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.
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?
Yesterday the Sunburst Society released the shortlist for their 2016 awards. It’s the first year they’ve included short fiction, though they’ve had categories for adult and YA fiction for a while now. The formal title– Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic—is an appealingly broad category that celebrates work from magic realism to hard SF, which is one of the reasons I like the award– there’s room for Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle.
I’m pleased to say “The Glad Hosts” is on the list along with these other remarkable stories:
Charlotte Ashley’s “La Héron” in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Mike Donoghue’s “Stuck in the Past” in Abyss and Apex.
Catherine McLeod’s “Hide and Seek” in Playground of Lost Toys
Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Peter Wendt’s “Get the Message” in Second Contacts
When I saw the list I ran through a series of peculiar sensations, from yay! to this is probably a mistake, I bet they update the website soon with the right names to Second Contacts looks like a fantastic anthology and Damn, Kelly Robson is on fire and I’m so glad Lackington’s published that story. The next day I’m no longer sure about the “it being a mistake” part, but the rest stands. I’m also glad Lackington’s got the nod by way of “The Glad Hosts,” considering what an excellent editor Ranylt is, and how much work it is to launch a magazine.
The award is named after Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (1964), a compelling piece of Cold War SF & nuclear anxiety. I have this additional, sideways joy in the name, because I used the novel in the last section of my dissertation, which was about the Cold War, with references to civil defence, the DEWline, spy novels, and Camp X, so Gotlieb’s novel fit in nicely between my creative & critical ambitions. Unfortunately the footnote got snipped at the very end, along with reflections on Graham Greene’s spy fiction, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (sad truth: my footnotes were wayyyy better than the body of my dissertation– all the cool stuff was in the footnotes).
Oh– and I wrote “The Glad Hosts” with the help of an Ontario Arts Council grant, so I’m additionally pleased to give the OAC their money’s worth. I mean, at least on that story…
New story called “The Journey and the Jewel” up over at Sockdolager (an excellent magazine published by Alison Wilgus and Paul Starr). I am always surprised by how consistent (not to say “repetitive!”) my stories are thematically, and this one covers a lot of familiar concerns. Forests. Grief. Families. Beaches. That’s pretty much my territory.
“The Journey and the Jewel” is also about that peculiar genre of the early 80s: the “armchair treasure hunt” book, something that reminds me of an ARG, an idea that arrived a little early, and that would have benefited from contemporary communications tech. The paintings in these books always remind me of Celestial Seasonings tea and the fantasy-and-science fiction section of the secondhand bookstore I used to visit in Duncan, BC when I was a kid. Unsettling high realism, sometimes, and dreamlike landscapes more strange than comforting.
Kit Williams seems to have originated the genre with Masquerade in 1979. We had a copy when I was little. I don’t know where it came from, but there were a few pages I found terrifying (I was just that kind of kid– I had to leave E.T. early because it was too scary). There was this one painting of the sun, a character in the story, who had been turned into a puppet and dropped on a beach at sunset, his limbs all twisted. I really didn’t like that picture. Because I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, the book ended up living in the top of the linen cupboard for most of my childhood.
It’s an interesting genre, though, and I can see why some of the other, unsolved examples have found a place online, where people can collaborate on their interpretations & theories. Over at the The Secret wiki people are trying to find ten jewels whose locations have been hidden (since 1982!) in paintings that remind me a lot of Kit Williams. I can see why they’re looking– an unsolved riddle, a still-lost treasure is appealing because the story remains unfinished, the end deferred. It’s made to be solved, right? So what happens to the story if it isn’t? “The Journey and the Jewel” is a kind of answer to the question.
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.
Lackington’s published a story of mine in their last issue. It’s called “The Glad Hosts” and is one of several stories and images Ranylt Richildis selected to explore “Skins” as a theme. It is, according to readers, a piece of parasite body-horror.
I say “according to readers” because while I wrote the story because I’m curious about parasites, I did not consider it body horror until I saw the responses. Yes, it describes the transformation of a woman’s bodies in multiple ways, but horror?
After the issue went live, a friend of mine posted a link to a metafilter discussion which included a series of insightful and amusing responses that indicated yes, I had written a horror story while I thought I was writing a story about transformation and distance and family.
(I particularly liked this one: “Are there parasites around that will remove this story from my brain because it was horrifying?” from jeather)
Since then other people have responded in equally interesting ways. At Marooned Off Vesta there’s an extensive and considered discussion about free indirect narration and what it does to storytelling, as well as some good points about the challenges of authorial self-consciousness. Charlotte Ashley over at Apex makes some interesting observations about what the story says about subjectivity. There are similar points over at Susan Hated Literature, which suggest it’s a story about the limits of such subjectivity, and where (exactly) we locate the self.
This is all less about “The Glad Hosts” than it is a reminder to me that while my writing life is spent mostly alone doing work that is invisible and unread, there are actually people out there who might catch a story at the right moment and read it and respond. This makes me very happy because it makes me part of a conversation. And it leaves me feeling lucky, too, that Lackington’s exists as a place for us to meet up.