’ve seen 1968 and 1969 in other sources, but since the Locus Index to SF Awards has it nominated for a Nebula in 1971, I’m sticking with 1970), it was as the final story in The Adventures of Alyx, which inevitably shaped how I approached it:

The collection’s final story, “The Second Inquisition” (1970) changes setting, tone and style yet again — in the process making clear exactly how much control Russ has over those elements of her writing — relocating to 1925, and the narrative of a young woman still living with her parents. She describes an unusually confident visitor who is staying with them, who seems fairly clearly to be one of the tall, indefinably mixed-race people of Picnic on Paradise‘s time, and who sure enough turns out to be a time traveller, one of a number of agents trained by Alyx and engaged in a temporal conflict. It’s a story that picks up on one of the most moving exchanges in Picnic in Paradise, when Alyx is trying to convey to one of the civilians what the world she comes from is like, and what time travel feels like to her:

“Think of that, you thirty-three-year-old adolescent! Twenty-six and dead at fifty. Dead! There’s a whole world of people who live like that. We don’t eat the way you do, we don’t have whatever it is the doctors give you, we work like hell, we get sick, we lose arms or legs or eyes and nobody gives us new ones, we die in the plague, one-third of our babies die before they’re a year old and one time out of five the mother dies, too, in giving them birth.”

“But it’s so long ago!” wailed little Iris.

“Oh not it’s not,” said Alyx. “It’s right now. It’s going on right now. I lived in it and I came here. It’s in the next room. I was in that room and now I’m in this one. There are people still in that other room. They are living now. They are suffering now. And they always live and always suffer because everything keeps on happening. (127-8)

This works on several levels: it conveys the shock of transition which Alyx experienced, moving between times; it is metafictionally true, in that just before and just after this exchange we are indeed reading about the people in those other rooms; and of course it’s a reminder that geographical inequality in the real world, today, is as significant as the temporal inequality Alyx is describing. This last is, I think, reinforced by the collection’s overall trajectory from stories about a world that is remote and separate from ours, to stories about a world that is directly and intimately linked to us.

The first four Alyx stories all end with the same line, or a variation on it: “But that’s another story.” “The Second Inquisition” ends with the narrator isolated, having witnessed extraordinary events and a glimpse of a world from which she is excluded, in favour of having to live in reality. “No more stories,” she says, echoing the finality of Stormbringer rather than the ongoing tapestry of The Broken Sword. The sadness of it contrasts with the upbeat expansiveness of all the other endings, but it works better. And there is a sense, too, that the stories say all that Russ wanted them to say. Others — Mary Gentle, Samuel Delany – may have found other routes into the same seams of ore, but I think Russ got the gold she wanted from this mine, and was ready to move on to others.

Reading it alone is a different experience. I think I liked it more this time (not that I disliked it before). My thoughts were much more shaped by the epigraph — John Jay Chapman: “If a man can resist the influences of his townsfollk, if he can cut free from the tyranny of neighbourhood gossip, the world has no terrors for him; there is no second inquisition” — and a sense that the story is in dialogue with the conventions of fiction I don’t really know, suburban American early/mid-twentieth century fiction. I wasn’t, for instance, sure whether The Green Hat was a real book or an invented one; it turns out that it’s real, and you can read a foreword to a 2008 edition of the book here, which gives a bit more context to the narrator’s reaction in “The Second Inquisition”: it’s the very opposite of her constrained, small-town life.

The story still strikes me as extremely well observed, perhaps particularly when it comes to the narrator’s (never-named) mother, and her terribly depressing subservience to the narrator’s father: and lines like, “again she produced a bright smile” (173) seem very potent, very aware that the ostensibly happy family is an act of performance. (Which chimes interestingly with the historical setting, perhaps.) According to this interview, there’s a fair amount of autobiography in the story, and a link to Russ’s other work that I at least didn’t spot:

Delany: … It’s also a poignant sympathy for the young that manifests itself in many stories. But in particular, The Second Inquisition, the story of the young lesbian girl in The Female Man, just wring your heart out. They certainly wring my heart out. Is there any special relationship in terms of your own life?

Russ: Yes, I think so. I was discovering maybe a little later than that, but also in that time, discovering what they call the child within. And I discovered that I have one. I think everybody does. This is not a separate personality, it’s a kind of different personality, and she insists that she is the empress of the universe. Then if she gets in trouble she comes and hides behind me, and I have to take care of it.

Delany: Your descriptions of the young woman in The Second Inquisition… I’m trying to remember the epigraph in that story… something like if you can survive the opinions of the people in the small town in which you live, you can survive anything… is what I took away from it.

Russ: I put a lot of autobiographical detail in that story: the town, the backyard, the little sort of couch or swing they sit on, stuff like that. The dance. All comes from stuff I’ve seen or lived through.

Delany: And stuff that feels incredibly real and has that ring of truth, or as once I described it in critical writing, it’s not the ring of truth, it’s a whole gong of truth.

Then, of course, there’s the mysterious visitor, on which I’ll steal Nic’s thoughts from here:

She is apt to casually challenge the assumptions the family holds about her, about women, and about the world. She holds long conversations with the girl (our narrator), who is, not surprisingly, smitten – especially when it emerges that the woman is a time-traveller (a relative of Alyx, or a protegee), and a time war erupts into the middle of the quiet family home. The violence comes as both a shock and a liberation to the narrator, who has been reading HG Wells avidly: adventure has found her, and one she can participate in. But then, just as abruptly and unexpectedly as she arrived, the traveller leaves – turning down the narrator’s inevitable plea (“‘My dear, I wished to take you with me. But that’s impossible. I’m very sorry'”).

The (apparent) contradictions represented by the visitor are present in the narrator’s first descriptions of her — “seemed to be kind of a freak”, “rough”, “gracefulness of a stork”, “great, gentle height” — and, if not smoothed out by the end of the story, at least contextualised. It’s telling, I think, that the way in which Russ reveals that the visitor is a time traveller is through a comment on changing social standards: “Your body will be in fashion by the time of the next war” (167); she represents that change, the instability of what is presumed to be a stable “normal”.

That Russ makes us work to really understand the story behind the story of “The Second Inquisition” reinforces the claustrophobia of the story, I think. It certainly doesn’t seem to me, as some would apparently have it, evidence of that most nebulous of things, a lack of editing, although it does incorporate paradox — not a surprise in a time-travel tale, except here the paradox is literary. We’re told that the visitor is the great-granddaughter of the founder of TransTemp (which from other stories, we take to be Alyx); but the closing “no more stories” links the tale to the other Alyx adventures, and suggests that the narrator of this one is the narrator of the others, that she creates Alyx. Gary Wolfe’s reading of the story, in his essay in On Joanna Russ, emphasises this side of the story, following discussion of The Green Hat:

None of this has much directly to do with science fiction, of course, but it has a great deal to do with the kinds of fantasies available to young girls in the popular mainstream fiction of the day. In contrast to The Green Hat is a novel that the narrator reports finding on the visitor’s bed: Wells’ The Time Machine, which leads to a very different sort of discussion. [… ] The narrator, as a reader, seems to have reached a crucial point of discovery familiar to many science fiction readers: namely, that the genre as expressed by Wells invites intellectual speculation rather than fantasies of manners. […] When the narrator asks the mysterious visitor if she herself is a Morlock, the visitor agrees wholeheartedly. This odd exchange between narrator and visitor, which begins with the narrator telling us that she is in fact “talking to the black glass of the window” and ends with the comment, “it was a pit she was not really there”, seems to invite us to read it as a construct of the narrator’s own imagination, an imagination that may be evolving into that of a science fiction writer. (16-17)

Reading List

I’m attending this year’s SFF Masterclass (for which there are a few places left, apparently, so you can still apply), and just received the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part because, with only five weeks to go, putting a schedule up here is (I hope) going to keep me focused. Feel free to read along at home! Short Story Club fans will notice that there’s some short fiction in the mix although not, alas, much that’s readily available online.

The schedule, then:

And as much of the rest of Seven Beauties as I can fit in. [Note: I haven’t been able to keep to the original schedule, but I’m still adding links as I go…]

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2010

This just dropped into my inbox:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2010

Class Leaders:
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Roz Kaveney
Justina Robson

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fourth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2010.

Dates: 11th June to 13th June 2010

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Paul Kincaid, Adam Roberts.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2010.

Those who have been around a while may remember that I attended this a couple of years ago and had a good time. I didn’t go this year, sadly, in large part because Anticipation and associated travel ate up my holiday budget, but I think I’ll almost certainly be applying for next year. Anyone else considering it?

The Child Garden

The Child Garden cover 1The Child Garden was one of the texts set for the SFF Masterclass; one of the texts set by Wendy Pearson, to be specific, and when the time came to discuss it, she set us off with an exercise. Pick a scene that feels to you to be central to the novel, she said, and then we’ll discuss your choices. So we did; but inevitably, within the confines of the classroom we only got through a few peoples’ choices. I thought it would be interesting to gather up some of the others, and present a sort of fractal portrait of Geoff Ryman’s novel. (See Jakob Schmidt’s take for a regular review.) So:

Agnieszka Jedrzejczyk:

One of the most important and interesting scenes in The Child Garden is, for me, the meeting between Milena and Rolfa, especially the paragraph starting: “The next she went to the Graveyard [….]” and ending: “The GE was a woman.” (pp. 11-14 in Voyager edition, 1999) There are a few things worth discussing here. First, we have Milena presented for what she really is, insecure and very lonely, “hugging the unwanted boots”. We can say she is like those boots, a misfit in society for various reasons. Secondly, we have the first glimpse of Rolfa as a Polar Bear, a GE, and then, in the end, a woman (but also, or maybe first of all, a musician). I actually think there are three main characters in the novel — Milena, Rolfa and Music — and as they are shown in this scene, the three are inseparable. In the end, it is hard to decide who is whose lover; I am pretty sure there is a threesome of some kind. Music is what drives Rolfa through life; her love for music is what makes her to go through the Reading process. Why on earth would she do that? She and Milena could live together somehow, probably as outcasts, but still together; however, the desire to sing, to be able to perform (or at least compose) music is stronger. Milena, on the other hand, becomes an involuntary musician when she is left without Rolfa. Her love for Rolfa is transferred to her efforts to make the performance of the Opera of the Divine Comedy possible. There is a sense that this music cannot be lost, that it is too beautiful to be forgotten, too precious to be left unperformed. Milena believes that this music belongs to the people. When Rolfa disappears as a character, her incarnation as Music appears, like a translation into an acceptable form understood by society. Which means I have changed my mind: there are two characters, Milena and Rolfa. Rolfa is Music.

Tony Keen:

When asked to think of a key scene in The Child Garden, the first that leapt into my mind was the beginning of chapter 5 (p. 52 in the 2005 SF Masterworks edition). Milena is waking up the morning after a disastrous visit to Rolfa’s family. A strange woman enters her room in the Shell building on the South Bank (one of the delights of the novel is the way in which it is rooted in a very real and realized geography of London). Only when she speaks does Milena realize that the visitor is Rolfa.

Why I think this is a key scene is less apparent to me. I would hazard that it is because this is a transformative scene. Up to this point, the reader has seen Rolfa as what she is introduced as, a ‘polar bear’. The reader understands that she is female, but it is harder to accept her as a woman. Shaving her fur off changes Rolfa’s whole identity, certainly in Milena’s eyes, and arguably in Rolfa’s head as well. (There’s a touching moment a few pages later when a topless Rolfa covers her breasts, something that she never bothered to do when coated in fur.) At this point the notion that identity is an important theme in the novel comes to the fore. The identities of the main characters are always in flux. This is particularly the case for Milena, and who she sees herself as, and what she wants to be (which never coincide with what the Consensus thinks she is, or what they want her to be). Rolfa’s situation is similar. This scene marks the point at which she attempts to break away from her old identity and become somebody new. It also marks the beginning of a process by which Milena will help Rolfa change, but not in the way she meant; the result of this process is that Rolfa will become someone different from the person Milena wants, or that Rolfa wanted to be, and that person, who Milena is trying to preserve, is lost to her forever.

Ben Little:

I picked the same scene as Tony Keen for similar reasons. Rolfa appearing at Milena’s door shaved bare is by far the most mundane transformation in a book filled with transformative moments, and the most poignant. There are some personal associations with why I found this moment so touching: a friend at school shaved her head when she came out. Unlike Rolfa, her skin was ‘not stripped, cut, outraged,’ but the metaphorical connotations were similar. She had a rough time, dropped out of school and ran away from home. The parallel stops there. Unlike my friend, who came to terms with her sexuality, Rolfa’s symbolic shaving ultimately ends in the destruction of her personality. In contrast to Milena’s many transformations, which culminate in the permanent liberation of humanity from its physical shackles, Rolfa’s shaven nudity is a transitional thing. From being an outsider in one society she tries to hide in another. This sanctuary turns out to be anything but, and by presenting her the opportunity to live out her wildest dreams it betrays her and restores her to her socially pre-ordained role. Her transformation is, like the many Milena undergoes, transgressive, but while Milena’s transgressions change society, Rolfa’s are recuperated by it. Her grand achievements become dwarfed by Milena’s own and seem to have most significance (to the Consensus at least) as a part of Milena’s development. Thus the moment is at once tragic and liberating, romantic and destructive, an act of rebellion and of conformity. It encapsulates so many of the paradoxes that make Rolfa a convincing character. While Milena may make the final change in the world, Rolfa is the artist and in this book it is art and originality that make positive transformations possible.

The Child Garden cover 2Sarah Herbe:

For me, one of the most significant scenes comes at the end of Book One, when, after Rolfa has left, Milena discovers that Rolfa has set Dante’s Divina Commedia to music. The rest of the novel is very much determined by this discovery, foreshadowed by Milena’s vision of staging The Divine Comedy as “a great abstract opera” (Gollancz Masterwork edition, p. 95). Her ambition to stage the opera, and constantly dealing with Rolfa’s music, becomes “a way to talk to herself” (p. 107). The music “fill[s] her life” (ibid.), gives her something to do and provides her with the feeling that she “ha[s] done something with her life” (p.207). Also, Milena’s initial misunderstanding of the inscription “FOR AN AUDIENCE OF VIRUSES” gives rise to a conflict that is only resolved towards the end of The Child Garden.

Maureen Kincaid Speller:

I never actually fastened on one big scene as being emblematic of the book, but my attention was specifically caught by a couple of scenes which I seem to have yoked together.

The main section I’m thinking about is in Chapter 10 (pp.178-80 if you have the UK Unwin hardback) where Milena recalls her first meeting with Rose Ella. It’s not so much the meeting itself that interests me as Milena’s recollections of the class. The line I focused most on is:

‘You always use that word “remember”,’ said Milena. ‘You say, “remember, team”. You never tell us to think.

What strikes me here is the way in which the School Nurse seems to suggest that the Lumps are having to make an effort to recall, whereas if I understand the function of the viruses correctly, they cannot help but recall because the viruses do it for them. Thus, there is no actual effort involved in recalling what they’ve been given by the viruses. What they seem unable to do is to separate out chunks of what the virus has given them and respond to it critically. Milena may not carry all that knowledge, or have access to it in the way they do, but she can recall things that are significant and construct arguments around them, as in remembering that Plato doesn’t use the word “Pharmakolicon” for writing.

As I think we noticed in our discussion during the class, writing becomes like a virus, “artificial knowledge that people could lay claim to without really having experienced or learned anything.”

I link this to Milena’s first meeting with Rolfa, when the latter comments that while Milena can, like everyone else, read music, she hasn’t learned how to read music. “If you haven’t learned it, it isn’t yours.”

I’d like to tie that in, somehow, to everyone being Read into the Consensus, but I also had this lingering thought in the back of my mind about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the people who become books in order to preserve them. I suppose, in part, I’m thinking about the dreary performances of Love’s Labours Lost “preserved” in The Child Garden. Is this what the “books” of Fahrenheit 451 will become?

And all this interests me, I suppose, because of the masterclass itself, as a gathering of people who read and write about their reading, and attempt to draw conclusions from what they read. What are we doing?

Niall Harrison:

I have to pick the scene which brought The Child Garden fully into focus for me. It’s a conversation between Milena and Bob the Angel that takes place relatively late in the book (pp 290-3 in my 1994 Orb edition), and it struck me quite forcefully because it’s the first time we get a clear indication of what one of the key players in the novel — Consensus — actually wants; indeed arguably the first time we can be certain that Consensus is as active in shaping the events of the novel as any of the traditionally human characters. What it wants is not something obscure or willfully strange; it is a simple human desire, and Bob states it simply: “The Consensus is tired of being alone. It wants to reach out” (290). But it’s a want that draws together many of the novel’s key themes, and the conversation in this scene starts to suggest how. Reaching out is, of course, exactly what Milena is trying to do with Rolfa’s music; both gestures reflect the novel’s concern with the tension between individuals and their community (Milena’s search for a true sense of self is only meaningfully defined once we know how the alternative is defined); Milena is only suitable because of her biological individuality, which contrasts with the more common use (in the novel) of biology as a vehicle for cultural memory; and even the ways in which Milena and Consensus are planning reach out are parallel, being both performative, and both concerned with transcending rehearsal (“They need to rehearse me,” Milena thinks) to achieve something new. And reading the scene again, it seems to gesture towards the novel’s ending (and the apotheosis of its sfnal conceits); there are images of reaching out, and a reminder of the way in which Milena grew up and left the first Garden. In a novel that sometimes gets lost in its own rapturousness, this scene is a relatively understated lynchpin.

The Child Garden cover 3Karen Burnham:

Mostly, I agree that the scene where Milena finds out from the angel Bob what is actually going on is the key scene of the novel. However, at the time when Wendy posed the question, one of the scenes I jotted down was when Milena was rejected by the Restorers.

Remember she had been virus-less through her childhood, but one of her teachers had taken her under her wing. She’d taken Milena home, and Milena had come to love her guild/family. After a disaster, Milena was sleeping close to the instructor and started to act on her nascent lesbian impulses, which caused the teacher to reject her harshly. It was then that Milena decided to try to accept the viruses, so that she would be able to be part of society, instead of a perpetual outcast. It comes late in the series of flashbacks, it was something that Milena had tried to hold back from the reading, and it answers a few questions. Given that she couldn’t accept the viruses as a child, why was she able to later? Why accept them at all? And what motivates her? Fear of rejection (which is pretty darn universal, I’d imagine).

Duncan Lawie:

The scene that immediately came to my mind when we were asked is the moment when Milena discovers that Rolfa has written other works “for an audience of viruses” (p350-1 in the SF Masterworks edition)

This is very late in the book. Milena has accepted that her love for Rolfa is never going to be realised, that the Rolfa she loved doesn’t exist any more. She realises that the Opera is as much her own work as Rolfa’s, but she still considers it a monument to that love, to the fabulous woman she destroyed (through getting her Read) by trying to save her. Through all the trials of getting the Opera staged, Milena has believed herself true to Rolfa’s desire to sing, to perform, to create and present – but now there is the sudden realisation that the Divine Comedy was intended, literally, for an audience of viruses. Milena has built upon the wrong foundation, pushed the creation into the external, physical world when it was wholly meant to be inside the heads of the readers. How deeply Milena misunderstood Rolfa’s intent! And yet the seed of that revelation has been with Milena almost as long as her work – the Holy Bible “for an audience of viruses” is inside Piglet, the toy which Rolfa left behind, and from which it is birthed.

Like so many points in the book, this moment forces a reassessment of the relationship between Rolfa and Milena. Did Rolfa write this later work in Milena’s flat, trapped inside and dependent on Milena to keep her family away? Was this truly important to Rolfa, or just idle doodling? Are there other works for an audience of viruses? Can reading the books with Rolfa’s accompaniments shine a new light on the works when the received wisdom of the viruses only allows one interpretation?

Being so late in the book, these are questions that aren’t answered in the text — lending them some extra piquancy, for me at least.

SFF Masterclass, Summary


The short version: I’m still processing.

The longer version: That was a lot of fun. The aim of the masterclass, says the original blurb on the Foundation website, is “to provide those who have a serious interest in sf criticism with the opportunity to exchange ideas with leading figures in the field, and also to use the SFF Collection”. Well, the latter was out of the frame this year — the Liverpool University library is being refurbished, so the class was held in London — but I’m not sure I or anyone else missed it terribly, and I’d say the first objective was resoundingly met. (From the sound of Jonathan’s summary, the post-masterclass Monday brunch at the Clutes’ place was also something to behold in this regard, but alas I couldn’t make that.) Since I don’t think I’ve explained the format of the masterclass before now, here’s the schedule:

Friday 20 June
10.00–13.00: Geoff Ryman
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Wendy Pearson

Saturday 21 June
10.00–13.00: Gary K. Wolfe
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Geoff Ryman

Sunday 22 June
10.00–13.00: Wendy Pearson
13.00–14.00 Lunch
14.00–17.00 Gary K. Wolfe

I don’t want to go into too much detail at this point about what each tutor covered, since I have ambitions of breaking that out into separate posts. But, briefly, I do want to say that I thought the three went together very well. Geoff Ryman’s sessions were about reading as a writer, first with a detailed look at Stand on Zanzibar, and then with sentence-by-sentence readings of the first chapter of Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Maker and Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”. Wendy Pearson talked about postmodernism and queer theory, and then encouraged us to apply it to such stories as “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation” by Raphael Carter and The Child Garden. (Hopeful Monsters would have come in here, but we never made it to that one.) And Gary Wolfe set out to persuade us that, one, trying to defend sf against attacks like this is basically futile, and may make things worse (defend the work, not the genre); and two, that most of sf’s subgenres are useless as labels, or at least should be handled with extreme caution. He also talked a bit about the practice of reviewing. And enabled some bad puns. I’d be hard-pressed to say which of these three I found the most interesting or useful; I was certainly most resistant to Pearson’s sessions, for reasons I probably need to think about a bit more, but all three contained nuggets of practical information that I can actually use.

It’s worth mentioning the venue: Kitap Evi on Tottenham High Road. As I mentioned, the Liverpool library is being refurbished, so the masterclass wouldn’t have been there whatever happened; but the original plan was for it to be held in conjunction with the SFRA conference in Dublin. Unfortunately, the Dublin meeting had to be cancelled, and a new venue was found pretty much at the last minute. Kitap Evi is a cafe downstairs and a Turkish bookshop/internet cafe upstairs, and it worked brilliantly; it was just the right size, and gave the whole meeting a nice, intimate feel. (It could perhaps have done with better ventilation upstairs in the afternoon, but that’s a minor cavil.) And the other thing to do, of course, is to thank the other masterclass attendees, all the people I mentioned in my earlier post and the rest — everyone participated in the discussions at some point, which as Jonathan said really brought home the usefulness of an extended critical community.

Other photos can be found here.

SFF Masterclass, Day One

So, today was the first day of the long-anticipated Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism, 2008 edition, at which several denizens of these parts were present. (And a bunch of other people too.) The format was straightforward: a morning session led by Geoff Ryman, structured as a writer’s close reading of Stand on Zanzibar, and an afternoon session led by Wendy Pearson, in which we discussed postmodernism, queer theory, and “The Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”. It would be fair to say I’m still digesting many of the issues the day raised, but it was all thoroughly stimulating. As a teaser, here are Geoff Ryman’s four tests for judging whether formal innovation in fiction is successful:

  1. It should not be confusing. The purpose of formal innovation is to provide greater insight into or access to either emotion or information; it should work without needing an instruction manual (or critics) to explain it.
  2. It should be fun. To take form seriously is to overvalue it; formal innovation is (or should be) driven by wit, freedom, and playfulness.
  3. It should be useful for something that couldn’t be achieved another way.
  4. It should do more than one thing at a time (as should most elements of prose fiction)

Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.

Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters coverThe strangest things in Hiromi Goto’s first collection happen at night. The first two stories in Hopeful Monsters are little more than experiments in capturing the distinctive textures of night — the seeming loudness of a stray thought, in the claustrophobic intensity of “Night” (1993), and contrariwise the freeing anonymity of darkness in “Osmosis” (1998) — but they set a precedent for what is to come. For example, it’s in the middle of the night that “Tales from the Breast” (1995), which is for most of its length a relatively uninspiring portrait of the travails of breastfeeding, making in a somewhat laboured fashion the point that just because something is biologically natural doesn’t make it enjoyable, suddenly blooms into an extraordinary image. The baby is demanding to be nursed, and the skin of your breasts (the story is told in the second person, in parts) is so tight that

Like a pressured zipper, it tears, spreading across the surface of your chest, directed by your fingers, tears in a complete circle around the entire breast.

There is no blood.

You lean slightly forward and the breast falls gently into your cupped hands. The flesh is a deep red and you wonder at its beauty, how flesh becomes food without you asking or even wanting it. You set the breast on your lap and slice your other breast. Two pulsing orbs still spurting breast milk. (63-4)

This is typical of Goto’s prose — a cleverly used perspective, short descriptive sentences or sentence fragments, an emphasis on physicality — but what’s really interesting and impressive about it, I think, is the way it mingles horror and release. The separation of self from self should (surely?) be a horrific image, and certainly “two pulsing orbs” is the sort of language you’d expect to see in a horror story; yet the horror is a backnote. Because of the gentle, bloodless ease with which it happens (and the weight of uncomfortableness that has been built up through the rest of the story) the dominant emotion evoked is freedom. What happens next — the wife places her detached breasts on her husband, they “seep into his skin, soft whisper of cells joining cells” (64), and he wakes up in shock — is more traditionally horrific, albeit refracted through the wife’s more sanguine perspective. And, in fact, the story ends with the wife falling asleep, such that if you really want to you can read the entire episode as a dream. But neither of these things, for me, diminishes the power of that initial image, and I think in a way it’s emblematic of one of Goto’s core concerns: to challenge us to reclaim things from which we would normally recoil.

She is, for sure, not always successful. “Stinky Girl” (1996), about a fat, coloured (her terms) 33-year-old woman, wants to be about exactly this subject, but falls flat. Goto goes to some lengths to establish that the titular smell that adheres to the narrator, driving away passers-by, is “not a causal phenomenon”, that it has nothing to do with Stinky’s physique or hygiene. Stinky is not abnormal “medically speaking”, but “not normal in the commonly held sense of the word” (39). And we are told with equal carefulness that none of Stinky’s attributes have any reflection on her character; indeed she is “blessed with a certain higher intelligence, a certain sensitivity which enables me to more than endure the trials of this existence” (45). (The ego probably helps, too.) The coup-de-grace up to which the story leads is the idea that smell is as subjective as, say, visual standards of beauty: “If one were taught as a very small child that roses were disgusting […] would one not despite the very thought of their scent? It may be that I smell beautiful beyond the capacity of human recognition” (46). The truth of this is apparently born out by an encounter with a child who, unlike everyone else, does not react to Stinky’s stench. But for me, at the very least the ask is too big, and at worst the story is being deliberately disingenuous for the sake of a striking idea. I don’t doubt that there is a socially constructed element of smell, but there are also sound reasons why we experience (or are taught to experience) the smell of rotting meat and faeces as bad, in exactly the way that there aren’t sound reasons for prejudices based on weight or skin colour.

Arguably the problem with “Stinky Girl” is that it takes place in a near-vacuum; at least, Stinky doesn’t have much in the way of personal attachments, and the stories that take place within deftly sketched family units are mostly more effective. (I was reminded, occasionally, of the similar care with human relationships in Maureen McHugh’s fiction.) There are still some transferrals that are too obvious, as when the mother in “Drift” (1999), unable to come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, ends up feeling like the child in the relationship. But in a story like “Tilting” (1993), in which a young girl, her brother and her father meet their mother and grandparents on their return from a trip to Japan, the faultlines are delineated with a minimum of judgement; the memories of the recent trip provoke memories of earlier trips with not a little elegance. Similarly, “Home Stay” (1999), which describes the odd relationship that develops between an Asian man and the parents of his estranged wife, manages to portray a mutual incomprehension born of imagined difference (which is no less “real” than “real difference”, of course) without condescending to anyone involved. In each of these stories, it’s worth noting, the family is multi-racial; an Asian (usually Japanese) man has married a Canadian woman, or vice versa. It seems only natural. Families, in Hopeful Monsters, are always in flux, always sprawling things without true edges or borders, breeding grounds of hybridity in just about every way; which is why they are natural focal points for the sort of tension between prejudice and acceptance that Goto seems to be interested in.

The fantastic is deployed sparingly and, although it may be dramatic, as often as not (as in “Tales from the Breast”) it’s the questionable, equipoisal kind, where it’s up to you to decide how much really happened. The closest Goto comes to a straightforward horror story is probably “From Across a River” (2001), in which a mother is confronted with an unnerving faceless manifestation of the daughter she lost some years earlier. In “Camp Americana” (2005), we encounter one of Goto’s less charitable characterisations, in the form of a Japanese grandfather, on a camping trip with his wife, his son, his son’s Canadian-born wife, and his two grandchildren. He is not shy about his traditional — which in this story is to say sexist — views, which can make him hard to endure: “His son’s wife wasn’t raised properly, that was obvious […] the females of this country are uncivilized” (116). The conflict that develops is left unresolved when, on a solo night-time trip to the bathroom, the grandfather falls and experiences a visionary hallucination in which his grandchildren appear with the heads of cats, and his wife’s disembodied head and neck wrap around him like a snake. Once more, the horrific potential of the images themselves is secondary; what’s important is the instability in how they are explained, with a succession of possibilities being quickly raised, each trumping the last — they are creatures that have taken his family’s forms, they are a dream, they are his family having gone through a secret transformation, they are a stroke-vision. I think it’s the impossibility of accommodation that Goto is drawing on here, or perhaps the trauma that results from a rigid mind refusing to bend.

And then there’s the title story, which is the closest the collection comes to science fiction, which is presumably why it’s on the reading list for this year’s Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism (which is, in turn, why I acquired the book in the first place). It’s here, in a quasi-scientific epigraph, that we get a definition of “hopeful monsters” — which turn out to be that small percentage of “macromutations” that can “with chance and luck, equip an organism with radically beneficial adaptive traits with which to survive and prosper” (135). Immediately after this, we encounter a pregnant woman, and so wonder: will her child be such a creature?

The first part of the story is a description of Hisa’s pregnancy, of the support her “sweet” husband Bobby attempts to give her, and of her conversations with her superstitious (but possibly also actually psychic) mother; the second part describes the birth itself; and the third part describes Hisa’s reactions to her child’s unusual physiology — she is born with what the doctors describe as a “caudal appendage”, and what Hisa sees as a tail — and the decision she makes about it. The tone throughout is unsentimental, from the physical and psychological discomforts of pregnancy (“Ridley Scott had a lot to answer for, she thought”, 138) to the more dramatic discomforts of birth (“Hisa pushed and pushed. She held her breath, pushing down with her abdominal muscles, a squirt of residual fecal mater forced along as well, she pushed, pain no longer a sensation but a entity …” 144), and the less cute details of a newborn baby (the stain of bruising, the strangeness of the fontanelle, the unpleasantness of poo). But at times the point seems laboured, as though Goto intends Hisa’s experiences to be as alien to us as detaching breasts; such an aim would fit with the collection’s overarching investigation of what is really alien to us and what is simply unexamined normality, except that I’m not convinced pregnancy and birth fall into either category.

More interesting is Hisa’s arc, from pre-birth nerves to an understandable franticness after the birth (when she senses that something is “wrong” with her child, but nobody will tell her what), to her attempts to come to terms with the abnormality. At times, the story becomes the inverse of “Stinky Girl”: “If she looked at it long enough, would she lose this skin-crawling repulsion?” (153). But here Goto has an extra twist to add, since it turns out that Hisa was also born with a tale, subsequently removed, and thus has to come to terms with the idea that what she perceived as strangeness is also a part of her. The latter is clearly more challenging; there is a dramatic difference between Hisa’s initial reaction to the sight of her child — “Hisa stared. What moisture left in her mouth withered: a bitter dust on her tongue. Her heart boomed inside her ears” (149) — and Hisa’s reaction to the news about her own heritage: “The room ballooned, a sudden vacuum. […] The fluorescent light buzzed with frenetic electrons. […] The baby’s breathing split into air, heart, blood, hemoglobin. Hisa gasped. The world cracked. Then the shards slid back to create an entire picture once more” (155). Ultimately, Hisa decides to steal away her child, so that the doctors will not remove the tail; an effective grace note is that just before she goes, worried that she doesn’t have enough practice at being “abnormal” she calls a lesbian couple from her prenatal classes to ask for advice, and is given the short shrift she deserves.

What’s somewhat perplexing is how this story is meant to be understood as in any sense speculative. Caudal appendages are a known phenomenon; vestigial functionality is rare but not completely unknown; so the only point at which the story might cross over into unexplored territory is the suggestion that Hisa’s child’s tale is an inherited feature, not a developmental abnormality. (So far as I know, caudal appendages are always the result of developmental abnormality.) Yet Goto writes in an afterword that the story was inspired by Wendy Pearson’s essay “Sex/uality and the Hermaphrodite in Science Fiction, or, The Revenge of Herculin Barbin”, from Edging into the Future (2002). The parallel, presumably, is intended to be with the way medicalisation of human biology ends up excluding all but the two “true” biological sexes (that is, excludes intersex individuals); thus Hisa’s child is, we are meant to believe, similarly excluded by a medical establishment that doesn’t recognize a true mutation when it’s right in front of them. But as with “Stinky Girl”, the parallel seems to me inexact in ways that undermine the story. A caudal appendage simply is not functional in the way that genitalia are — and if the sfnal point of the story is that this one is, then it doesn’t do the work necessary to make this plain. A reflexive grasp in a newborn is not enough to convince me that a tail would be a “radically beneficial adaptive trait” for a modern human (or that it could be a marker for other, more profound mutations), which leaves the story looking rather hollow. It does occur to me, though, that there’s another possibility: perhaps we are meant to be thinking this way, to reinforce the ambiguity of Hisa’s final decision. Even as she leaves, it’s not clear to what extent Hisa is acting for her child, and to what extent she’s acting for herself. It may be that Hisa is, in a wishful sense, the true hopeful monster, walking away into the night.