Four Reviews by Sean Melican

Paraspheres. Morrison Rusty and Ken Keegan, eds. Omnidawn Publishing, 2006.

Alanya to Alanya: Book One of the Marq'ssan Cycle. Duchamp, L. Timmel. Aqueduct Press, 2005.

Renegade: Book Two of the Marq'ssan Cycle. Duchamp, L. Timmel. Aqueduct Press, 2006.

Under My Roof. Mamatas, Nick. Soft Skull Press, 2006.

Take one-hundred randomly chosen people. The natural (insofar as there is a natural) human response is to categorize those people. They might be categorized by sex, but likely through secondary sex characteristics. But those second sex characteristics can be misleading-large men might have breasts, women might have short hair and men might have long. Men with narrow shoulders and little facial hair could be confused for women, and post-menopausal women with some facial hair might be confused for men. Unlikely, of course, but the possibility exists. Or those hundred people could be sorted by apparent ancestry (not race-race is a specious distinction) but what about those of mixed ancestry? The point is that it is an immediate, and likely pre-verbal function, of human thought to sort objects into categories. The risk is when that natural, reasonable function unreasonably conflates those features with entirely unrelated characteristics. We call this stereotyping. (African-Americans are great athletes. Asians are really smart. Whites are superior.)

Now suppose we pick one-hundred perfectly random stories. For our purposes, we'll stick with fiction. Again, the natural inclination is to sort by characteristic. Stories with magic or impossible creatures or et cetera are fantasy, unless they are written by South Americans, and then they're magic realist. Stories with rockets or robots or et cetera are science fiction. Stories about beautiful women in conflict with fierce men are romance. Stories that involve fear or gore are horror. Stories involving guns and chases are thrillers. Stories about crime are mysteries, or crime stories. Stories that don't violate any known laws are mainstream. Stories that have been vetted by academia are literature. Again, reasonable, and necessary for bookstore organization. Again, the risk is when features not connected to those identifying characteristics are imposed: mainstream stories (and, of course, literature) are 'literary' and thus worthwhile objects of serious study while genre-which is generally anything not mainstream-is escapist, if the critic is generous, or trash, if she or he is not.

Every genre reader knows this is bulls**t.

But recent years have prompted a reorganization of genre. We've had New Weird, slipstream, fabulist, and New Wave fabulist. Why? The generally accepted theory is that there has been an erasing of these thick, dark lines drawn with a critical Sharpie (ghettoes) that separate non-genre from genre and the various genres from each other. One reason is an apparent almost-desperation from genre critics to convince mainstream critics that genre isn't all escapist trash. But merely renaming a category does not erase the conflations. Negroes became blacks became African-Americans, Chinks became Asians, Spics became Hispanics, but the stereotypes persist. Another reason is the legitimate need to separate fantastic literature from the fantasy stereotypes. While Tolkien imitations continue to proliferate, much of fantastic literature has abandoned or reworked these tropes.

And because it is natural to divide objects into categories, I propose that there are three basic types of narratives: the genuinely groundbreaking, the un-groundbreaking but excellent or at least competent examples of a particular trope or narrative structure, and the pale, flaccid imitations. The first category is exceptionally rare. When Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, Lew Shiner and all the rest began publishing their remarkable stories, they were breaking ground-that ground became cyberpunk. Genuinely groundbreaking requires a new category, because the old categories are inadequate-the lines haven't been erased, but redrawn. The third is generally found in slush, sometimes in the magazines and anthologies. The second is the broadest category, (only because so much slush is, thankfully, never published) largely because it covers so much territory.

Are the New Weird, slipstream and fabulist stories of the first or second type? Bruce Sterling, who coined the term slipstream thought so. Peter Straub, who edited Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists thought so. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, who edited Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology thought so. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who have announced their own upcoming anthology think so. And now Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan have added Paraspheres, which has two arguments on the cover: 'Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction' and 'Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories.' In his afterword, Ken Keegan writes,

Although we do consider this fiction to meet the broad definition of the term literary, we recognize that it does not meet the established narrative realist definition of literary fiction. By presenting this fiction as neither literary nor genre, but rather as something else, we are avoiding the pitfalls of claiming literary status for these works. In presenting this anthology we hope to exist partly in both forms as well as extending beyond them, and to build a bridge between the two, where writers and readers from both can easily meet and explore fiction outside the boundaries imposed by the two accepted norms.

It seems that Mr. Keegan and Mr. Morrison are not so much interested in defining a new and therefore groundbreaking category, but in bridging the world between 'literary' mainstream and 'escapist' fiction, thereby implicitly accepting the twin conflations of literary quality and mainstream, and escapist with genre, rather than attacking this specious argument.

And Peter Straub writes in his introduction:

That is, it is not really accurate to say that over the past two decades the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been, unnoticed by the wider literary culture, transforming themselves generation by generation and through the work of each generation's most adventurous practitioners into something all but unrecognizable, hence barely classifiable at all except as literature. The above process did take place, and it was completely overlooked by the wider literary culture but it did not happen smoothly, and the kind of posttranformation fictions represented here owe more than half of their DNA and much of their underlying musculature to their original genre sources.

Note that Mr. Straub emphasizes the conflation of literary values with genre material, not the creation of something entirely new. It seems that Mr. Keegan, Mr. Morrison, and Mr. Straub are as much concerned with literary values as invention. To a small degree, the need to involve genre in mainstream literary criticism has occurred—Kelly Link's second collection made Time magazine's list of best five books. But largely, genre remains behind the Sharpie-drawn, ghetto lines unless published under a 'fiction' imprint-The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler's Wife, for example.

So, is there a need for a new category? It isn't that a whole new category has been invented, but rather a category that has been burdened under vicious and untrue stereotypes is attempting to be divorced from those conflated non-values. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror that want to be taken seriously become New Weird, slipstream, or fabulist.

Will it work? I'd wager a goodly amount that the answer is no, so long as publishing categories and imprints exist, and certainly not within our lifetime. But like any (r)evolution it is both necessary and inevitable.

What about the stories? Do they suggest the need for a new category? And are they any good?

No, and yes. In any anthology, some stories are weaker than others. But Mr. Keegan and Mr. Morrison have assembled a remarkably heterogeneous collection: some are reprints, suggesting fabulism (if it exists as a separate and distinct category) has been around for decades; however, most are original.

Janice Law's "Side Effects," Charlie Anders "Power Couple, Or Love Never Sleeps" and Michael Constance's "Finding the Words" are easily recognizable as science fiction. The first is rather derivative-an accident victim receives replacement parts, only to discover that his identity has blended with the donor's and the second is a rather thin 'what-if' scenario revolving around the conceit of willfully and literally putting on hold your life-in cryogenic sleep-for a (supposed) true love, and the third is a virtual reality tale. Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" is an alternate history of the Enola Gay while Angela Carter's "The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe" is, while not exactly alternate history so much as psychological analysis through known or imagined events. Mr. Robinson's and Ms. Carter's stories are excellent, but both are told in straightforward, narrative style, and does alternate history qualify as a genuine break from narrative realism?

Others use a variety of familiar tropes. Mary Mackey's "Third Initiation: A Gift from the Land of Dreams" tells the story of the importance of a young woman's pottery-making in the distant past. Carole Rosenthal's "The Concert Pianist's Flight" and Rudy Rucker's reprint "The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics" are both ghost stories while Stephen Shugart's "Making Faces" is a monster-in-disguise story. Shelley Jackson's heartbreaking "Short-Term Memorial Park" is an old warrior's reminscences in an unidentified distant future, but familiar is the (almost necessary) break-a thick black line-between the present and the future. Brian Evenson's "An Accounting" and Noelle Sickel's "The Tree" are retellings of Biblical myths. Jeff VanderMeer's award nominated "The Secret Paths of Rajan Khanna" is the very familiar secret pathway trope. Hopefully by now you get the idea.

Easily the story which breaks from narrative realism the most is Laura Mullen's "English/History," which ignores narrative realism by breaking the narrative into independent paragraphs, which do not depend on the preceding paragraph so much as the entire structure as a whole. She retells a familiar fairy tale, but also tells of a teacher teaching this fairy tale as well as narrative structure, and third introduces us to self-aware paragraphs. Ms. Mullen also, much to my delight, takes pleasure in clever puns. Robin Caton's "B, Longing" follows a similar trajectory, only this time it is the story of a lonely woman and her escape from the world through her writing.

K. Bannerman's "Armegedn, or The End of the World," explores the notion of the (precious) value of the word, destructures the physical structure, or act, of writing to construct a meaningful story. Laird Hunt's "Three Tales" breaks from narrative tradition by using only a single paragraph to weave together three disparate stories. L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Tears of Niobe" explores, through science fiction and dreams, the artificiality of superiority.

There are many other stories-a grand total of fifty!-some are quite good, some are average, and some are duds. But I've always thought that anthologies are a better investment than a novel, because a novel is an all-or-nothing commitment, while an anthology is worth the cost if at least one story is worthwhile-and this anthology is worth the cost many times over.

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The intersection of science fiction and politics has always served an important critical function, from George Orwell's dystopian 1984 and Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness to Robert Heinlein's ultra-nationalist Starship Troopers, but until now they have always served as a means of analyzing political structures. With L. Timmel Duchamp's million-word Marq'ssan novel (broken into five books), anarchy is extrapolated. This is not anarchy in its popular sense, but in its truest sense. It is also feminism at its most fundamental level, and neither can be un-twined from the other.

Ms. Duchamp begins with a dystopia that is both specific and allegorical. Society is divided into three almost entirely non-porous levels, classes, or castes. It is extraordinarily rare for someone born into one level to move to another. Executives are the highest level-mostly the executives we see are high-level government men and women-and are collectively known as the Executive, necessarily implying a homogeneity of thought and will. Executive live the Good Life-capitalized in the books: only the best foods, wines, homes, et cetera. Professionals are professors, scientists, et cetera, and service-techs are the lowest level. There are plenty of historical parallels, such as king-priest-peasant. The value, or purpose, of building her own dystopia is that it allows her to build a world recognizable as similar to our own, but does not allow us to assume that it can't happen because a particular incident or moment in time doesn't correspond to the fictional world.

It also allows Ms. Duchamp to explore the elasticity of sexuality. Executive men are 'fixed', which means they are capable of reproduction but entirely uninterested in the act except as a mean to an end. They derive no physical pleasure from the act, which frees them to pursue their vocations and hobbies without internal conflict. Executive women are almost entirely homosexual, except when it is necessary to bear their executive men children-and it is a distasteful act: in Renegade, one executive woman speaks of the obvious perversion of heterosexuality-but there is a very strong prohibition against executive-with-executive sex: executive women are only to have sex with service-tech women, who are sometimes available during parties much as champagne and caviar are provided. Executive women are also taught self-defense against un-fixed men.

Service-techs provided services of all kinds, and service-tech women are deliberately kept sexually docile, their heterosexuality deliberately heightened for both executive and service-tech needs: they are not taught the self-defense the executives are taught, nor are executives allowed to teach them. Professionals fall somewhere in the middle. Professionals and service-techs are both 'fixed' in an opposite manner: sexual desire and pleasure are existent, but the Executive has chemically deactivated their ability to procreate. Which men and particularly women who are allowed to procreate is strictly controlled by law and science, which suggest an obvious but facile parallelism between our world-with its fierce and sometimes violent conflicts over abortion (particularly what separates a fetus from a child) genetic testing, IVF, sperm donation and perhaps soon the ability to choose characteristics-but Ms. Duchamp's is a world in which women are prohibited from procreating where ours is one in which science currently focuses on treating infertility. But the debates are similar, largely who has the right to decide limits; and at its most basic, it is the continual debate over who has the right to control women's sexual power-much as marriage was instituted to control women's (supposedly uncontrollable) sexual desires, so that paternity would not be questioned.

Even names are socially and sexually constructed. Professionally, individuals are referred to only by last name, but in intimate situations, first names are used.

Into this come the Marq'ssan, an alien race who want to divorce humanity from the enormous historical weight of governance: the Marq'ssan are anarchists, such that every decision is made (mostly) by consensus. But because men are always at the apex, and perhaps even hard-wired for hierarchical governance, only women are invited to speak to the Marq'ssan.

Kay Zeldin is a professional (not coincidentally, a history professor) who once worked as a secret agent for Robert Sedgewick. She also had a very violent, very dysfunctional, personal and sexual relationship with him, which she has literally forgotten. She is brought back to infiltrate the Marq'ssan, who are seen as terrorists. Alanya to Alanya explores her slow conversion to the thought patterns (not the 'side' as the Marq'ssan take no sides) of the Marq'ssan. Importantly, some Marq'ssan become psychologically poisoned by their interactions with humans such that they can no longer think as Marq'ssan, and as a consequence are, in some ways, no longer Marq'ssan at all.

In Renegade, free zones are established in which government is forbidden: decisions are made by women by consensus, but rather than opting for an easy duality, Ms. Duchamp explores the very complex difficulties of involving men, who typically build hierarchical structures when invited into the meetings and thus are unwelcome, but how can equality and freedom exist when men are dismissed? And while the Executive controlled procreation with chemicals, now that there are free zones, men want access to unlimited procreation, regardless of women’s interests. Kay Zeldin goes in search of her husband only to become trapped and subsequently tortured by Sedgewick’s assistant, Elizabeth Weatherall.

This is easily one of the best science fiction series I've read in years. Rather than beginning with what is already known, it strips bare the arbitrary structures of our world (sexuality, gender, government) and rebuilds them in complex, new structures that are strikingly at odds with our experience-homosexuality as the norm, at least among the highest levels, and men willing to forgo sexual pleasure for political power-and yet also strikingly familiar, with classes or castes, torture, war, the designation of the unfamiliar as automatically 'terrorist'. The arguments for the elasticity of sexuality, and against the hierarchical structures of gender and government are complex, and thoroughly examined-whether you accept or deny the possibilities and premises presented, Ms. Duchamp does not take lightly her responsibilities of presenting a believable, if frightening world; nor does she present a simple dichotomy between men and women, or between human and Marq'ssan.

Three more books will be published; I will have read the third, Tsunami, for the June issue.

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In a very different and yet also political vein is Nick Mamatas' Under My Roof. (The title carries a lovely double meaning considering our current government's attitude whenever it is criticized.) Coming in at about 40,000 words, this short and simple comedy suffers from unfair comparison to Ms. Duchamp's ambitious and dramatic series.

Herbert Weinberg, a telepath, and his father build a nuclear weapon (supposedly it's possible to legally purchase fissionable material) on their front lawn and declare independence from the United States. The military surrounds the house, the neighbors respond with facile slogans-"'Don't you badmouth America, Daniel. We have men fighting overseas for your freedoms!' Nick said, his anger rising. 'You know I noticed you didn't fly the flag on the Fourth this year.'"-Herbert's mother has a religious conversion, and all sorts of various characters (the back cover calls them 'refuseniks') inhabit the house in search of... well, often they don't really know what they want.

Mr. Mamatas dissects American culture with a sharp wit, from the supposed Muslim-equals-terrorist mindset to our mass-produced-lowest-price-lowest-quality consumables sold in enormous one-stop stores.

And here I have a problem. It isn't that the novel isn't funny or accurate, but that I felt as if it didn't have anything new to say. Yes, of course many Americans equate flags and guns with genuine patriotism; and yes of course our society is filled with empty consumers; but are there many readers of Mamatas who wouldn't agree?

On the flip side of the coin, Zoe Trope's back cover blurb calls Under My Roof a young adult novel, and if that's true, then hats off to Mr. Mamatas. For jaded adults (the choir he could be preaching to), the book covers familiar ground; but this is an excellent book with the excellent characteristics of short and funny, perfect for the kids growing up on sound bites, x-Box and Jon Stewart. It's something I would've loved when I was Herbert's age.


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