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.
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.
A new story came out last week, this one up at Interfictions Online: A Journal of the Interstitial Arts, produced by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. It’s an organization that’s doing intriguing critical and creative work that explores the gaps between genres and forms.
The story is called “I Just Think It Will Happen, Soon.” It began as the “other half” to one that appeared in Interzone 250 last year, called “Lilacs and Daffodils.” That story is about a synthetic consciousness with inexplicable memories of a biological childhood that obsess it, even when it knows they can’t be true. This story is about human beings who seem to share the same synthetic memories, and are both burdened and entranced by them.
They don’t need to be read together, but I like to remember their connection.
There’s a lot of other great work in the Interfictions 6. The formal flexibility of Debbie Urbanski’s “A Primer on Separation” and the historical texture of Amy Parker’s “Kingdom by the Sea” stood out for me, but I’m also pleased to see some experimental criticism. And “Old Ghosts” by Nneoma Ike-Njoku is an aboslute pleasure to read out loud.
“I Just Think It Will Happen, Soon” was written with the support of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
A new story of mine is in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #184, called “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” It’s about a wealthy Victorian lady named Flora who does ladylike things like paint china teacups. It’s creepier than it sounds, since it’s a dark fantasy about empire: Flora’s paintings– her unearthly landscapes–may be conventional on the surface, but there’s violence in their depths.
This idea of a Victorian woman doing something unsettling with parlour crafts came came to me after re-reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. There’s a scene where Rochester quizzes his new employee about the paintings in her portfolio, which are full of corpses, shipwrecks, icebergs, and the aurora. He suggests she couldn’t possibly have dreamed up these unsettling images on her own:
“Where did you get your copies?”
“Out of my head.”
“That head I see now on your shoulders?”
“Has it other furniture of the same kind within?”
“I should think it may have: I should hope—better.”
Jane confides in us– her readers– regarding the pictures’ origins:
The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” started when I read that passage and imagined what might arise in the “spiritual eye” of a woman who seems conventional, but contains something terrifying.
ETA: For those who like to listen, the story is now up in the BCS Podcast!
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” was written with the support of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
“Sarah and the Body” just went live in Scigentasy # 3.
It’s a sad story, so I feel like I should put a trigger warning on it– for body horror, for medical violence, and for the ravages of degenerative neurological disorders.
It’s about a cyborg, but it’s not what you’d call “hard” science fiction, and doesn’t present realist possibilities for bio-medical enhancement. When I was thinking about cyborgs, I was more interested in the physicality and the intimacy of their relationship with technology, which is a little different than our own, but only because it’s more obvious. That blurred line– that interface– between what’s “us” and what’s “not-us” seems particularly relevant to me, now, with my enormous external & collaborative memory (you know, google), and my dependence on the products of industrialization. I mean, we’re all entwined with our machinery, all extend our perceptions and our abilities with pharmaceuticals and eyeglasses, bicycles and pacemakers and smartphones. The Cyborg just wears those enhancements where we can see them, and maybe has lost the opportunity to withdraw– or escape?– from her relationship with technology.