Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 3: Tansy Rayner Roberts


Pleasures of Reading, Watching, & Listening
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Something that I really enjoy is an excuse to read a “classic” novel, either for the first time or revisiting an old favorite through new eyes. Not that I need an excuse — but it’s so easy to get hung up on what’s being published right now and forget about anything vintage.

KJ Charles is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, a writer of historical and fantastical queer romance whose work is edgy and thought-provoking as well as passionate escapism.The Henchman of Zenda is a clever retelling of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Charles has constructed a whole secret romance angle between henchman Jasper Detchard (our new point of view character) and his boss, the scene-stealing villain Rupert of Hentzau. She also beefed up the roles of the women in the story, giving them much stronger characters and motivations.

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those hugely influential novels that I always thought I had read, but actually hadn’t. I picked it up after Henchman and flew through it, fascinated to see the original threads that KJ Charles picked apart.

The Henchman of Zenda is a smart piece of reinvention that can exist easily alongside the original: all you have to do is accept that the original protagonist, Rudolf Rassendyl, is (a) not nearly as observant or incisive as he thinks he is and (b) often stretching the truth in his “memoir” to make himself look more heroic.

It’s pretty great that while the original ‘not-quite-but-sort-of’ speculative fiction subgenre known as the Ruritanian Romance started with the original Zenda at a time when ‘romance’ meant ‘a fun adventure with swords and some but not a lot of kissing,’ it’s actually the love-conquers-all Romance fiction that has captured it in recent years. Fake European countries abound in novels like Meg Cabot’s classic The Princess Diaries, all the way through to the Netflix Original ‘shinier-than-Hallmark’ royal romance movies like The Christmas Prince and The Christmas Switch, which I find ridiculously enjoyable.

Another big classic re-read I completed this year was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (200 years since it was published!) via the Frankentastic podcast (https://twelfthplanetpress.podbean.com/e/frankentastic-episode-1/) that I signed up to do as a stretch goal for the Mother of Invention Kickstarter last year.

The plan was to read the novel aloud chapter by chapter, changing the gender pronouns but no other aspects of the text. (I did change some but not all of the names) For me, this turned out to be a fascinating way to dig into a book I’ve always had a lot of feelings about, while also teaching myself to rethink a lot of assumptions about gender. I also appreciated how many listeners got in touch to share how this regendering of the classic novel affected them.

I’ve now programmed myself to automatically think of both Dr Frankenstein and her monster as female!

Speaking of classics re-imagined, we need to talk about She-Ra.

Netflix has been making some really interesting choices about rebooting old school “Saturday morning” cartoons from the 80s as sharp, 21st century stories for a new generation of kids. My family has been mildly obsessed with the new Voltron for the last couple of years, even if we have lost faith that the central m/m ‘ship’ will ever become canon. (Sigh, it won’t. But all the kids I know want it to happen, including the 9 year old… does this count as progress?)

I was excited about the new She-Ra because the showrunner, Noelle Stevenson, is one of my creative heroes thanks to her amazing comics, and her fannish contributions (she originated the Hawkeye Initiative!!!).

My daughter insisted on watching a few episodes of the original show with me for context, which swept me back to my Saturday morning nostalgia happy place. I have, apparently, visceral memories of the transforming She-Ra (AKA Super Magic Barbie) and He-Man toys, even if I didn’t remember much of the original story — such as She-Ra’s status as a redeemed villain, a narrative that would be carried off to greater effect with Xena more than a decade later.

Ms9 and I did a lot of shouting at the screen as He-Man took central stage for episode after episode of what was supposed to be the “girl spin-off” from his show… almost like the creators couldn’t quite believe that they were going to effectively sell a female-led quest fantasy to an audience of Skeletor-obsessed children.

Then we watched the new reboot.

And it’s beautiful.


She-Ra and the Princesses of Power takes many of the character and visual ideas from the original show and crafts a gorgeous, funny and deeply emotional action comedy around the hearts and minds of mostly female characters (the few male sidekicks in the show are adorable and clearly there to provide emotional support and occasionally set fire to boats).

It’s epic in the same way that shows like Avatar: the Last Airbender and Steven Universe are epic, but with a very different tone to either of those cartoons. Crucially, it places female heroism at the very center of the story, and surrounds it with more female heroism.

Friendship, creativity, diversity… and oh, this show is queer as hell. While there are no outright romances (YET), LGBTQ or otherwise, there are so many great female friendships, many of which border on the kind of intensity that is indistinguishable from romance in G-rated media.

Adora is the newly promoted Force Captain of the Horde, a military organization that is a lot more evil than she realized. When she is chosen to wield the magic sword that transforms her into She-Ra, legendary hero, she has to quickly re-evaluate everything she has ever believed, and changes sides to help her new friends in the Rebellion.

All the side characters are so fabulous, especially Bow, the midriff-baring “I’m in a girl story and I’m happy just to help” male sidekick and all the epic princesses. But it’s important to note that Adora is deeply compelling as a main character: a prickly, angry young woman who isn’t used to having freedom and is only starting to unpack how badly she has been manipulated.

It takes a long time for Adora to trust in her new friends to be there for her, and to build faith in herself that she can be the heroic figure that the Rebellion needs… but that she can also be valued for herself, regardless of She-Ra’s contribution.

Each of the princess characters has a great hook, and the entire show revolves around a reinvention of what ‘princess’ even means… without, crucially, sneering at any expression of traditional femininity. Princesses in this world are bad-ass and creative and terrifying and incredibly powerful and under a lot of pressure to perform. Some of them are super girly. Some of them are much less traditionally gendered. There’s rainbows and glitter and pink and purple throw cushions. There’s robots that are trying to kill you.

I’m completely wrapped up in the tensions of Glimmer’s relationship with her mother, and how she is trying to balance her own desires to save the world and be a hero with her fear of letting everyone down. (Glimmer, TALK TO YOUR MOTHER.) It’s such a fascinating inversion of the Buffy-Joyce relationship, for example, a prime example of ‘teenage girl as hero hides true self from mother’ — but Glimmer’s mother knows that she is a soldier and a magic-user and is conflicted by wanting to protect her (OMG Mom just let me save the world right now) and wanting to unleash her on the Evil Horde.

The villains are also a big part of what makes the story so successful. Sensibly, the ‘lead’ villain Hordak from the original show is kept in the background, with the main focus being on Shadow Weaver (Adora’s former mentor and mother figure) and Catra, Adora’s former best friend who feels deeply betrayed at her changing sides.

The Catra/Adora friendship is heartbreaking and powerful, as the two of them pull further and further away from each other into the camps of Good and Evil. But there’s a lightness there too, a humour that is never entirely lost (Catra turning up to the Princess Prom in a suit with Scorpia on her arm). It’s reminiscent of so many of the great Nemesis Bro combinations such as Sherlock and Moriarty, the Doctor and the Master, or Professor X and Magneto — the sense that these two people could easily be best friends (or in love, totes married) if they weren’t on opposite sides of a pretty major moral divide.

So uh, yes. Watch She-Ra. Then tell me who you’re shipping. Apart from Princess Entrapta/killer robots which is basically canon.




Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of many SFF novels and short stories including the Creature Court trilogy. She recently co-edited a science fiction anthology about gender and AI: Mother of Invention. Tansy’s new fiction release, “Merry Happy Valkyrie” is a festive fantasy novella blending Norse myth with modern Tasmanian Christmas traditions. Find out more at tansyrr.com.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 2: Lisa Tuttle



Pleasures of Reading 2018
by Lisa Tuttle


My favorite book this year was Willnot by James Sallis, published in 2016 by No Exit Press. Sallis is probably best known now as the author of Drive (which inspired a movie by the same name) and a number of detective novels set in the American south and southwest, but he was part of the “New Wave” in science fiction, back in the day, when I was sufficiently impressed by his literary, experimental take on SF to buy his first book in hardcover, brand new, at full price, when A Few Last Words was published in 1970. Taking it off the shelf just now, I found a stack of ancient, faded photo-copies of other stories and poems by Sallis that I carefully saved inside. Reading first lines of one (“Binaries” from Orbit 9, 1971) I was struck by how familiar it felt, and realized it reminded me of the the tone, the style, the voice I was striving for myself back in the early 1970s -- influenced, much? Undoubtedly. It’s obvious, but strange, because I don’t think I ever mention James Sallis, and he was surely as important to my development as a writer as Theodore Sturgeon and Kate Wilhelm – my usually referenced touchstones.

Unless you are into reading American noir detective fiction you probably missed Willnot, which I think should have appeared on “Best SF” as well as “Best American Novel” lists in 2016. If you are a fan of the late, great Theodore Sturgeon, you may find this novel reminiscent of some of his works, too.

Willnot looks like a crime story. The cover is adorned with blurbs from other crime writers, and the first line is “We found the bodies two miles outside town, near the old gravel pit.” But it does not develop in any of the ways you might expect. Yes, there are bodies, crimes, and violence. (This is America; people have guns.) But far more than the mysteries to be solved, about dead bodies and mysterious strangers in town, more than the occasional eruptions of violence, the story Sallis gives us (and it is a gift) is one about small-town life, human relationships, the daily demands of work, the joys and sorrows of living in this world. Willnot is the name of the town – and it is not exactly ordinary. Gradually it is revealed as one of those outsider communities founded on utopian principals that have always been a part of America. Its odd name might be a literary reference – at least, it made me think of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Sallis’s narrator is the town doctor – he is also the son of a science fiction writer, familiar not only with the genre, but with recollections of having met many of the big name writers when he was a boy, dragged along to conventions by his dad.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there is a lot of pleasure to be had in being surprised by it. For the same reason, I advise against reading the back cover copy until you’ve finished the book.


Other bests of the year:

Things we lost in the fire by Mariana Enriquez, Portobello Books, 2017. (Originally published in Spanish as Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego, 2016) One of the most intense, brilliant and disturbing short story collections I have ever read. Whether you call her stories horror or literary fiction, Mariana Enriquez is an amazing writer, and I hope we will see lots more of her work in English.


Lost Objects by Marian Womack, Luna Press, 2018. Weird fiction, science fiction, whatever you call them, these ten vivid and disturbing stories by a talented new writer are haunted by impending death, disappearances, mass extinctions and eco-catastrophe. It sounds grim (and often is) but there are gorgeous images, moments of beauty and mystery that compel the reader, revealing a powerful and original imagination at work, and reminding us that, however strange and changed the world, we continue to find meaning in our lives as we struggle to survive.




 Lisa Tuttle is the author of numerous novels and short story collections. Her most recent novel is The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross. She has also published nonfiction and more than a dozen books for younger readers. In 1974 she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and, in 1987, the BSFA award in the short fiction category. Aqueduct Press published her novella My Death in 2008 (which is now available as an ebook). Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she has made her home in a remote rural region of Scotland for the last twenty years.


Monday, December 10, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 1: Rachel Fellman





Ten Great Books 
by Rachel Fellman


Ten great books in arbitrary order:

1. Daniel Mallory Ortberg, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror

 I got the sense that this wasn’t widely read in SFF circles. Certainly I almost skipped it, until I was tipped off by a Publishers Weekly best-of list -- and I’m a fan of Ortberg, just not a fan of satirical fairy-tale retellings. That’s what I assumed this would be, since he is primarily known as a satirist, and the cover is sort of jocular.

However! This book is not satire (though it is funny). It is not horror (though it is upsetting). Instead, it is a major fantasy debut – a witty and sinuous book, both dark and celebratory. I read most of it on commuter trains, and it’s an exquisite thing to read on a train: always switching tracks, changing moods, losing and finding the light, breaking from tunnel to sky, and you always know that the driver is in control and knows where he is taking you. He has an eye on the gender gauge. He is lightly adjusting a switch whose two settings are Dune and Cinderella. Please, if you passed over The Merry Spinster as I initially did, get on this train with me. We are going to have the most fantastic time.


2. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories

I read this as research for an article I wrote in my other life as an archivist, about Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr. Listen, if you’re planning, for some reason, to read exactly one academic monograph in your adult life – try Freeman. Her concept of “queer time” is a vital idea, and a powerfully SFFnal one too; to her, to be queer is to step outside of history and outside of the set temporal pattern of a human life. She explores this idea in many dimensions, many of them quite gonzo. For fans of The Female Man who wish Russ had written more hardcore literary theory.

3. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres

It’s hard to pitch you on A Thousand Acres, Smiley’s Iowa-set retelling of King Lear. This is because, despite being a thirty-year-old take on a four-hundred-year-old play, it’s a very dangerous book to spoil. Like Shakespeare himself, Smiley is a brilliant riffer who depends on your knowledge of a famous story for her impact; it’s all in the ways she twists it, the knots she ties in the characters’ minds. Instead, I have to ask you to trust me. Drive up to this with the headlights off. Explore it cautiously. And don’t let the door swing shut behind you, because then you’ll be alone with some absolutely terrible people.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

A whipcrack noir with an unforgettable protagonist. I also read Moshfegh’s two other books this year, which isn’t medically advisable – like stacking three central nervous system depressants in a single evening – but this was my favorite. Moshfegh engages the reader in a perpetual game of chicken, and as her car gets closer and you see her strained face in the windshield, you inevitably realize that she is not the one who’s going to turn aside.

5. Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts

“Multiplicity” is the word for Solomon’s work. Every word is busy; every idea hums with energy, doing more than one job in the text, reaching out with delicate robotic fingers to nudge a character forward, ripping another character’s heart out in the same motion. It is always surprising, always daring, and ideas are deployed for a single scene that any other author would dine out on for at least a book, maybe a series. The novel teems.

What I really love about Solomon, though, is their keen, scything portrayal of people. All of their characters are multiply marginalized, and Solomon is really thinking about what it might mean to be autistic and enslaved, to be a slave and a doctor, a slave and a scientist. Each character is allowed to be complex, obnoxious, heroic, and fragile; I don’t know why more authors can’t bring themselves to let that happen. The pacing is quick, the mystery compelling, the prose artful. The central metaphor – the broken generation ship as failed state – is handled to perfection. And, my God, does it stick the landing!

6. Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Batuman’s memoir of academic life is a unique entry in the field of depressive comedy. Most depressive humor ends up rather vaudevillian: ironic, paradoxical, wry, life’s threadbare pageant, etc. But for Batuman, depression and comedy are formed of the same matter. Nothing is a distraction, nothing is a sublimation. This is simply a very funny book about being very sad.

Like the great 19th-century Russians who are her academic specialty, Batuman is interested in the tension between fiction and criticism and history and memoir. With The Possessed, she wanders through this tension as if through it were a dense and rocky landscape, hiding behind the giant stones, prodding them, sometimes pushing them over. Her novel The Idiot approaches the same landscape from the other end; I also read it this year, and it’s also great.


7. Nalo Hopkinson, Skin Folk

This is a classic that I read shamefully late. Hopkinson is supple and subtle; the moment you start to see how her stories will play out, she holds out her hand, stops them, whisks them aside, and brings forth others. Her emotional register is a grand piano; these stories explore joy and disgust and shame and sexiness and many other emotions too complex to name. And she uses a richer, more intricately intonated English than almost anybody. More than anything else on my list, Skin Folk doesn’t need my help, but if you’re like me and have managed to miss it all your life, it’s time.

8. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Typically for Collins, this is a high camp masterpiece 40% of the time, a shockingly forward-thinking feminist epic 30% of the time (the Count has called a duel and the chosen weapon is RESPECT FOR MARION), and the rest is exhausting minutiae and romantic schlock.

More than anything, it’s a book about gaslighting -- hence its careful focus on multiple witnesses who are taken in to various extents, its awareness of what it takes to build and dismantle an edifice of lies. Worth reading for anyone interested in Victorian Gothic fiction, with its operatic emotions and its quiet observation of everyday evil. It is also, for what it’s worth, funny as hell, and Count Fosco lives up to his reputation as one of the weirdest and most magnetic villains in literature.


9. Ling Ma, Severance

Well, this is enormously legit – the apocalyptic mumblecore masterpiece I’ve been waiting for all my life. At times, it’s so terrifying and so absorbing that I was surprised, when looking away for a moment, to realize that I wasn’t already living in its world. I don’t typically have that experience with novels. It also plays out its central conceit and metaphor – a fungal disease that makes people revert to nostalgic, repetitive motions until they die of thirst and starvation – with a wonderful lightness of touch, trusting the reader to follow all of the frayed threads of metaphor until they break. The ending is a finely balanced piece of ambiguity.

10. Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

I read a bunch of Greenblatt this year, including his outstanding Tyrant, but this one feels definitive – the place to start, and a model for the openly fanciful biography of a public figure who leaves behind a very slight archival record. Combining literary criticism, exploratory research, and a certain degree of brawling with his peers, Greenblatt’s work is speculative in the SFFnal sense, and it will please SFF readers who want to understand a world so different from ours that it may as well be another planet.



Rachel Fellman is an archivist in Northern California. She writes sharp, painterly science fiction and fantasy about her various preoccupations: art history, extreme survival, toxic love, queer identity, and terrible moral choices. Most of her protagonists are great at exactly one thing and are continually prevented from doing it. Aqueduct Press published her debut novel, The Breath of the Sun, earlier this year. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018

Our annual series of posts on reading, viewing, and listening is about to begin. Once again I've solicited pieces from a bevy of writers and critics to tell us what they particularly enjoyed reading, viewing, and listening to in the last year. This year's edition will include posts by Andrea Hairston, Lisa Tuttle, Rachel Fellman, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and others. I'll be adding links below as I upload each new contribution, to provide a list for convenient reference. I hope you'll enjoy reading these as much as I do, and maybe even swell your ever-growing list of titles you want to read. Sometimes it seems that the volume of books published is so tremendous that it's no surprise that really wonderful work often slips below one's personal radar.

Part 1: Rachel Fellman
Part 2: Lisa Tuttle
Part 3: Tansy Rayner Roberts







Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 8, 4









The Fall issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is out. The issue includes a short fiction by Susana Vallejo (translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel), poetry by Deborah L. Davitt, Lesley Wheeler, and Sonya Taaffe, a Grandmother Magma column by Julie Phillips, Karen Burnham's column, and reviews of work by Rebecca Roanhorse, Rachel Fellman and others. The issue's featured artist is Heather Tatarek. You can purchase single copies or subscriptions at http://thecsz.com/; the electronic edition is $3 for an issue or $10 for a year's subscription, while the print edition is $5 for an issue or $16 for a year's subscription.


Volume 8, 4
Flash Fiction
Returning
    
by Susana Vallejo
 
Poems
Haunted ~ Ceres ~ Reborn in Blood ~ Contemplation ~ The Barn-Raising
   by Deborah L. Davitt

Racketing Spirits ~ Hairy On the Inside ~ 
Bad Dragon ~ Where Dragons Come From ~ 
White Noise Machine Now With Twelve Settings!
    by Lesley Wheeler

Ariadne in Queens A ~ Vixen When She Went to School
    by Sonya Taaffe
 
Grandmother Magma
The Hearth in the Spaceship
“The Shobies’ Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin

   reviewed by Julie Phillips 

Dust Lanes
Short fiction reviews
   by Karen Burnham

Book Reviews
The Breath of the Sun, by Rachel Fellman
   reviewed by Arley Sorg
Heroine’s Journey, by Sarah Kuhn
   reviewed by Erin Roberts
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne
   reviewed by Nancy Jane Moore
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
  reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

Featured Artist
Heather Tatarek

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Gemma Files' Invocabulary



I'm pleased to announce the release of Invocabulary, a collection of poetry by Gemma Files in both print and e-book editions. You can read a sample of purchase it at  http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-151-3.php.

Myths and fairytales, monsters and magic, dead gods and forgotten goddesses—these are the subjects that most often inspire Gemma Files' third collection of speculative poetry. By running folk horror symbolism through the filter of contemporary language, she maps the shadow-side of fiction out with spells, curses, confessions and prayers in an effort to show how the stories we tell ourselves pull us headlong forward through history, illuminating all the most unsolvable central mysteries of human existence in words of both faith and fear.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Gwynne Garfinkle's People Change



I'm pleased to announce the release of People Change, a collection of stories and poetry by Gwynne Garfinkle. People Change is the sixty-third volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series.

The stories and poems in People Change illuminate the personal and feminist concerns evoked by classic horror movies and other aspects of popular culture. Mining the implications of figures like the Bride of Frankenstein, Samantha Stephens, and the Stepford Wives, the book explores such themes as family and misogyny. At times horror merges with autobiography, as in "It's a Universal Picture." The women and girls in Gwynne Garfinkle's stories variously seek the gift of flight and the gift of friendship, real and imaginary.

You can read a sample from the book or purchase it at  http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-157-5.php.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum by Cynthia Ward



I'm pleased to announce the release of The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum, a novella by Cynthia Ward, as the sixty-second volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series This is a sequel to The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (published by Aqueduct in 2017).


 Intelligence agent Lucy Harker receives the most dangerous assignment in the world—keeping Winston Churchill safe on the Western Front. Despite her unique abilities as Dracula's daughter, she loses Churchill to Kaiser Wilhelm's inhuman allies. If she's to recover Britain's greatest leader, Agent Harker must gain the aid of her Austrian lover, Countess Karnstein—better known as Carmilla. But the notorious vampire is keeping secrets that might doom the British Empire.


You can read a sample of the book as well as purchase it at http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-153-7.php.




What the critics say about The Adventure of the Incognita Countess:

"[G]rand and smashing recursive steampunk in the manner of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a splendid romp indeed."
  —Asimov's SF, Paul Di filippo,

"It's a story that defies the pressure to be a queer tragedy, and plays with that trope rather heavily, calling to mind the ways that queerness is often an element of the monsters depicted in Victorian literature, but here it's allowed to be reclaimed and celebrated...[A]n impressive bit of world building, and it almost begs for further exploration. At least, I would be more than willing to return to this world of monsters, intrigue, and spies. An excellent read!"
  —Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur, 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

2018 Elgin Awards

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) has announced the winners of the 2018 Elgin Awards for best collections of speculative poetry published in the previous two years. Named after SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin, awards are given in two categories: best chapbook and best full-length book.

2018 Elgin Award Results:

Full-Length Book Category
First Place: Liberating the Astronauts • Christina M. Rau (Aqueduct Press, 2017)
Second Place: Satan’s Sweethearts • Marge Simon & Mary Turzillo (Weasel Press, 2017)
Third Place: Love Robot • Margaret Rhee (The Operating System, 2017)
 
Chapbook Category
First Place: A Catalogue of the Further Suns • F. J. Bergmann (Gold Line Press, 2017)
Second Place: Astropoetry • Christina Sng (Alban Lake, 2017)
Third Place: The Terraformers • Dan Hoy (Third Man Books, 2017)

This year’s Elgin Awards had 22 nominees in the chapbook category and 30 nominees in the full-length category, one of the largest years since the awards were first established in 2013.

Here at Aqueduct we're particularly pleased that Christina M. Rau's Liberating the Astronauts (Vol. 55 in our Conversation Pieces series) won in the Full-Length Book Category. (You can read more about the book and download an excerpt at  http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-127-8.php.)

Congratulations to everyone who placed!


Thursday, August 30, 2018

The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 12: Call for Submissions

WisCon Chronicles 12: LGBTQ+ Identities 
by JoSelle Vanderhooft

Hello, WisCon community! I’m thrilled and honored to announce that Emma Humphries and I will be editing WisCon Chronicles Volume 13, the theme of which will be LGBTQ+/queer/QUILTBAG identities.

We’re looking for submissions ranging from roughly 1,000 to 4,000 words. Pieces up to 5,000 words will be considered, but shorter lengths are preferred. This collection aims to be as intersectional as possible, so we are particularly interested in essays by (but by no means limited to) LGBTQ+ people of color, disabled people, immigrants, working-class people, people of (any) faith, and from other groups that experience multiple oppressions in addition to those against gender identity and sexual orientation. Additionally, we also encourage submissions by members of the community whose voices are under- or unrepresented in LGBTQ+ publications, including (but, again, not limited to): asexuals, aromantics, bisexuals and other multisexuals, intersex people, and nonbinary, genderqueer, and genderfluid people, as well as people whose identities have a complicated relationship with culturally dominant notions of what being LGBTQ+ means. We are also interested in hearing from LGBTQ+ people who are members of communities whose history ties in closely with LGBTQ+ history. In addition to personal essays on LGBTQ+ identity and its intersections with other identities, possible topics can include.

 ·Essays about LGBTQ+ fandom history and participation in fandom.

· LGBTQ+ presence at WisCon and other conventions, including con policies that are helpful or harmful to LGBTQ+ people.

 · LGBTQ+ fan works.

· The ongoing development of LGBTQ+ programming at WisCon and other feminist or feminist-friendly conventions.

 · Experiences at WisCon LGBTQ+ writers have had (good, bad, and otherwise).

 · Works of LGBTQ+ SF/F (prose, poetry, or any combination thereof)

· Academic essays on LGBTQ+ readings of SF/F media presented at WisCon.

Please submit your pieces, including a short query, by November 5 to jo.critiques@gmail.com. Please also email this address with any questions.

Accepted file formats are .rtf, .doc, and .docx. If you need to submit in another file format, please query first so we can make sure we are able to accommodate you. We look forward to seeing your submissions!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman


I'm pleased to announce the release of Breath of the Sun, a debut novel, by Rachel Fellman, in both print and e-book editions. You can read a sample from the book at Aqueduct's site as well as (of course!) purchase a copy there. 

Lamat Paed understands paradoxes. She's a great mountain climber who's never summited, the author of a tell-all that didn't really tell anything. For years she guided pilgrims up the foothills of the Sublime Mount, leading them as high as God would let them go. And then she partnered the apostate Southern priest Mother Disaine on the most daring, most blasphemous expedition in history—an attempt to reach the summit of the sacred mountain, the top of God's head. Disaine returned in triumph, claiming to be the first person since the prophet to have summited and lived. But Lamat went into hiding.

Now, late in life and exiled from the mountain, Lamat finally tells her story to her partner, Otile. It's the story of why she really wrote her first book all those years ago, how she came to be cast out from the mountain-dwelling Holoh people, and how she fled to the anonymity of the city to hide from her fame. Most of all, it's the story of her bond with Mother Disaine—the blasphemer, charlatan, and visionary who stole Lamat's life to serve her own purposes—and what really happened on their last, greatest expedition.

Sarah Tolmie, author of The Stone Boatmen, loved the book. "Not since The Left Hand of Darkness has any book conveyed to me the profundity of the winter journey and the intensity of relationships forged in it. But where Le Guin was always evasive about religion in her sublime mountain landscapes, Fellman is direct about it. She creates an immanence in her mountain, The Body of God, that her characters respond to with an authentic and credible religious passion, one that gets mixed up with all other passions in their lives.

"The creed of Asam is elegantly crafted, beautifully quotable: Your bodies are the compaction of stars and your minds are the compaction of history. Be decent to each other; pity each other, for it is not an easy state to be made of so much and live for so little a time. The prose throughout is simple and luminous, with many sentences that hang in the mind: Sometimes I think there is nothing sadder than a toy. They usually have faces, but they have no use. Altogether a book that is about much more than ambition to scale a peak."

Publishers Weekly loved it too, giving it a starred review: "Fellman's riveting debut melds prophecy, postcolonial politics, and mountaineering in a nuanced secondary-world fantasy. Scarred from a calamitous expedition she'd rather bury, Lamat Paed, indigenous mountain guide and climbing memoirist, is finally telling the true story of her last, traumatic climb: leading the charismatic and manipulative Mother Disaine, member of a religious order of academians, to climb the mountain that Lamat's Holoh people consider the body of God. Interlacing the expedition with Lamat's marriage-destroying first climb, prophecies, and manuscript footnotes from Lamat's lover, Otile, Fellman ably executes an ambitious structure and delivers an atmospheric, poetic, and occasionally wry and brutal story that moves with the gentle but unstoppable momentum of an iceberg. This is a compassionate and finely observed debut from an author to watch."

Rachel read from Breath of the Sun at WisCon, and will be reading it from it again at Borderlands Books in  September. I just happen to have a photo from her WisCon reading:



Monday, July 23, 2018

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 8, 3


The summer issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is out. In it you will find flash fiction ("Roots" by Sara Codair and "The Canonization of Junipero Serra" by Nancy Jane Moore), poetry (by Gwynne Garfinkle and Alexandra Seidel), and a memorial to Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois. And of course it has reviews: Karen Burnham's column "Dust Lanes," Amy Thomson's appreciation of Suzette Haden Elgin's linguistic sf for our "Grandmother Magma" column, and reviews by Kathleen Alcalá and others of four new novels. Finally, the issue's featured artist is Jeanne Gomoll, who gives us a taste of her on-going "Space Babe" series.

The CSZ is available for purchase at http://thecsz.com/. Electronic copies are $3, print copies $5; electronic subscriptions $10, print subscripts $16.





Vol.8, 3 (July 2018)




In Memoriam 
 
Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois

Poems 
 
jungle red
   by Gwynne Garfinkle
The Shadow of the Peak
    by Alexandra Seidel

Flash Fiction
 
Roots
    by Sara Codair
The Canonization of Junipero Serra
    by Nancy Jane Moore

Grandmother Magma 
 
Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Láadan
   reviewed by Amy Thomson

Dust Lanes 
 
Stories in Capricious #9, edited by A.C. Buchanan
   by Karen Burnham

Book Reviews 
 
The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
   reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

Medusa Uploaded, by by Emily Devenport
   reviewed by Phoebe Salzman-Cohen

A Study in Honor, by Claire O'Dell
  reviewed by Cynthia Ward

The Invisible Valley, by Su Wei
   reviewed by Arley Sorg

Featured Artist 
 
Jeanne Gomoll

Monday, July 9, 2018

L. Timmel Duchamp's Chercher La Femme


I'm pleased to announce the publication of Chercher La Femme, a new novel by L. Timmel Duchamp (i.e., me!), which is scheduled for official release on August 1, 2018. It is available for purchase in print and e-book formats through Aqueduct's website now.

Novels, of course, always have origin stories..Sometimes a word or phrase, sometimes a dream, sometimes even an image that however fleeting lingers long after it has been glimpsed. In this case, reading Stanislaus Lem's Solaris and watching Andrei Tarkovsky's exceedingly long film based on that novel planted the seed of this novel in my mind. Over the course of two years I drafted the original version in the early 1990s.  I then set it aside. Some fifteen years later, Helen Merrick offered me a perceptive critique. Since I lacked the time to do anything with it then, I saved it for future consideration;.it proved tremendously helpful when I decided to read the manuscript during one of my Port Townsend writing retreats.

On a more personal note, because the novel is written from a non-dystopian perspective, a part of me worried loudly that it might seem out of step with 2018's horrendous fake reality, but in fact its perspective has proven to be helpful for my thinking, rather than evasive. In a sense, it's more fully grounded in 2018's reality than it was in 1993's, without being swallowed up by the social psychological pervasiveness that many of us are struggling to escape. Dare I say aloud that that in our hearts, many of us feel certain that the triumph of neoliberalism can only be a dead end for our species? 

You can  read a sample from the book.Or purchase it here: http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-147-6.php.

Here's a brief description:

"Everything about the humanoids inhabiting the planet La Femme is beautiful and desirable. Even their names are a pleasure to the tongue, a pleasure that can be experienced only in meat space."  —Paul 22423
They named the planet "La Femme" and called it a paradise and refused to leave it. Now Julia 9561 is heading up the mission to retrieve the errant crew and establish meaningful Contact with the inhabitants. Are the inhabitants really all female, as the first crew claimed? Why don't the men want to return to Earth? What happened to the women on the crew? And why did Paul 22423 warn the First Council to send only male crew members?

"Speculative fiction at its purest."
 —-Vonda N. McIntyre, author of Dreamsnake and The Moon and the Sun

"Chercher La Femme, which unfolds in a strange, complex, alien future, effectively explores several themes: of personal identity and how it holds itself together but is also porous to experience; of communication with alien life forms and how amorphous and challenging that might be; and of the visceral power of alien forms of beauty and art, giving the story compelling depths. The tense stretch between the Pax and the "Outsiders" offers an interesting representation of the real-world tension we now live with, between low-tech societies and those racing to colonize outer (and inner, personal) space in all sorts of ways.

"There's some interesting tidal stirring going on at the more cerebral levels of modern SF, which I think began with books like A Voyage to Arcturus and Solaris. It's now manifesting itself in, for example, Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach books and in this book, Chercher La Femme, as well as in films like Arrival, They Remain, and of course Annihilation. Human bafflement and consternation characterize these stories, in the face of the most alien kind of alien-ness we can imagine at this point, and a necessary softening and yielding of our age-old infatuation with a propulsive, often violent drive to control (or kill) whatever is ineffable and strange to us.
 —Suzy McKee Charnas, author of The Vampire Tapestry and the Holdfast Chronicles


And here's Publishers Weekly's review:


Aqueduct editor Duchamp's concentrated and demanding examination of what's accepted as "self" is cleverly and convincingly presented as a simple piece of science fiction. Diplomat Julia, a member of a socialistic human society known as the Pax, is the head of a mission to a far-off world, La Femme. The mission's primary purpose is recovery of the first ship sent to make contact with La Femme's inhabitants, though further diplomatic advancement is planned as well. Julia is distracted from the mission objectives by her deep analysis of her life thus far and the utopian ideal she lives by, particularly when she deals with her splintered crew. What she and her crew find upon arrival is enough to shake them all. Duchamp (Stretto) makes abundant challenges to gender norms and raises questions of what constitutes alienness, and the novel's humanistic approach and unwavering commitment to Julia's frank introspection go beautifully with a precisely detailed world. This thoughtful tale bears rereading and contemplation.
  —Publishers Weekly, June 2018

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Le Guin Tribute Anthology: A Call for Submissions

Here is Rose Lemberg, on a volume to be published by Aqueduct Press:

Call for Submissions: Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology

I am seeking submissions for an anthology of poetry in tribute to the life and works of Ursula K. Le Guin. The anthology is tentatively titled CLIMBING LIGHTLY THROUGH FORESTS, and it will be published by Aqueduct Press sometime in 2019.

Ursula K. Le Guin was perhaps most known for her SFF fiction, but she was a prolific poet, with a dozen poetry collections in print (her last poetry book is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press this Fall).

Unlike her big-idea SF, her poetry was often more personal in scope, engaging closely with land and landscape of the Pacific Northwest; much of her poetry is not speculative at all. Le Guin was a complex, prolific creator whose work influenced and touched so many of us.
For this anthology, I am seeking poetry that engages with Ursula K. Le Guin’s life and work broadly construed – including her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I will be looking for a variety of voices, themes, treatments, and approaches. Both critical and celebratory approaches are welcome, as is anything in-between.

You are welcome to engage with specific books and/or stories, or take it in other directions. Your poems do not have to be speculative, although a speculative element is always welcome. There are no length or style limitations. Very short and very long works are welcome. Experimental forms are welcome. Prose poetry is welcome. Rhymed and formal poetry is welcome. I truly welcome poetry of any kind. Please do not send me short stories or nonfiction, however.

As always, I am hoping to receive poetry from people from a variety of backgrounds. Everybody is welcome to submit! I welcome work from people who belong to marginalized/underrepresented groups and communities,  including from Black people, Indigenous people, and/or people of color, from migrants, from non-Western and non-Anglophone people, from disabled and neurodiverse people, from LGBTQIA+ people, from people of all genders. You do not need to be marginalized to submit. I welcome submissions from new and established voices, seasoned poets and people who never wrote poetry before. Please don’t self-reject!

Where to submit: Please submit up to 3 (THREE) poems to lembergsubmissions@gmail.com. If you are sending a reprint, please indicate where and when it was first published. Your submissions should be titled LE GUIN SUBMISSION: Your last name

Please do not submit more than 3 poems total for this call (you can send them together or separately).
Editorial form of address: since people ask me about this! “Dear Editor” is great.”Dear Rose” or “Dear R.” is also fine. Please don’t call me either Ms, Mr, or Mrs.

Payment: The tribute anthology is a paid opportunity: we are paying $20 per original poem. While I am primarily looking for original poetry, I will consider reprints as well (payrate for reprints TBD).

An important note on rejections: Ursula K. Le Guin’s work and life was important to many of us. It can be heartbreaking to receive a rejection for work that deeply matters to us. Unfortunately, I will only be able to fit a limited amount of poems, and I foresee some difficult decisions to come. Whatever the outcome of your submission will be, please rest assured that I will review it with utmost care, and that a rejection is not a reflection on yourself, your craft, or your personal connection to Ursula K. Le Guin’s work – but simply the reality of publishing.

Submissions period: the anthology is open to submissions (as of July 3rd, 2018), and it will be open to submissions till October 15th, 11:59 Central. I will let you know within 90 days of submission whether your work is accepted, rejected, or held for further consideration.
I’m looking forward to reading your work!

Friday, June 22, 2018

The False Promise of Vanguardism: MLA 2018, part nine

This is the ninth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, and part eight.

637. Du Bois in a Comparative Context.

I attended in order to hear Vilashini Cooppan’s “The Wince of the Flesh: Du Bois’s Embodied Humanism,” but nobody was coming in from the West Coast, so the “panel” turned into Brent Edwards introducing Gayatri Spivak. Spivak had no problem filling two time slots, even though she was also slated to give an award speech later in the evening. Over 100 people were in attendance.

Spivak made sure that the mic worked and everyone could hear her, then thanked Hortense and Nahum for being there. In 2009 she had given the Du Bois Lecture, asking why Du Bois referred to the fugitive slaves’ joining the Union Army as a “general strike.” Then last year, she co-taught a course on Pan-Africanism, wherein she and her co-teacher did not agree but were always supportive of each other. Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism differs broadly from earlier Pan-Africanisms. It is illuminated by his understanding of Russia and China, of Stalin’s origins.

Du Bois thought white people who were anticolonial in the metropole were marvelous and that their work was undone by the whites out in the colonies. In 1946, B.R. Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois asking that black America circulate a petition to the U.N. in support of the untouchables. Remember that postcolonialist and Pan-Africanist efforts predate current post-globalization class alliances! Du Bois wanted to get into struggles interior to colonial space. But look at Dark Princess: it belongs with Bulwer Lytton and H. Rider Haggard! He tries and fails to overcome the problem of the bourgeois understanding the subaltern, and creates an embarrassing fantasy of India. Ambedkar shows us how one can work in many rhythms on many fronts, but predigital as well as digital international struggles are helped when there is class continuity.

Look at this book on Gandhi, inscribed by Nehru to “W.E.B. Bois.” Du Bois is always invoked by the nationalist bourgoisie. You cannot just wish cross-class alliances into being! [William Empson knew that—jbl] Du Bois and Ambedkar were both middle-class men who struggled with discrimination out in the world. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar wrote of Gandhi, “The world owes much to rebels who dare to argue in the face of the pontiff.” Cf. Nahum Chandler on Du Bois’s biography of John Brown. But Du Bois’s “I have suffered from racism as you from casteism” did not catch on.

Consider the implications of Marx’s great commentary on the Times’s coverage of Jamaica. Now, Ambedkar wrote caste into reproductive heteronormativity. Spivak has worked hard in the past thirty years to learn what the subaltern were denied and how they were cognitively impaired by their deprivations. It is urgent that we understand how peoples can be deprived of frameworks of knowledge and understanding. She opposes the astonishingly resilient Christian conviction that we all already know everything: if that’s so we should burn the universities down. Now, without the abstractions that they’ve been denied a grasp of, colonial struggles cannot achieve subaltern agency (What’s distressing, Spivak added in a commentary on a slide she was showing, is the condition of Du Bois’s books and notes in Ghana. They are in open stacks in the library, where high school kids can come and study them for exams. There is no bibliographer, and much vermin. Soon they will be covered with mouse shit and teenagers). So much nonsense has been written on the “radically unknowable” subaltern, and Spivak is going to a conference on Monday where she’ll be celebrated and hear more such nonsense. Du Bois’s inability to imagine the subaltern episteme, or stateless social groups on the fringe of history, does not make the texts more good; it makes them less good.

When Spivak met Annan [?], he was impressed that she knew, when he said “the tall one and the short one,” that he meant Lumumba and Fanon. All were deeply aware of the postcolonial. But there are serious historical limitations to the flexibility of our identities, among them the inability to imagine colonial subjectivity from the outside. Du Bois in his 1948 revision of the Talented Tenth proposal wrote, “It is clear that in 1900, American Negroes were an inferior caste . . . “ Today, “leadership training” is all over the place, but what about the concept of followership? Du Bois had “assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow.” Expanding the range of the word “caste” is a form of Travelling Theory.

The academic intellectual needs to prepare the ground once again for an epistemological relocation. This is where we need Spillers’s concept of ambivalence, invoked by Chandler to discuss particularity. Reconstruction-era legislator Alfred Gray’s 1868 “The Constitution: I came here to talk for it, and if I get killed, I will talk for it” is . . . something something invoking Spillers, Glas, and the empty position left by the Constitution. By analogy, all the reading required is in the daily news: it comes from Flint, Michigan; it comes from Lagos, Nigeria.

Spivak ended her presentation with a long ontological question for Spillers and Chandler, and a reminded to Brent Edwards to speak into the mic.

Edwards said that to him, the panel title “Du Bois in a Comparative Context” meant Du Bois read from elsewhere, but that Spivak was evidently thinking of Du Bois as a model comparative thinker. Look at that failed 1946 encounter between Du Bois and Ambedkar. Both were committed and deliberately working within the frame of constitutionality and the state/international politic, making efforts at generalization about the group that was not allowed to generalize. It is the elite talking to the elite. But Spivak, Edwards keeps telling her, speaks in shorthand: What is Du Bois and Ambedkar’s “amphibolic relation with identitarianism” that Spivak asked Spillers about? What was the amphibolism, Gayatri? How are they both breaking down identitarianism and building it up? Is Du Bois’s inability to get the struggle interior to colonized space a failure of method? Of comparativity? “Can we imagine this spectacular revolution?”—In Black Reconstruction Du Bois emphasizes the radicalism of recognizing the enslaved as human.

But “Worlds of Color” was published both at the end of The New Negro and in the Spring 1925 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, he writes of The Shadow of Portugal, The Shadow of Belgium, The Shadow of France, and The Shadow of England, and he tries to think comparatively about the idea of “colored labor.” How much hope is there for bringing The Shadow of Shadows together? Is it something other than a differential ontology of social formations? Finally, what difference does it make to sit with Du Bois’s work in Ghana?

“Should I respond to this,” asked Spivak, “because then it would allow no time for questions. With respect to contact with the Du Bois archive, with his notes, that contingency of work that is not written for others allows me to . . . I don’t know. Others will tell me if it makes a difference. I’m not transforming it into data; I’m trying to internalize it . . . something happens to me, and I can’t give it up.”

Now the metonymic obligation is such that—“amphibolic identitarianism” was the only way to express what she saw in those authors. It’s like Hegel: Hegel keeps saying the same damn thing, and he both fears and hopes that readers will make the mistake of thinking he’s writing about a subject.

There is not some given figure of a comparativist: the failure of comparison is the normative deviation of the comparativist. There is even mishandling of the subaltern in Notebook 25. The methodic criterion is that we’re taught to think with the ruling class—vanguardism—we need the methodology to understand the subaltern and not elevate the ruling class. Marx is my brother, but I’m not a fundamentalist. The great failure of socialism-from-above is the idea that the global communities of color are ready to unite. Du Bois’s metaphors are fighting against the false promise of vanguardism.

Nahum Chandler asked whether the Du Bois/Ambedkar discussion might be read as not about success/failure or continuity/break but as the statement of a certain necessity and an affirmation of that difficulty for us: is there not an order of temporality in which that is useful? Think what it poses as our own limit today, in the century that’s ongoing. Chandler is interested in restaging a reading of Ambedkar’s story. Remember that Du Bois is already seventy-eight and Ambedkar is in a completely different place (“I don’t agree,” Spivak interjected): each is facing the post-1945 rearrangement of states across the globe.

Spillers said, that this was for her a relatively new Du Bois and that she’d have to think more about the relevance of ambivalence before answering; Spivak said she knew she could trust Spillers to come through on that implied promise to answer. Spivak mentioned that, as a student of De Man, she does not accept the idea of a rhetorical question: “I am suspicious of people who are suspicious of what they call a rhetoric of suspicion.”

An audience member noted that a shadow speaking to another shadow need not lead to yet another shadow. Another audience member said that what she found beyond brilliant in Spivak’s analysis was her reading of Marx, because Marx is generally read as a colonialist: anticolonial Marxists don’t like his 1857 letters. So she’s glad Spivak pointed out that Marx was making an argument about the way to think transnationally. She said she was not comfortable with the direction Marxist historians are taking, using the Critique of Political Economy transnationally to give workers agency: that makes an end-run around the problem of translation.

In response to the “shadow” question, Chandler cited a few thousand passages from Du Bois demonstrating his pre-1920 signs of his nascent colonial awareness, analyzing his engagement with Plato, and tracing the culmination of both in his notes for Africa and World Peace in the ‘40s. Boy these people know their archive! Spivak said, yes, we have to not immediately read Du Bois—and this has nothing to do with Eurocentrism—we reopen Du Bois to see him reading Plato and reading Marx. It’s a question of scholarship, that we must do this rather than reading him in light of our received understanding of Plato and Marx.

The sense of caste at work among the subalterns is almost impossible to grasp unless you make a no-holds-barred acknowledgment that they are not just Good People Because We Were Bad.

I began to worry about Spivak because she was sounding hoarse and she still had a major award acceptance speech to give later in the evening. She admitted to not being sure what the Marxist historian in the audience was asking. Was the historian saying that her fellow historians are generalizing the subject again? Visualize that sick little hunchbacked man still writing in prison so that we could be thinking. And we are thinking of the mass of the electorate in Asia, in the U.S., who are not generalizable, and citizenship would generalize them in a good way—and this is where our thinking stops. What’s amphibolic is history! That we imagine a straight line of a subjectivization scares me, because then who’s subjectivizing them into what?

Spivak offered her thanks and concluded.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

But Does Fiction Make Us Better? MLA 2018, part eight

This is the eighth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.



568: Against Empathy

There were maybe fifty people in attendance.

Joshua Landy announced that he would take it as a given that the U.S. political situation is catastrophic. What role should fiction and criticism play in remedying that? It’s natural, in the Shelleyan tradition (see also Rorty and Nussbaum) to think that fiction will help us by increasing empathy. There’s been a drop in empathy among college students of late—Sherry Turkle blames it on cell phones. But bigots do not, in fact, lack empathy! They use it on the wrong people and entities. Coates has written that “racism . . . is broad sympathy toward some and broad skepticism toward others.” Empathy advocates would say, okay, make artifacts that make us empathize with the right people. Suzanne Keene’s research shows that the empathy fiction generates makes students nicer to those in their in-group.

So what can literature do? Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Spike Lee, and Ralph Ellison all work in part by blocking empathy. Do the Right Thing is one of the great artworks of the twentieth century, but the art, not Radio Raheem, is the object of our empathy. Radio is deliberately not a positive image. The visual approach to the black characters is highly stylized, the approach to the Italian-Americans more realist: they’re the ones who get more face shots and more signs of interiority. Bigger Thomas and even Invisible Man have imperfections that make them hard to side with: Ellison is celebrating imperfection. Pilate Dead is a problematic moral center: her love leads to catastrophe. Ditto Milkman’s epiphany in the hunting scene; in general, Milkman is no great shakes and refuses to consider the effects of his actions on the women around him.

Fictions can be political without being empathy-generators. The blocking of empathy facilitates a) nuanced moral judgment, such as the ability to discriminate among categories of wrongdoing b) the capacity to step back from our representations—the Brechtian ability to recognize narratives. Spike Lee’s point is to equip us with a bullshit-detector; Harriet Beecher Stowe cannot strengthen our capacity to step back from our representations and see them for the illusions they are.

What do people coming of age today need? An understanding of politics, of law, of history . . . literature and literary studies can offer critical reasoning skills and techniques of logical argumentation. Landy ended his talk with a weird denunciation of anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason positions, and said people who cannot follow Bruno Latour’s path and change course on these issues should shut up for several years.

Patrick Colm Hogan promised to show us problems in how we think about empathy and ethics, but to argue only against the use of the affect heuristic in moral evaluation. The biases Paul Bloom identifies affect spontaneous empathy, but not the cultivated empathy that ethicists advocate. No one is urging us to use spontaneous empathy as a moral criterion (although everybody does). Ethical principles demand systematic and unbiased consistency. Cultivated empathy is a response to the biases of spontaneous empathy. The objects of right-wing empathy should get our empathy, but so should everybody else: we need to resist the saliency and group-identity biases in determining whom we identify with. Prudence entails empathy with my future self; ethical considerations are of the same sort; so we can make empathic decisions on behalf of someone’s future self or future society, and they might require inflicting or failing to relieve current suffering. We need to cultivate ethics more assiduously for generic unknown persons.

Certain sorts of narratives may reduce prejudice against outgroups. And empathy—a nontargeting but universalizing empathy—is necessary for action. Here Hogan took on the arguments in Paul Bloom’s book one by one and argued contra Bloom that empathy is distinct from the egocentric responses of emotional contagion and personal distress. He spoke of having asked a doctor recently whether his Parkinson’s would soon affect his faculties, as that would be tragic for someone whose entire life rests on complex cognitive processes. The doctor gave a brutally unempathic response, and Hogan described, using colorful corporeal metaphors, how that’d made him feel.

So what do we mean by “empathy”? A mnemonic re-experience of the situations we imagine others to be in. It simulates a target’s experience and responds to that experience with a parallel emotional stance. It necessarily occurs en route to sympathy. We may modulate our responses based on our judgment of the appropriateness or deservingness of the other’s distress. Localized emotional sharing is subject to modulate. What we need is the ethical expansion of modulation across space and time.

Paul Bloom expressed gratitude to both Joshua and Patrick for their accurate and generous readings of his book. When he first published his “Against Empathy” article, he expected a small but positive response. The amount of denunciation he got on Twitter shows that people use “empathy” to mean many many things. What Paul Bloom means is more or less the Scottish Enlightenment idea of “sympathy,” chiefly as described by Adam Smith, not “everything good” or “the capacity to judge what other people are feeling,” as his Twitter detractors variously seemed to think. There’s lots of research on how our brains in a literal sense feel people’s pain. Empathy is seen as a good, but it’s just a spotlight: remember the impact of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. It has a narrow focus. Empathy is innumerate, biased, concrete, and myopic, even in Hogan’s refined definition. People don’t care about numbers: they respond the same way to “How much would you pay to save eighty birds from an oil spill?” when the number is changed. Our empathy is also biased toward the dominant group, the in-group, or the fandom: people were less willing to inflict or condone pain inflicted upon a man who they were told was a fan of the same soccer team they liked. Granted, all of these biases apply to all of our affective lives, but empathy’s especially vulnerable.

See Elaine Scarry on “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People”: we need to change tactics. We don’t give everybody else an imaginary weight equal to our own. We erase our own dense array of attributes, à la Rawls. Empathy has immense power: there’s a great deal of pleasure in living out another life. But does fiction make us better? What side do we take on Nussbaum v. Posner? Paul Bloom is not entirely convinced that lit scholars are much nicer than scientists or even stockbrokers. Does reading fiction improve Theory of Mind? The results of studies making that claim are fragile.

Josh and Pat are both moving toward focused empathy. And once you’ve decided what the right thing and the wrong thing to do is, you can use empathy to make it easier. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation are both powerful empathic works. We can resolve to teach the right works, or teach all the works in the right way—that’s Nussbaum’s position—but there are people who are more powerful than literature professors, promulgating their own narratives. People who measure high on empathy are also high on retribution; and DJT mobilizes empathy very well. But there are other moral motivators. Remember the Buddhist distinction between empathy and compassion. Compassion is caring for somebody: in mindfulness meditation, you don’t feel suffering. In confronting the suffering of the world, the Buddhist feels bliss.

Are empathy and concern psychologically distinct? How much you empathize does not correlate with how much you care for/about people. Look at how many expressions of fear or hostility we see in a Wordle for high-empathy people versus the more positive terms that dominate one for high-compassion people.

The first questioner in the audience said, Paul, I love most of your work, but why do you have to go to compassion? Affective routes will always lead us to biases: we need impartiality, universality, and systematic thinking. Not all personal experiences and emotional responses. Paul Bloom replied, ha, most people ask why I needed the “rational” in “rational compassion,” not why I needed the “compassion”! The reason is that you need motivation. A descriptive theory of what makes people do good things. Moral motivation could be wrong about future shame and future guilt. Something something Smithian about concern for your reputation.

Another questioner said that in the Buddhist tradition, to have compassion is to be suspicious of narrative and to be detached from all personal notions. Does fiction produce empathy that leads to harm? Landy said, the movie Adaptation and Beckett’s trilogy chip away at our idea of narrative, but yeah, that’s true of most fiction. A third questioner made an observation about irony, which may be constitutive of the literary, and asked whether the uses and abuses of irony apply to the Nussbaum v. Brecht narrative? Landy opined that romantic irony in Do the Right Thing is the Brechtian drive.

A fourth questioner noted that there’s a gap between examining empathy in the literary and in your life. The paradox of Kurtz . . . what is entailed in identifying empathy within the literary domain? What would be entailed by looking at empathy outside the literary? What case could be made for a connection? ‘cause the case has not been made for an analogy. Paul Bloom remarked that there’s plainly overlap: seeing someone’s hurt isn’t too different from hearing a story. But! Empathy in fiction and journalism is always mediated and rhetorical: it judges what’s worthy and what isn’t. Hogan asked, literature as general training for empathy? Or as specific training for seeing a specific group as human? We have some evidence for the efficacy of the latter, not so much for the former.  Landy replied that the result of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South was a hardening of racist attitudes and a literary backlash, which included the work of Thomas Dixon. People’s responses are wildly variable—Not so wildly, said Hogan: there are statistical tendencies.

A fifth questioner asked, what about when the ethical response is that you cannot walk in the shoes of the other? Vide Sontag. Paul Bloom said, even if empathy were a good way of making moral judgment, we’re incompetent at it. We are very bad at knowing what it’s like to be in a situation unlike our own. Look at these absurd Disability Simulations that are supposed to help people understand what disabled life is like. Hogan replied, those are problems with the falsity of the simulation, not problems with the empathy.


A sixth questioner said it’s part of our style as literary critics to be detached. How would I write as a critic, if I were to empathize? Hogan (I think it was) said, there’s a literary genre that’s supposed to inspire compassion in its audience: what about tragedy? Paul Bloom said art can move us in a great many different ways. Lalita Pandit Hogan said, Tragedy makes a distinction between emotional contagion and empathy, between pity and catharsis. Paul Bloom said, when Trump makes you feel for Kate Steinle in order to mobilize xenophobia, he’s telling you a story: that’s not emotional contagion. Patrick reminded us that Plato said you can’t be good soldiers if you’ve seen tragedy, ‘cause then you’d pity the enemy; and that’s what Aristotle is refuting. Some questions arose about whether ethics come first or last.

Another questioner brought up Berlant on sentimental citizenship and how empathy is used to uphold the status quo and liberal individualism if we don’t think about power relations about about who’s being sympathized with. Paul Bloom agreed that empathy favors the needs of people in power. A final questioner asked, Can’t compassion fall victim to the same pitfalls as empathy? Paul Bloom said, Not to the same extent. Hogan objected that universalizing does not mean projection.