Tag Archives: science fiction

Part of a Thing I Love: “Kaleidoscope”

image courtesy of Ashley Dace

image courtesy of Ashley Dace

Let’s have some nice things. Let’s have some nice “classic” SF, in fact.

Ray Bradbury is one of those writers who first made me want to write. The Illustrated Man blew my mind at a very young age. “The Smile”. “The Veldt” (which utterly terrified me; Bradbury was as good a writer of horror as he was science fiction). “A Sound of Thunder”. And then The Martian Chronicles, which changed the way I thought about SF and what it could do. “There Will Come Soft Rains” remains one of the most wrenchingly, unbearably sad and yet beautiful things I’ve ever read, and probably one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s a perfect story. I literally can’t think of anything wrong with it. And I still can’t read it without crying.

Bradbury’s work is gentle, even when it’s also cruel. It’s frequently elegiac, even when it’s not overtly sad. It’s beautiful, even when he’s writing about ugly things. He has his weaknessness, and like many authors writing when he was, his stuff deals uncomfortably with race and gender, but I think there’s a humility to how he approaches things that’s missing from a lot of his contemporaries. He was profoundly skeptical of technology, of people, of the future, and yet he wrote about humanity with tremendous affection. He wanted good things for the world. He believed that we could do well.

His short story “Kaleidoscope” is among my favorites of his stuff. It’s one of those that’s quietly, gently cruel, but also deeply reflective. It’s meditation on death and what we make of it. It ended up unconsciously – at the time I was writing it – inspiring a story of mine (“What Glistens Back”) that will appear in Lightspeed at some point soon, a story I’ve been trying to write for the better part of a year and finally found a way to tell.

What Bradbury is saying, what he says in most of his stuff, is that horror and pain and beauty and love aren’t all that different in the end, that they’re ultimately not comprehensible without each other, and that – in extremis – all we have is each other.

The many good-bys. The short farewells. And now the great loose brain was disintegrating. The components of the brain which had worked so beautifully and efficiently in the skull case of the rocket ship firing through space were dying one by one; the meaning of their life together was falling apart. And as a body dies when the brain ceases functioning, so the spirit of the ship and their long time together and what they meant to one another was dying. Applegate was now no more than a finger blown from the parent body, no longer to be despised and worked against. The brain was exploded, and the senseless, useless fragments of it were far scattered. The voices faded and now all of space was silent. Hollis was alone, falling.

They were all alone. Their voices had died like echoes of the words of God spoken and vibrating in the starred deep. There went the captain to the Moon; there Stone with the meteor swarm; there Stimson; there Applegate toward Pluto; there Smith and Turner and Underwood and all the rest, the shards of the kaleidoscope that had formed a thinking pattern for so long, hurled apart.

And I? thought Hollis. What can I do? Is there anything I can do now to make up for a terrible and empty life? If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t. Tomorrow night I’ll hit Earth’s atmosphere.

I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.

He fell swiftly, like a bullet, like a pebble, like an iron weight, objective, objective all of the time now, not sad or happy or anything, but only wishing he could do a good thing now that everything was gone, a good thing for just himself to know about.

When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor.

“I wonder,” he said, “if anyone’ll see me?”

~

The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. “Look, Mom, look! A falling star!”

The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois. “Make a wish,” said his mother. “Make a wish.”

The politics have always been there. You just refuse to see them.

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Okay.

I was honestly going to stay out of the whole Hugo Thing, in part because almost everyone else I know in the community has articulated exactly my feelings about it better than I could because my articulation of my feelings is BLAARGHARARRAGGHHHH, and partly because I’m just fucking tired of this whole business, which is also why BLAARGHARARGHAAARGHHAAAH. But then there was this putrid thing in USA Today (donotlinkified courtesy of Natalie Luhrs) and it just kind of broke the entire camel for me.

I’m going to say this very, very clearly, in bold, because I feel like it can’t be emphasized enough:

Science fiction and fantasy is political and has always been political.

In fact, you know what?

Writing is political and has always been political.

In fact, wait.

Stories of all kinds everywhere at every point in human history are political and have always been political.

Storytelling is a political act. It’s making sense of the world and ourselves, and like every other kind of sense-making, it’s as political as it is personal and vice-versa. There is no distinction to be made between the political and the personal. Writing of any kind is political. It’s claimsmaking regarding reality and how to interpret it. Because whenever we’re faced with these things, we’re faced with fundamental truths regarding how creation makes and unmakes the world, regarding whose voices are amplified and whose are lost, between who gets to speak and who is literally silenced. Yes, the Hugos are just one award, and you can argue all you like about how much they actually mean in the long run. But this isn’t even about the Hugos. This is about everything, about every fucking time we have this conversation.

I don’t know where this whole “politics doesn’t belong in [insert genre and mode of creative output here]” came from but I have some ideas and regardless I want it to die in flames.

If you can read something “on its own merits” and judge it accordingly, entirely separate from its misogynist white supremacist author, bully for you, but please take a look at who you are and why you can say that. Because you’re in a position where, I would imagine, you haven’t been swimming in cultural toxic waste for your entire life, where you’re subject to millions of constant microaggressions that batter at your heart like tiny hammers until you’re sore and bleeding and have to build up scar tissue like armor, where the world of imagination that has provided a refuge for you in hard times and even moments of great liberation all too often feels like hostile territory full of enemies who at best don’t even see you as a human being, and who otherwise want to do you actual literal harm.

If you can judge something on its merits, if you can say that you want politics kept out of something, then you do not see and are refusing to imagine the experiences of people who are having the politics of this thing – the endless, violent, hateful politics – stomped into their faces forever.

So enjoy your fucking Hugo ballot, I guess.

Book news (spoiler alert: there will be one)

I’ve been wanting to share this news officially for a few days, and now I can: my queer science fiction romance novel Labyrinthian, which some of you may recall me talking about before, is going to be released (probably) in December actually now it looks like later in January by Samhain Publishing.

Yay.

A little bit about it, for those just joining us: A few years ago I got it into my head that it might be fun to write about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, only in the distant future in space. It seemed like a cool idea, but I wasn’t equipped to do anything with it at the time, so it went on the back-burner. Years later, I found myself with some downtime between writing the sequel to Crowflight and rewriting the sequel to Line and Orbit, and I wanted to do something lighter and more fun than I had up to that point.

So I reached back into my dusty idea filing cabinets and pulled that one out. Less than two months later, it was a complete book draft.

(One of the morals of this story, by the way, is try to never completely abandon an idea. If you can’t make it work at one point in time, that doesn’t mean it won’t work at some other point. A good idea now will probably still be a good idea five years from now. )

So what’s Labyrinthian? Per above, it’s an SFnal retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the Minotaur is a genetically engineered supersoldier on the run from his creators and Theseus is the bounty hunter hired to capture him. Predictably, everything goes sideways, and running and shooting and makeouts ensue. Along the way they pick up Theseus’s ex-girlfriend Phae, who doesn’t think all that much of Theseus but has a weakness for hard luck stories and is good with a gun.

It’s set in the same universe as Line and Orbit, concurrent to the few weeks between that book and its sequel. The characters are not the same, and it takes place on the galactic frontier, so the actual setting is also quite different in some ways. The content itself is also different: it’s much more of a straight-up (haha) romance-adventure than Line and Orbit was, and it’s much less epic. Like I said, I wanted to have fun and do some lighter fare, so for the most part that’s what it is. That said, there are some deeper themes – guilt, self-acceptance, and the power of family being a few.

I think it’s a fun book. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy.

Watch for more news as more news occurs.

This is what we believe

I’m putting together a teaching portfolio – whee, fun – and I’m going through whatever I can stick in there to make me look attractive. I’m including this essay I wrote for The Sociological Cinema (amazing resource) and I had forgotten most of it – and the last couple of paragraphs are still poignant for me. As I’m thinking more and more about why I write and what I really want to get out of it and why I think it’s important, I’m seeing more and more ways in which those things connect to the rest of what I do.

Writing is teaching and writing is learning. It’s a toolkit and the tools are incredibly versatile. We ignore this to our detriment.

Fiction in general – and speculative fiction in particular – is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth – on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like. And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward those alternatives.

Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.

Screw MFAs; we need to tell richer stories.

by Kendra Phillips

badass image by Kendra Phillips

Rahul Kanakia has written an awesome post over on his blog about the tyranny of privilege inherent in the creative writing industry, especially the bits of it centered in academia. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

Back? Great. There isn’t much that I can materially add to this besides a huge PREACH but I like to talk about things that bother me, so allow me to go into some detail regarding why this bothers me so much. It’s not just that it’s obnoxious, all this whining about how hard being a creative type is, and it’s not just that I’ll probably never get a creative writing job in academia since all my published work is lowly genre fiction ( a. why would I even want to be around creative writing people anyway given that I’ve actually met some, and b. I’m also already in academia and I’m starting to keep an eye open for exit strategies). It’s not just that it’s monstrously unfair, this system that privileges a certain way of being a Writer that certain demographics find waaaaaaaay easier to adopt than others.

It’s that it results in a literary culture that is massively impoverished.

The stories we tell describe us as a people, as a collection of people, as a collection of cultures and beliefs and identities. But as a society we’re persistently bound to hierarchy, to systems of power and privilege that benefit some at the enormous expense of others. That means that our stories are bound to the same – the stories of some are privileged and the stories of others are lost in the shuffle. Stories by poorer people, by less formally educated people, by women and People of Color and queer people of all kinds, by people with disabilities and people who are neuroatypical and anyone who exists on the margins. Those stories, if they’re told at all, reach few. Those creative voices aren’t heard. Still.

And our genres are hierarchically valued. There’s literary fiction – inherently worthwhile, true, beautiful, valuable, possessing tremendous cultural capital. It’s a great thing to be seen to be a reader of literary fiction; it’s an even better thing to be a writer of literary fiction and get to whine about how hard it is. Genre fiction is low, unrefined, and the territory of the proles.

Those of us in SF&F know that it’s had its share of major problems with inclusivity. Even now we’re struggling to deal with the under-representation of anyone who isn’t white/straight/cisgendered/male, and the genre’s environment is still often hostile to people at the intersections of marginalized identities. But romance, which often seems to have it even worse than SF&F in terms of general disparagement, is overwhelmingly written and consumed by women and extremely popular, two things that don’t work in its favor.

And horror? How can horror writers ever produce great fiction?

So genre is frequently locked out of the academy. But again, this isn’t even just about genre, but about who can afford the luxury of being heard, of doing what it takes to be heard. If MFAs are a requirement in the academy’s gateways into the creative writing industry, that has some very problematic implications, as Rahul points out:

[T]he fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

Those people all have stories that deserve to be told. That need to be told.

This isn’t just about writing, even. This is a problem in any academic field, in any discipline, and it’s been a problem since the beginning of those disciplines: Who is producing our knowledge? What assumptions are they operating on? What standpoint are they working from? My field is sociology; what use is our research on race and class and gender and identity if the people doing that research don’t come from a multiplicity of lived experiences? How can we work to overturn power structures if our own institutional structure maintains the status quo of social power?

But this is about stories.

I love stories because they’re fun, because they’re escapist, because they’re beautiful, because  they’re joyful even when they’re crushingly sad, because they give me glimpses of what might be, because they teach me about who I am, because they teach me about who others are, because they have the potential to be uniquely revolutionary.

Stories change things.

But if stories are going to change anything, they need to be vital. They need to be alive. They need infusions of new blood and new knowledge and new ways of producing that knowledge. I don’t see how that’s likely in the world Rahul is describing. When you’re dealing with a system of gatekeeping that produces the same kinds of work from the same kinds of people over and over, then you have a literary world that’s impoverished. You won’t find the truly interesting things there. The people doing the interesting things are, as usual, on the margins, but they don’t get to complain about how hard the Life of a Writer is. There’s no romance in what they’re doing. And if they’re genre writers, even successful ones, no cushy academic job for them, unless – like me – they’re privileged enough to get into the academy another way (and cushy jobs ain’t looking too good there anyway at the moment).

So no, white middle class MFA student – with whom I share at least two things in common – my sympathy is not with you. And I think maybe you need to step aside and let someone else’s story get told.

Especially if that story is about cyborg dragons in love.

(Please allow a plug for a couple of antidotes to this kind of thing: We See a Different Frontier, a collection of post-colonial spec-fic that both I and Rahul have stories in – his is amazing – and the forthcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I also have a story in that but that’s not why you should check it out. Look at that ToC. Look at it.)

LINE AND ORBIT ~*~*paperback*~*~ giveaway!

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This time next month, the trade paperback edition of Line and Orbit will be available to purchase. Isn’t that exciting? But wait!! YOU DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO PAY FOR YOUR OWN COPY. Because I’m giving one away, you see (one of those pictured up there, oh they are so pretty). And even BETTER: it will be signed by me and my lovely co-author.

Want to enter? Simply fill out this handy form. I promise to guard with my very life, and completely forget, via extensive sessions of hypnosis, all of your personal information as soon as the contest is over. At midnight on February 4th, the contest will end, and I will select one lucky person.

ENTER HERE

A reading of “A Heap of Broken Images”

I recorded this a while ago but never did anything with it, so – Happy New Year – here is me reading my short story “A Heap of Broken Images”, for those of you who like your fiction audible. Hope you enjoy.