Arboreality 2022

Stelliform Press is going to publish my novella, Arboreality this autumn. It’s an expansion of my novelette “An Important Failure,” which was both challenging and wonderful. I got to return to characters and places I love, and explore the possibilities of a world that’s falling apart. Because new things grow out of the crumbles, don’t they? After the wild fires, the fireweed. “An Important Failure” was about a craftsman trying to preserve something precious while the world changed around. Arboreality has a few characters like that, but also characters who are picking up the remnants and making them into something new.

Stelliform publishes fiction about climate change that rejects apocalyptic visions– or visions that are exclusively apocalyptic. Their mandate is hope, and they celebrate resilience, both ecological and human. And not just resilience, but the ways we might all flourish in a re-made world.

I admire this. Having grown up on the nuclear apocalypses of the 1980s, where destruction was absolute and doom inevitable, it is a welcome challenge to write hopefully about the future, and to use the tools of speculative fiction to imagine beauty. I want to be a good ancestor, and to write about people who resist despair (even if they, like me, are inclined toward gloom). Arboreality is about the small ways we might be good ancestors, leaving tools and messages behind for people we won’t ever know, in a world we can’t imagine.

Like a lot of my work, the novella is set in the Cowichan Valley. It’s about people and trees: the Garry oak savannahs of the southern Salish sea, arbutus trees growing out of the rocks around Saanich inlet. My mother is a painter, and she’s been studying these trees for her whole adult life, leaving a record of these marginal landscapes, narrow ecological niches that are easily disordered, and so very beautiful. These are some of her paintings of Arbutus menziesii on the south coast of Vancouver island. Arboreality takes place under these trees, and on these rocks:

“The Language Birds Speak”

I have a new novelette in the November issue of Clarkesworld: “The Language Birds Speak.” It’s about parental anxiety. And communication. And the way having a child changes the way you understand your own childhood. I started this story when my son was an infant, so three or more years ago, but only finished it in September and it’s another attempt to describe the strange mental transformations of motherhood. It’s also about children, too, and the neurological consequences of neglect, which I read about while my son was in utero. In those months I learned that we are creatures of collaboration: that we quite literally create one another as we interact. The hormonal changes of pregnancy transformed my brain. All the songs and cuddles and nose-boops of babyhood changed my son’s brain, too.

She’d been bent over a smartphone, absorbed, her face unresponsive. He’d been six months old, dozing in her lap, and seen that blank nightmare mask of a mother. Her disregard had permanently scarred him. The core trauma of his life already underway and unstoppable: parents so busy with their work and themselves that he, little visitor, found himself too often alone, a social animal in unnatural isolation, like an orca in a tank at Sea World. Or a rhesus monkey snatched from his mother and consigned to the stainless-steel pit of despair, surrounded by nothing but the distortions of that mirror, the reverberating cries of his isolation. For science.

“The Language Birds Speak”
I borrowed this from @vilmastuttle on twitter. I love this page– what it says, and what is lost to us in all the white space

The story is also about how we process sensory information, or fail to process it, or ignore it. It’s the most I’ve ever written about misophonia, and the terrible skinlessness I can feel when my senses overload. It’s about instinct and insight, too, and about fear.

But it’s hard to write about any of these things– the first wordless communications of infancy, the painful brain-overload of misophonia–through language, since the whole point of the story is that profound experiences resist language. I kept thinking of incompletely-remembered French feminist theory from undergrad, especially Julia Kristeva’s “the Semiotic.” The idea that meaning and language don’t exactly intersect, and that communication is far more elusive than black words on a white page. The idea of an original, divine language: Enochian, Adamic, the language birds speak.

The answer lay not in theory, but in poetry. For years I have loved Anne Carson’s translation of the Sappho fragments, If Not, Winter, not only for the words on the page, but also for the way she represents absence in her text, using square brackets [ ]. Framing the white space that way gives me such a wonderful, thrilling sense of possibility, that meaning spreads out from the words that survive, rather than being limited to them. That’s where I found the tools I needed to write this story.

“An Important Failure” wins the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.

“Campbell Wins Sturgeon”

Back when I was a kid who read everything, there are two places I spent a lot of time: the Duncan branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library, where the YA section was full of Andre Norton and Edward Eager; a used bookstore in Duncan run by an old guy who liked cats, potted plants, and magazines published by the Canadian Marxist-Leninists. I was unpacking books this week, to put them on our new shelves, and I found paperbacks with his distinctive handwriting in them, and a unicorn stamp. The prices were low: I got all my John Wyndham paperbacks for 50 or 75 cents. Same with my Ursula le Guin short fiction collections, and my Nancy Mitford novels, and lots of modernist poetry. It was rich in there, dusty and full of cat fur, and you came out a little wheezy, but it was a good place to search while your Mom looked for Elizabeth Gaskell novels.

Anyway. Among the books I bought there was The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2A which contains “Baby is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon. I loved that story.

It’s strange to find your name associated with all those writers you once uncovered in a bookstore, or on a library shelf. I make up stories while staring out the window, or lying on an old couch while my kid makes LEGO rocket ships on the floor. It’s difficult to believe that’s as “real” as anything I found in that bookstore, or at the library. But here we are.

More about “An Important Failure”

As I’ve said a number of times, it’s always interesting to see what stories catch in readers’ imaginations. “An Important Failure”Clarkesworld August 2020– seems to be one of them. So far it’s collected attention from a few quarters. It’s been acquired by the Polish magazine Nowa Fantastyka for translation (it should appear later this year). It’ll be in Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2.

And, finally, it found its way onto the Aurora Awards ballot in the novelette/novella category– this is a Canadian speculative fiction prize administered by the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, so someone in the CSFFA must have liked it. In fact, if you’re a member of the CSFFA, you can vote for it, too.

I wonder what it is about the story. That it’s about adjusting to straitened circumstances as the world shuts down around us? That it’s about creation in the face of climate change? Maybe because it’s full of longing & fear for the woods, and none of us could go anywhere much this year.

All three reasons? None and something else I can’t identify. Once again, I’m just grateful that people want to read it.

“An Important Failure” in Clarkesworld.

While posting on facebook about my Sunburst nomination, I noticed that the two short stories I had forthcoming– “An Important Failure” and “The Bletted Woman” which will be in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-– are both sad stories about the BC coast. Then a friend pointed out that “The Glad Hosts” falls into this category. As does “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” and “Lares Familiares, 1981” and “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” Basically, I have a genre, wherein sad, weird, unpleasant things (magical, dystopian, alien) happen to people on the west coast. Or to people in some way related to the west coast. In this case, it’s about a luthier who’s collecting wood to build a violin in a poor, beat-down near-future version of Vancouver and Vancouver island.

So “An Important Failure” is another one of these sad stories about the coast. I started writing it while watching the bushfires in Australia back in January, and finished it in June, while in lockdown. The world seemed to transform several times in those months, and the story reflects my disorientation. It’s a story about processing change– how we do it, how we fail to do it. It’s also about the giant trees of BC– the “Champion Trees” of UBC’s big tree registry. The miraculous old growth they show you on fifth grade field trips to Cathedral Grove, or just off the road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. They’re vulnerable, of course: logging, poaching, climate change, wildfires. They’re so old, they belong, quite literally, to a different world.

Finally, it’s about what’s leftover when the world changes and what we do with trees after they’ve fallen. And it’s about making a violin, sort of, because though I love forests, I also love the things that come out of the forests: the people, the houses, the shakes, the paper, the stories, the colour of red cedar, the feeling you have walking into a wood-heated house in January, when it’s raining outside, the smell of fire fills all the rooms. I love the lives and afterlives of trees. I love the violin my main character is trying to make, and even the lengths he must go to to make it.

“An Important Failure” is available to read at Clarkesworld.

“Thank You For Your Patience” in Reckoning 4

Now available to read. You should check out all the other work, too. It’s a good issue.

For a few months, my partner worked in a call centre. I made notes. This sounds mercenary, considering the very very long hours he put in, but at this point he knows bits of his life will show up in my work. I try to be respectful, but some of his anecdotes about call centre life were so absurd, they snuck into a(nother) story about disaster. I’m really hard on Canada’s west coast, which I love, and which I continually destroy in one way or another.

Re-reading the story I’m surprised to see feelings I am now intimately familiar with: a slow-moving disaster traveling inexorably toward us; total helplessness; a combination of loneliness and intimacy that comes with hearing voices from far away. I think, though, this has a speck of hope in its ending– not that the disaster can be averted, but that we can help one another across those distances.

I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.

“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“

“—oh,” she said, “what—“

And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.

“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” in Interzone #281

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.

You can buy #281 here, or get a subscription here.

Have Some Obstetrical Horror Fiction for 2018

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.

The Curious Case of Mary Toft
Mary Toft and her rabbits

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.

The High Lonesome Frontier

A new story up over at Tor.com.

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.

Illustration by Linda Yan.
The story’s illustration is by Linda Yan. I love it because it reminds me of early 20th century sheet music.

Two relevant contexts (relevant to me as I wrote—possibly not to someone reading):

1.

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.

2.

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?

Water Logic

Capricious published “Water Logic” back in December, in their second issue, but it’s now available for free. I hope that if you like it you’ll consider subscribing because it’s an interesting venture.

This is the second SF story I wrote, after “Lilacs and Daffodils,” when I was trying to relearn short fiction as a genre. It’s a bit painful to re-read because it’s so deeply embedded in the isolating obsessions of grad school. I have a friend who loves MR James because of the way he writes the pleasure of research, though his characters are often damned by their desire to know. I’m trying to get a little of that feel here: the way one can be seduced by research, or the possibility of really, truly understanding that complex, inaccessible thing that one has been pursuing through all those years of study:

Gabe had cultivated the monomaniacal perspective of the basement-dwelling graduate student, so it was easy to imagine a hydrospheric world-computer as vast as the index he had imagined. He reasoned that Dr Leukos had already begun it in the walls of the very building in which he sat, in the substance which he had drunk, and eliminated, and flushed away; in the city’s systems, its flora, the tender roots of grass, and the deep roots of black walnut and red oak, the nodes, the connections, the reservoirs in winter-dormant perennials, the memory of trees. His mind rushed outward through campus greenspace and city parks, the culverts and storm drains, the ravines.

It’s also about water integrators. Because those are pretty cool. And a poem I made up called “Arethusa.”  And those summer rain-storms in Toronto, the kind of that flood the streets in a couple of minutes and are as warm as bathwater.