Thursday, December 7, 2017

FIRESIDE Chat: Cecily Kane of Manic Pixie Dream Worlds

Welome to our latest Fireside Chat! This time I "sit down" with Cecily Kane, reviewer of short fiction and proprietor of the blog Manic Pixie Dream Worlds. Like me, Cecily is a refugee from the world of literary fiction--or rather, is someone who questions whether there should be a boundary between imaginative and literary fiction. You can find Cecily on twitter, where she is most active these days. 

G - Thanks for “sitting down” with me in front of this lovely virtual fireplace! I’m going to start by going big: what do you look for in science fiction or fantasy? What does a story or novel need to do in order to get and sustain your attention?

CK - Thanks for inviting me, G!

In some ways this is an easier question to answer with fantasy, though that answer might be more nebulous. My favorite genre actually isn’t SF/F -- it’s transformative literature (most but not all of which is SF/F). Principally retellings, whether of myths, fairy tales, histories, epics… but when you get down to it, I think fantasy is almost inherently transformative literature, since its suite of tools draws from the world’s existing mythologies and folklores. Regardless of whether it’s secondary world or not, I’m much more interested in fantasy that interacts as an open system with this one than fantasy that is having a conversation strictly with “genre.”

Though perhaps it’s more complex than that. A favorite story of mine, Ruthanna Emrys’ “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land,” opens up Narnia, both to religions besides Christianity and, as Jonah Sutton-Morse pointed out to me, in a dynamic sense with this world; Emrys’ Narnia changes. It’s an open system, while the original Narnia is a closed one. Though I do think portal fantasies can illustrate things about this world if by showing what you’d be escaping -- “The Dancer on the Stairs” by Sarah Tolmie comes to mind.

With science fiction, I’m increasingly drawn to stories that reimagine ways of living that don’t replicate horrors of this world, such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (which is also a retelling of the Biblical gospels, a fact that seems oddly omitted from most discussions of it) or Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer,” which envisions a near future in which life is much better for elderly people. Though to be honest, these days I’m really digging anything that doesn’t replicate empire. Two recent (to me) favorites are “So Much Cooking” by Naomi Kritzer and “State Change” by Ken Liu, which benefit from (and are refreshing in part because of) a sharply reduced sense of scale; they’re about how people live.

I’m also a sucker for relatively unusual literary techniques. The Three by Sarah Lotz would be a forgettable post-apocalyptic novel but for the fact that it’s not only epistolary but is so in multiple formats -- blog posts, chat logs, e-mails, self-recordings for a memoir -- almost mixed media. Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium is striking because the computer resets that change the genders and relationships of the characters start to break down and change your cognitive processes; human thinking is largely associative, so removing the link between, say, a woman’s power and a man probably takes more than representation. Her “A Song for You” works similarly, but as an illustration of how colonialism and apocalypse are two perspectives of the same story and that that fact is not one of distant worlds or times, but this one, right now.

So now that I’ve written them out, those look like pretty similar answers, huh?

G - I also tend to like experimental narrative structures, though it has to be executed well. I liked the nonlinear narrative in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell and the front to back to front structure of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. My favorite novel format is probably the short story cycle, where each story is self-contained but reveals more pieces of an evolving meta-narrative. A few of these were really important to me when I was discovering contemporary fiction. Mainly The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. 

Come to think of it, there aren’t a ton of short story cycles in SF/F. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood are the only ones that spring to mind. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski and Four Ways to Foregiveness by Ursula LeGuin are two more, but they are more stories that fill in the blanks for novel series than proper short story cycles. The Human Division by John Scalzi might count, though it was more episodic than anything--I’m not sure the stories can be read on their own, and I was pretty lukewarm on it anyway. I’m sure there are more examples. There *should* be more, given the cohort of talented short fiction writers we have at the moment. I’d love to see Alice Sola Kim or Karen Tidbeck do a short story cycle.

Its interesting that you mention your frustration with science fiction and fantasy that’s hidebound to the horrors of the present. I have a related frustration with science fiction and fantasy that’s hidebound to the social relations and political institutions of the present. The United Space of America trope is an egregious example of this, the ridiculous idea that the political institutions and conventions of the United States will not only extrapolate far into the future, but will also be the only system that makes it. It’s unimaginative, for one, and strains credulity for another.

There are many others, like fantasy books that reconstruct modern notions of race, nation and gender in an allegedly medieval context. Or space opera that projects them into the far future. This is made more egregious when the discourse centers on the supposed “realism” of these worlds. Fantasy is never realistic; nor is space opera. I do get that imaginative fiction reflects the hopes and anxieties of the present, but it’s also called imaginative fiction for a reason. More and more, I want fantasy and far-future worlds to be weird and different, to explore radical ideas of how societies could be organized and to untether themselves from modernity or modern interpretations of pre-modernity.

Another thing I want is immersion: in the world and in character perspective. There are many ways to go about this. Parable of the Sower/Talent is a great example of doing this by keeping things tidy--one perspective on the world, where the changes from our own are subtle but profound. The Malazan novels take the opposite approach--the world and character building is downright baroque. But they are immersive, and blessedly free of infodumping. Nothing crushes my suspension of disbelief like a narrator breaking the fourth wall, or the shift out of perspective to an encyclopedia-style infodump on the political history of Narvothos, the inner workings of a warp drive or whatever.

The last thing I want, strictly with regards near future science fiction, is some kind of meaningful extrapolation from the present. What changes, how does it change and why? I realize this runs counter to what I said I want from fantasy and far-future SF. But this is a unique strength of near-future science fiction, and sometimes I fear the genre has moved away from this and toward a more trope-forward approach. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about “hard” SF where there are lengthy explanations of how warp drives work. A lot of that stuff, in my opinion, is pretty unimaginative--especially when it comes to political institutions and social relations. I’m thinking more along the lines of Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, Octavia Butler and so forth. Okay, I don’t always want this, but it’s often a plus for me.

CK -- “Social and political institutions of the present” is better wording (we’re talking about the same things, I think).

Insofar as SFnal short story cycles are concerned, the only two recent ones I can think of are from outside the systems and structures of this field. Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott is a series of short stories in Cross River, Maryland, a fictional town founded after a successful slave revolt; 17776 is set in a post-scarcity far future, superficially about football but thematically about existential anxiety. What I like about these, and perhaps you would as well, is that they are straightforward Americana, about their investment in America-specific concerns, without being this sort of The United Space of Empire, promoting or at least assuming this sort of American hegemony and dominance.

It seems there are two planes to the distinctions we’re discussing in SF’s relationship to our world. The textual: to what extent its world is reflective of or divergent from “this world”; and the meta-textual, to what extent the narrative is conscious of the associated why’s and how’s. Perhaps it’s failures in the second that lead to most failures in the first, whether by not sufficiently interrogating its perspective or not even being aware that narratives have a perspective in the first place.

So I’m not sure you’re necessarily countering yourself; perhaps “hidebound to” and “extrapolating from” is neither the same thing, nor dichotomous? Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how SF likes to both consider itself “the literature of ideas” and also “totally fake, made-up, not about this world.” I am suspicious of each but particularly so of when and why it does each; the latter, for example, likely being an excuse to posit empire as a neutral (or heaven forbid, aspirational) entity, and the former being a justification for a sort of literary/intellectual parochialism that encourages these tropes to flourish.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I hear you on being frustrated with the lack of imagination in “pseudo-medieval Europe.” Two things I think we’ve talked about before, and that I think are both distortions of capitalist ideology. The first is how godawful the worldbuilding of Game of Thrones is; I don’t want to derail into what is certainly a TL;DR mine, but the fact that it changes the entire climate system of its world and doesn’t consider how that might impact its agriculture, when social systems are inherently agricultural -- I mean, it’s feudalism! For the gods’ sake! -- well, how is that “realistic”? (I am increasingly aware of “realism” implicitly meaning “reaffirms existing power relations that I find favorable and comfortable.”) And the second, which I think is more interesting, is how much near-future and apocalyptic SF assume competition rather than cooperation. Two of the books discussed so far, Parables and Station Eleven, are hybrid approaches; I’m increasingly attracted to SF that focuses on community-building. “Police Magic” by Brent Lambert and Andrea Hairston’s “Saltwater Railroad” come to mind.

(Side note: it puzzles me that capitalist ideology frames competition over resources as the primary behavioral driver, but in post-apocalyptic fiction in which the huge majority of humans have died, it becomes more rather than less fierce. Logic does not compute.)

Perhaps my favorite near-future SF of recent years is Aliya Whitely’s The Beauty, in which competition is not over resources but rather collective identity; the group fights not over food or weapons but rather whether their story be framed as a beginning or as an ending. Speaking of extrapolation from the present day and its anxieties, isn’t the fight over our story one of the most dominant of our age, at least in the U.S.? And The Beauty brings me to the last but perhaps most significant literary aspect I look for, narrative voice and language:
I can remember this is not how they were; I knew them, I knew them! Only six years have passed and yet I mythologize them as if it is six thousand. I am not culpable. Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown.
I’m glad I discovered small presses and short fiction, because in the world of big 5 novel imprints, language like that is almost wholly absent; on the occasions it moves beyond an invisible narrative voice that carries the plot along quickly, it tends to be some sort of stilted pseudo-medieval imagined pattern rather than language that uses poetic or prosodic devices.

G - Thanks for the short story cycle recs! Both Insurrections and 17776 sound right up my alley. I also need a break from the Malazan books: I’m midway through book 5 and am flagging a bit. They are very good, though I don’t love them uncritically--there’s a decent amount of stuff I don’t like, though on balance it’s a very impressive series, both in its imaginative-ness and ideationally. That said, a 10 book series is a tall order, and my original idea to read them all in one go probably isn’t going to happen. It probably shouldn’t happen; I need a break.

What impresses me most about the books is a point of contrast to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. You’re absolutely right to bring up weather: there are regions on Earth that largely correspond to “years of summer” or “years of winter,” but they sure as hell don’t look like temperate medieval Europe. Weather affects everything: what you eat, what you wear, how you build things and so forth. I don’t mind that Martin changed the temporality of seasons, but there’s zero attempt to design from that premise. This contrasts with his careful approach to the internal logic of cultural practices in Westeros (though not so much in Essos).

Erikson’s world, by contrast, reads like a purposeful rejection of “realism.” The world is positively dripping with magic in ways that can be weird and confusing but refreshingly different. The internal logic is less that of “modern person bases world on modern interpretation of medieval societies” and more “modern person invents mythological world that adheres to multiple mythological logics.” Does that makes sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love how untethered the Malazan world is from rote expectations of medieval-ness.

This is especially striking with regards race/ethnicity and gender. The Malazan Empire is multiethnic and multiracial, ruled by a blue-skinned woman and featuring an army where half the soldiers are women. Some of the other societies portrayed are patriarchal, but others are matriarchal and others still are neither one nor the other.

I don’t love everything about the books. A couple entries get splatterpornographic, and I’m not a fan of that. But unlike a lot of other grimdark fantasy, the overarching narrative is one of redemption through loyalty, kindness and charity. That’s another point of contrast with ASOIF, where it’s more about getting to the finish alive and never trusting anyone unless they’re a blood relative (and even then not entirely trusting them).

More broadly, I like your distinction between the textual (the world) and the meta-textual (how and why the world came to be what it is), and agree that in SF, failure to think about the latter likely explains a lot of failures in the former. That ties to the notion of trope-forward SF: who cares if the setup makes no sense, because fun! Or because it’s just a metaphor.

This is something that came up in my conversation with Megan. I’m not against books or stories of films that aspire to be good entertainment and nothing more; nor am I against books or stories where the science fictional is confined to literalized metaphors. Both can be done really well. What does concern me, as an observer of genre, is a sense that--increasingly--that’s all anyone wants to do with SF. Outside the dreary hidebound world of stories where libertarians describe warp engines, that is.

That’s a bit unfair--there is a lot of good SF still. And agreed--you need to look at small presses to find a lot of it. Or, increasingly, to non-genre imprints. The big genre imprints seem to be moving farther and farther from the kind of SF I find exciting, and towards the safety zone of trope-forward SF.

But enough of me yelling at clouds. You are a prolific reviewer of short fiction, so I’d like to ask: which short fiction writers are most exciting to you right now? And who would you be most excited to read in novel or series form?

CK - Short stories and novels are such different art forms that I don’t hold longform aspirations for short fiction writers. (In fact, something I often tell people looking for where to start with shorts is not to begin with their favorite novelists; I don’t think that’s generally the best way to go about it.) But as far as series are concerned, I’d love to see series set in Malon Edwards' alt-history Chicago and Ruthanna Emrys’ Tikanu. More fairytale retellings by Veronica Schanoes are always good. Some of Wole Talabi’s stories read like short story cycles unto themselves -- “A Short History of Migration in Five Fragments of You” comes to mind. And recent debut authors whose careers I’ll be watching closely include Ian Muneshwar and Tlotlo Tsamaase.

I haven’t been able to keep up with the field this year; of what little I did read, probably the most memorable story, “Control Negro” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, I found outside of it, in Guernica. It’s ostensibly realist and uses the tropes of literary fiction, but the tools it uses are absolutely speculative. So I hope to see more SFnal work from the author.