I wrote this story in a fit last August, one of those inspirational writing sprints that poets are supposed to feel. I wrote it after months listening to stories about the Uighurs in China, violence and state surveillance. Which made me think of the Stasi, and our own Canadian brand of Cold War surveillance in PROFUNC, the Fruit Machine, the Lavender Scare.
The list doesn’t end there, of course. But these examples are particularly horrifying (to me, I mean) for their intimacy, the way they evaluate a citizen’s behaviour in their most private, internal moments. There’s no privacy, no recourse, no escape from that evaluating gaze, which seeks out imperfect citizens, deems then internal enemies, and destroys them.
I was on a panel once, talking about the DEWline (a paper that I revised into this article), when Karl Jirgens, a Canadian writer, argued that the technologies of the Cold War– surveillance, proxy wars, MAD– have become standard operating procedure for all the world’s super powers. We might have celebrated the end of history and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we still live within the structures of that era. When I look at Uighurs, I believe Karl, and I am nauseated, and terrified, by how effectively those technologies have been refined, enhanced, rendered more perfect. Implacable.
So, as usual, I wrote a story about it, trying to capture the intimate violations of state surveillance.
This is a dark story. I wrote it about my own climate change anxiety, as a kind of exorcism. I don’t know if it worked to exorcise anything, though, since I am still in turns terrified and exhausted, haunted by low-grade anxiety, and ready to scream. I often wonder if this is what it was like to live through other slow disasters: the fall of Rome, maybe? Or the Black Death?
Slow, until it’s fast, of course. And what “fast” will look like I have no idea.
The title comes from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia. A lot in my life comes from Sir Thomas Browne. I even wrote a novelette (near-novella) about a TB-like character meeting aliens because he struck me as a perfect person to hang out with aliens. Hydriotaphia is about memorialization and failures of memory. It’s about the impossibility of resisting the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things. There’s something soothing about Hydriotaphia, for me living through this slow disaster, because it is a record of other people’s responses to the end, in whatever form it came to them.
“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” is about memorialization, mostly because that’s how I understand disasters best, given my work on war and memory. What does memory look like after the end? My answer was the Ossuary, a virtual urn containing the information we leave behind.
But you would still like to know who started the Ossuary. An elderly woman, contrite after a career in politics spent dismantling the welfare state. A philosopher. A global artist collective. A disappointed coder with a background in conceptual art. A theologian with a lab full of grad students hired to name the dead. Conspiracy theorists liked to present evidence that it was the second website created in September 1991, by an ancient organization that recognized the value of the emergent technology. There is no evidence for this. More recently, people have begun to believe that the Ossuary was generated by the internet itself, sentience emerging from the noise of panic as the anthropogenic end-times pass from theory to reality. There are others who observe earlier memorials—one thinks of the Somme, or Verdun– and reject the suggestion, because the convention is too familiar, its history too long.
So there’s a thing called the fourth trimester, a name for the first three months of an infant’s life, when they still seem foetal and completely unsuited to the world. They can’t regulate their temperature. They are only happy when they’re in contact with you, skin to skin, like they haven’t left your body. They register no boundaries, and no limits, and no language, but respond to touch and tone, and to your heartbeat, and rhythm of your footsteps walking up and down and up and down.
I’ve written a lot about pregnancy and birth since I got pregnant and had my son in the Summer of 2017, with “Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” being the last story I published on the topic (and the last story I published– a YEAR ago). “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” appears this month in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it was the first thing I wrote after giving birth, and it’s about those first strange months. It’s about trying to figure out what it means to live this wordless, animal life, caring for a creature who is beloved and disoriented and helpless, who cannot be argued with (no matter how tired you are, and how much you try to explain that he needs to need for sleep). I write “animal” meaning it in the best possible sense, since the fourth trimester belongs to a place before language, or maybe beneath it, where all communication is visceral rather than abstract. The story is about what this experience does to your daylight, rational, waking self. Since I write gothic-ish, horror-ish stuff these days, the story is a darker version of events than what I experienced. This is a representative excerpt:
Max’s first doctor’s appointment, day twelve. Getting out the door a disaster. Max crying, inconsolable. She stood in the middle of the living room, trying to remember what she didn’t have, but how could she think when the sound of his voice wrenched her mind until she couldn’t think —
it’s okay just a minute don’t
— what was it —
cry it’s okay max boy my max my little guy
— sandals she could step into because otherwise she’d have to tielaces and —
just a minute
Such a tiny and desolate sound, it was hard to believe, sometimes, that he was human and not some other sort of creature, so enormous were his eyes, and his head, and his thin little arms and legs braided across his body as though he was still enwombed.
Handbag. No. Phone. Yes. No. Keys?
max my sweet boy my dear please
And? Something else. She need —
baby don’t cry im right here im
— ed her phone. She grabbed the landline and let it ring until she heard it through the basement door, where a faint light shone through the cracks and —
You can find my story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s online at weightless books, as well as on their website, and over at amazon.
ETA: There’s an interview up over at the F&SF website.
Broken Eye Books is running a kickstarter for an anthology of fiction that takes place in HP Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University at Arkham, an institution central to the Lovecraft mythos. I was excited to see the original call for stories, since Lovecraft’s world is particularly suited to academic satire, something I enjoy. I ended up submitting a story about research and ambition, though instead of dealing with eldritch horrors in the basement or Antarctica, it’s mostly about a summer seminar in MU’s English grad program, populated by ambitious theory heads full of academic machismo, and one in particularly who suffers through a constant, aching sense of his own intellectual inadequacy. It also ties into a story that came out in Capricious back in 2015, which is also academic satire, since Emmet Wright– the main character– uses Gabriel Ross’s Index Arethusa in his research.
It’s exciting to think of the story finding a home in this anthology, especially considering how beautiful BEB’s earlier Lovecraft Mythos books have been… but it has to be funded first! If you’re interested in Lovecraft, pretty books, academic satire, or squid hats, you should look at the campaign.
New year, new story, and this in a magazine I have long coveted publication. When I started reading contemporary SF/F/H again a few years ago, two of the first magazines I encountered were Shimmer and Clarkesworld and here it is–my first Shimmer story! It has the longest title I’ve so far come up with: “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.”
I wrote the story last spring, conceived and drafted during the second trimester of my pregnancy, though completed during the third.
Pregnancy is miraculous and terrifying and cool and weird. You grow a new organ. Your senses of taste and smell change. Your emotions. Your centre of gravity. I thought a lot about the peculiar subjectivity of pregnancy, in which you are once yourself and not at all yourself. In which the idea of a distinction between self, brain, body, and mind seems increasingly ridiculous, since your body undertakes actions beyond your control, and rewires your perceptions and your brain. Of course, this is always true of the mind/body relationship– but pregnancy foregrounds it.
I came across the story of Mary Toft a few years ago, and it so horrified me I couldn’t pursue it in fiction, though I wanted to. I returned to her in those strange months midway through my pregnancy, and I began to seek out other reproductive marvels: mooncalves, and headless children, and maternal impression, and hens that give birth to prophecy-eggs. Several times I encountered the image of a reversed birth, of children returned—forcibly—to their mother, and felt a deep, visceral horror at the image.
So what do I do with all those feelings? I collect them, and watch the images play against one another, and try to imagine what sort of era produces this deeply awful image of reversal, of wrongness, a disorder so profound it unsettles the forward momentum of reproduction itself. This is probably why Mary Toft’s story speaks to me so viscerally: it is unnatural in a deep way, and witnesses a stealthy, awful sort of violence that is at once intimate and public.
Finally, a note on attribution: I borrowed two lines of poetry in one of the story’s subtitles, which reads “where children thus are born with hairy coats / heaven’s wrath on the kingdom it denotes” which is, as far as I can tell, from an anonymous seventeenth-century work attributed to Aristotle.
I have in the past avoided eligibility posts, mostly because I assumed people who wanted to read my work would find it via either the magazines that published it or my earlier posts. But then I saw ACWise collecting 2017 eligibility lists on twitter, and talking about why they’re valuable. She’s right. There’s so much fiction being published now it’s very easy to lose stories. I certainly need the reminder of what I’ve read, so I’m assuming other people do, as well.
So here’s my list, and my contribution to keeping track of 2017 in SF/F. All three of these are Hugo/Nebula/Aurora eligible, and fall into the short fiction category in each case:
“Lares Familiar, 1981” appeared in Liminal Stories back in May. It’s about the Cowichan Valley and the logging industry and a family with an uncomfortable relationship to both. It’s another of my attempts to capture the uneasy feeling that certain legends give me– those stories about strange encounters that never quite resolve, but leave you with a sense of how how huge and complicated and strange the world really is.
“On Highway 18” (this takes you to an interview about the story and includes some buy links if you’re interested) appeared in the September/October issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Another one about strangeness on Vancouver Island, and about violence and the intensity of adolescent friendship.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September. It’s very close to my heart, and I used the story to organize and process a lot of thoughts about the First World War and how the world ends, about the beauty and frustration and vulnerability of archives. I love Oskar (the main character) who is smart and naive and resilient. I love the world, which is full of pre-FWW optimism and utopianism as it falls to the Guns of August.
And that’s my literary 2017: the rainy Pacific coast of Canada; strange meetings; genius loci; mal d’archive; our relationship with history both personal and political; memory; early 20th century optimism and early 20th century violence colliding in the First World War.
So social media is full of #metoo. Or, as one friend put it, “of course #metoo” and as many others have asked: is this any kind of a surprise?
A couple of years ago (at Clarion West) I wrote a story called “On Highway 18.” It’s about small towns and girls and cars and hitchhiking and the constant, pervasive, numbing threat of violence, which touches everyone directly or indirectly. It grew from my own experiences as a young woman, and I borrowed a few from other people as well.
It’s much easier to write fiction about this kind of pervasive, low-grade anxiety because in relating each lived example, I tend to downplay the hurt. They seem slight in retrospect, even if my skin crawled at the time, or prickled with anxious sweat, or I sprinted from the scene with my heart beating in my throat. If I described the facts of these sorts of events, I might add, I know other people have experienced much worse, or but you know I’m fine, or it wasn’t that bad… was it?
In fiction, though, I can try and capture the immediate, subjective experience, independent of whether the encounter was “bad enough” to count as trauma. In fiction there’s room for evocation and impressionism, to describe the way each encounter taught me something about what it means to be a woman, and the amount of power men had to define me, to tell me to smile, to demand my attention. To touch me. “On Highway 18” was therapeutic from that perspective, a whole catalogue of experiences that aren’t “that bad,” but nevertheless accumulate into a feeling of dread and smallness. At least, for one of the characters. Other characters aren’t so “lucky.”
I’m posting this paragraph, which is reportage:
Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
“You girls want to party?”
Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.
Worse has happened since, and worse is happening this very moment, but I still hate that I didn’t know– as a fourteen year old– how to answer his question more powerfully.
ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.
I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.
My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.
There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.
In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.
New story in Liminal 3. It’s about logging, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, and the Cowichan Valley. And the smell of Grand Fir. And a family with a peculiar relationship to the woods.
Like a lot of kids, I grew reading legends and myths. The ones I loved best were about encounters with gods and strangers (the not-quite-human kind):
…Baucis and Philemon meet two strangers and share their meager supper.
…The villagers of Woolpit meet two green children, who say they have come from a world underground and who speak no familiar human language.
…A human midwife attends a fairy birth, and accidentally touches an ointment that allows her to see through fairy charms. This ends badly for her eyes.
…Mark Antony hears an invisible procession leaving the city of Alexandria, and knows that Dionysos has abandoned him to his fate.
When you encounter these narratives in the stripped-down language of a legend, they are often a little disjointed. They lack the final revelation of what’s really been going on that we seem to require in fiction, but which is absent from the urban myth or the weird anecdote.
I like these stories best when they’re bare and conversational, the kind of story someone might tell you at a bus stop, or in a bar… one time, I met this guy who… Something weird happens, but the story ends before the weirdness resolves into something we can properly grasp, leaving us– the listener– unsettled not only by the events described, but by their incomprehensibility. The best versions of these stories provide no explanation but accident and the arbitrary rules of a universe we don’t actually understand. In the world of these stories, you might do nothing wrong and still end up transformed forever. You might just be walking in the woods at twilight, and find yourself making a life-or-death decision as you meet a fairy host. You might catch the eye of a god or a monster and be punished for your presence in no way you could ever plan.
I learned two things from these stories: first, that it’s not a good thing to be noticed by powerful, inhuman creatures, no matter what CS Lewis and Tolkien might tell me; second, that stories can give the reader an unsettled feeling by what they leave out. Most often, the why of an encounter. At their very best, M.R. James, Daphne Du Maurier, and Robert Aickman write about that place between revelation and mystery, where no human knowledge is complete, and all one can do is observe the strange encounter and hope to survive it.
I’ve been trying to write in this mode for a while—much of The Paradise Engine was driven by my love for those unsettling, incomplete tales. “Lares Familiares, 1981” is from my latest experiments in capturing that texture of unknowing. I also have a story forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that fits the genre, too.
These stories are about that strange sense of a dislocation on an otherwise ordinary day. An encounter for which one cannot prepare, and which might redirect one’s life entirely by accident.
After a few years of alien parasites and “filigree cosmic horror” (I owe that designation to Julia August) I’ve gone back to The Paradise Engine. Not directly, but by association: “The High Lonesome Frontier” is a story about recording technologies, the strange vertiginous effect that music can have on us when we listen hard, the way a song can be found and lost again, but still hide out in the back of your mind, or on a mix tape in an old car, or a .flac on an external hard drive. It’s SF in the very broadest sense.
This is also the first story I wrote after I finished Clarion West last year. I wrote it last August, in a strange, exhausted haze between the six-week workshop and the defence of my dissertation. It’s the biography of a song called “Where Does That Water Run?” imaginary, but inspired by obsessive listenings to “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground,” tracked from its composition, through sheet music and player pianos, through performances and torrent files and broadcasts. Through– most importantly– the people who hear it, and remember.
Two relevant contexts (relevant to me as I wrote—possibly not to someone reading):
I like songs that only become folk music as they are repeated, gradually coming unstuck from their original authors. “Now is the Hour” was popularized by Gracie Fields after the Second World War—one of those songs of longing and separation that seemed so popular in those years. The melody was written by a theatre critic called Clement Scott and called “Swiss Cradle Song” until a Maori woman named Maewa Kaihau wrote the now-familiar words and renamed it “Po Atarau” and then “Haere Ra Waltz Song.” In the song’s global wandering it lost its original attribution, which is why Gracie Fields called it a “traditional Maori song” when she heard it in 1945.
“Wildwood Flower” started out as sheet music in 1860 with the title “I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets,” but by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, it was folk music—attributed only to “trad” until AP Carter got a writing credit when the work was republished after its success.
Ernest Seitz was a Canadian composer. He trained in Berlin before the First World War, but returned to Canada in 1914 for obvious reasons. While he devoted his life to teaching and concert performances, he’s probably most famous for a song that doesn’t have his name on it—“The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” He was, according to some stories, embarrassed to have written a pop song. Nevertheless, it captured the imagination of so many performers: Fritz Kreisler to The Beatles, and Oscar Peterson to Neko Case.
Did he ever enjoy that remarkable accomplishment? Did he ever hear one of these versions on the radio and think that’s mine?