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Short Fiction and The Feels

October 6, 2014

Reviewing Short Fiction The world of genre literature has a serious problem with its critical infrastructure. Back when the institutions of genre culture were first established, the amount of new material being published was relatively small and while the pool of reviewers was never vast, it was large enough to ensure that most stories had a pretty good shot at being discussed in public. This discussion served as a filtration process that steered readers towards the good stuff and allowed them to make reasonably informed decisions come Hugo nomination time. Since the arrival of the Internet, the number of new short stories being published has risen considerably. In fact, with the appearance of crowd-sourced anthologies and venues like Daily Science Fiction continuing to publish new stories every single day of the year, the scene’s ability to produce short fiction now massively outstrips its ability to filter it, discuss it, or even provide basic word of mouth as to which stories are particularly worth reading. A few initiatives like Last Short Story, Strange Horizons‘ Short Fiction Snapshot and Tor.com‘s Short Fiction Spotlight have tried to provide some basic filtration but how do you even decide where to start? Blink and another seventeen anthologies will have secured funding. Go to sleep and another paying market will open. The effects of this failure of critical infrastructure are already evident at the Hugo Awards, which have been unable to secure a full slate of nominees as the pool of nominations is spread too thin. A further knock-on effect is that the Hugo short fiction categories have become dull exercises in getting out the vote as expensively funded professional websites like Tor.com square off against politicised voting blocs and devoted fan-bases happy to nominate an author’s chosen slate of works. In this type of cultural climate any discussion of a story is good discussion, which brings us to Sam J. Miller’s “We Are The Cloud” (published in the September 2014 issue of Lightspeed)

any-port-in-a-storm

Any Port in a Storm With the exception of Locus magazine’s long-running short fiction review columns, the only critical institution that has successfully engaged with the world of short fiction is Dave Truesdale’s Tangent. Originally created as a fanzine in the 1970s, Tangent has now been providing online reviews of the major short fiction magazines for close to twenty years. Given this devotion to the cause, you would expect Tangent to be a beloved organ of genre culture but Truesdale’s right-wing politics and the uneven quality of the reviewing have made Tangent somewhat infamous. In fact, the only time I ever see anyone linking to a Tangent review is when its of their own work. Speaking of uneven reviews, the piece that brought Miller’s story to my attention was a review by Ryan Holmes in which he says:

Miller goes so far as to include a scene involving the boys in bed together and shooting a pornographic film. Science fiction elements are all but missing.

Frankly, that sounds fucking awesome but the review is merely serviceable. It is quite obvious that reading about teenaged boys having sex made Holmes feel uncomfortable (or possibly confused) but rather than making his feelings on the matter clear, he tries to bury his discomfort with talk of  downbeat endings and absent science fictional elements. Some might say that Holmes’ reaction makes him a bigot who should shut his stupid mouth but I would argue that all reactions to art are legitimate as long as they are genuine. In fact, I think he’s broadly correct about the story’s flaws but the lack of space and the obvious homophobia only serve to obscure his insight. Genre readers with long memories might be reminded of Dave Truesdale’s reaction to Margo Lanagan’s short story “The Goosle”, which riffed on Hansel and Gretel while exploring underage sexuality and LGBT themes:

Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call… and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere — and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?

I suspect the plan was to reach out to younger non-straight people and let them know that genre fiction could speak directly to them and I expect the same is also true of Sam J. Miller’s story. Holmes and Truesdale’s reviews may well be informed by ugly and unsympathetic worldviews but they do give us stars by which to steer. At this point in the history of genre culture, any heartfelt opinion on short fiction is welcome as long as it filters the stream, brings stories to wider audiences and allows us to decide which stories are worthy of our time. Truesdale’s review convinced me to read “The Goosle” and the same is true of the review by Holmes.

banksy_no_future

It’s Not About the Future Miller’s story is set in a nebulously futuristic New York where the poor are kept alive in return for selling parts of their brain to the telecoms companies who use the processing power to run cloud-based computer services. While the story is evidently interested in the mechanics of poverty, the world’s economics are somewhat confusing as some characters wind up needing to hustle and sell off too much of their brain in order to stay alive despite the state evidently paying through the nose for their upkeep. The lack of precision in Miller’s world-building is exemplified by the primary setting, a care home large enough and safe enough that the main protagonist can remain alive and in good health simply by staying out of everyone’s way while others form gangs and become sex workers for no apparent reason. Clearly this is a world in which the poor are ground under the boot of a perverse and unjust system but too much of the system’s perversity seems to come from Miller’s inattentive world-building. The story’s imagery is dated to the point of being unbelievable. For example, the protagonist is equipped with both a ‘cloud port’ tying him to the telecommunications grid and a Game Boy console on which he repeatedly plays Mega Man 2. While the neural hardware screams mid-21st Century, the story’s clutter of games consoles and televisions situates it much closer to the early 1990s. “We Are the Cloud” feels like it is taking place in an outdated future, why else would you write about a futuristic New York as though it were a decaying hell hole? It is as though Miller decided to write about some weird alternate future in which the privatisation of public space and the gentrification of down-at-heel neighbourhoods never happened. Where as the former slums transformed into bourgeois idylls packed with bearded hipsters working on their novels in faux-dive bars and shabby-chic coffee shops? This may not be quite as bad as Connie Willis’ vision of a 21st Century in which nobody seems to have invented mobile phones or the Internet but it isn’t far off. One explanation for Miller’s inattentive and unbelievable world-building is that he is less interested in the actual future than he is in literary futures:

Below us, the Bronx scrolled by. Sights I’d been seeing all my life. The same sooty sides of buildings; the same cop cars on every block looking for boys like me. I thought of Case, then, and clean sharp joy pushed out all my fear.

Miller’s decision to name one of the characters ‘Case’ is, of course, a reference to William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the story actually begins to makes a lot more sense once you realise that it is set in a vision of the future that is over thirty years-old. Cyberpunk no more predicted the gentrification of Western cities than Golden Age SF predicted humanity’s complete loss of interest in space exploration. Both of these futures now feel outdated and absurd but audiences seem just as happy returning to them as they do to medieval fantasy worlds. Most genre readers aren’t all that interested in the future and so yesterday’s tomorrows serve as useful generic backdrops for stories about other things. But if Sam J. Miller’s “We Are The Cloud” is not about the future, what is it actually about? The short answer is that the story is about the emotional life of a gay teenager but my preferred answer requires me to take the scenic route.

heroin

A Spoonful of Genre Given that relatively few people pay critical attention to the short fiction market, it is unsurprising that a major aesthetic sea-change has gone almost completely un-noticed. Should you choose to work your way through a Year’s Best anthology, a Locus recommended reading list or an award shortlist you will most likely find a number of stories with either few genre elements or genre elements that have been pushed into the background by an emphasis placed on other aspects of the story.

According to some, the visibility of genre stories with no genre elements such as Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ “Wakulla Springs” is a product of blurring genre boundaries and a growing hunger for stories that break with traditional genre narratives in an effort to find new artistic territory. This is a theory that emphasises authorial agency at the expense of arbitrary culture boundaries.

According to others, the visibility of genre stories with no genre elements is a further symptom of critical infrastructure failure; These days editors are only too happy to buy non-genre stories from authors whose history of producing genre fiction has allowed them to acquire a following. These stories, once published in genre venues, are then read as genre by people only too happy to imagine a ‘genre feel’ to stories that could easily be published in mainstream venues. This is a theory that emphasises the reader’s right to buy a genre anthology or visit a genre website and encounter nothing but genre stories.

While I have a good deal of sympathy for both positions, I think this phenomenon has less to do with cynical or incompetent content providers than it does with an entirely organic shift in popular tastes. Reading “We are the Cloud” put me in mind of two of last year’s most noted stories; John Chu’s Hugo-winning “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” and Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers”. While it would be crude, reductive and insulting to say that all of these stories are alike because they were published as genre and contain LGBT themes, I do think that all three stories use their genre elements in similar ways. All three stories are about young gay and lesbian people deciding to come to terms (either publicly or privately) with their sexualities and  confront the need to step up to the next stage in their emotional development. Thus, “We are the Cloud” is about a young man falling in love with another young man for the first time while “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” is about a young man coming out to his family and “Selkie Stories are for Losers” revolves around a young woman trying to pluck up the courage to profess her love for another young woman. In each of these stories, the genre elements sit somewhere between the metaphorical and the literal; aspects of a fictional world that seem to mirror the contours of real emotional lives whilst leaving the world unchanged and the metaphor unresolved and shrouded with the kind of ambiguity that renders precision anathema. As a genre reader, I am frustrated by the authors’ lack of interest in exploring how these genre elements might transform their fictional worlds. As a literary reader I am left perplexed by the decision to abandon realism in favour of a quasi-metaphorical language that makes the characters’ emotional lives seem more rather than less opaque. Each of these stories uses genre elements as a means of recreating the emotional texture of a very specific situation. The situations themselves are universally accessible and, had they been rendered using the conceptual vocabulary of realism, would have come across as little more than bourgeois melodramas in which person X meets person Y and experiences the same feels as everyone else. What the genre elements do is introduce a note of unreality that makes these moments seem just that little bit more vivid. The Samatar is a particularly fine example of this technique as her entire story seem to hang from the compound meanings of:

Dear Mona: When I look at you, my skin hurts.

We understand what it’s like to experience that first rush of uncomprehending lust and our experience with genre stories means that we also understand the pain on the face of main character in An American Werewolf in London when he first begins to change. As a metaphor, the juxtaposition of ideas is clumsy and incomplete but there is no denying the way that it takes two different sets of emotional expectations and forces them together to produce something bigger, something much closer to what it must feel like to be that character. The same technique underpins John Chu’s attempts to communicate what it must feel like to lie about yourself to your parents in a bid to protect their erroneous ideas about who you really are. It is also present in Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ “Wakulla Springs” as the story uses the readers’ genre-based expectations to describe a place that feels magical despite being entirely mundane. All of these stories deploy genre elements as a kind of seasoning, a pinch of literary MSG to make those feelings pop out just that little bit further. This approach to genre writing seems very close to the ethos informing the recently-launched short fiction venue Uncanny magazine whose stated philosophy serves as a sort of manifesto for this kind of writing:

We love the stories that we can’t stop thinking and talking about, because of how they made us  feel.

Gradually, and with almost no discussion, the aesthetics of genre short fiction appear to be shifting away from stories that explore ideas and towards stories that seek to use genre elements as a way of encouraging readers to feel a particular way. In this bold new world, genre elements are easily excised or subsumed because the emphasis is always upon the characters’ emotional lives. By choosing to write a story of first love set in the long-abandoned fictionalised future of Cyberpunk, Samuel J. Miller is making it clear that his story is all about the feels. Ryan Holmes was quite right to point out the story’s minimal genre presence as it could easily have been written about a teenager growing up in a modern-day care home. “We are the Cloud” is a story about betrayal. The story’s protagonist is the child of a reformed drug addict forced from his mother’s home by her new boyfriend. Miller does particularly good work when it comes to conveying the mother’s reduced emotional capacity:

Arm flab jiggled as she fanned herself. Mom is happy in her fat. Heroin kept her skinny; crack gave her lots of exercise. For her, obesity is a brightly colored sign that says NOT ADDICTED ANYMORE. Her man keeps her fed; this is what makes someone a Good Man.

The story’s protagonist Angel is a huge mixed-race teenager who keeps himself to himself. In an effort to secure some money, he has allowed part of his brain to be used for cloud computing and this procedure has left him neurologically impaired to the extent that he often stumbles over his words and struggles to compose sentences. However, while Angel may struggle to make himself heard by other people, the story’s use of first-person narration means that we know precisely what he feels at all times. By his own admission, Angel is not the most articulate of narrators and so the story juxtaposes description of how things smell with more awkward descriptions of how things look:

Scotch tastes like smoke, like old men Case smelled like soap, but not the Ivory they give you in the system. Like cream, I thought, but that wasn’t right. To really describe it I’d need a whole new world of words no one ever taught me. Salvation Army landscapes clotted the walls. Distant mountains and daybreak forests, smelling like cigarette smoke, carpet cleaner, thruway exhaust. There was a sadness to the place I hadn’t noticed before, not even when I was hating it.

Angel inadvertently intercedes in someone’s attempt to beat up a cute young boy named Case. More puzzled than moved by any desire to help, Angel is surprised when Case shows up at his door a few days later and sets about seducing him. Angel is utterly smitten but less naïve readers might raise an eye-brow at Case’s pre-date detective work and his attempts to lure Angel into sex work through a combination of sex, guilt, big promises and penis-based flattery:

“Are you really such a proper little gentleman?” he asked. His hands, cold as winter, hooked behind my knees. “You never got into trouble before?”

Miller follows Angel’s journey out of self-contained emotional isolation and into helpless needy love. When Case predictably disappears with a load of Angel’s money, he follows Angel’s journey back through hatred, shame and self-disgust before terminating in cynical self-containment:

The image of him in the shower brought me to a full and instant erection. I masturbated, hating myself, trying hard to focus on a scenario where I hurt him  .  .  . but even in my own revenge fantasy I wanted to wrap my body around his and keep him safe. On my third sip I saw I still wasn’t sure I wanted to hurt him. Maybe he’d done me wrong, but so had my mom. So had lots of folks. And I wouldn’t be what I was without them.

The frustrating thing about Miller’s story is that while the mundane elements of the story are very well realised, their interface with genre elements are patchy and ineffective. Stories like “Selkie Stories are for Losers” and “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” work because their use of genre materials is precisely targeted; Sophia Samatar invokes stories about seals who shed their skin in order to live as humans but that association is only used to drive home the character’s sense that she is pretending to be something she isn’t by denying her love for Mona. Similarly, John Chu’s story features tiny clouds that rain on anyone who happens to tell a lie but that fantastical element only serves to communicate how unpleasant is much be to lie to someone who loves you because you don’t think they’re ready to love you for who you really are. Miller’s use of genre elements is considerably less disciplined than either Chu or Samatar. To begin with, he invokes memories of Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” by having his characters sell parts of their brain to the telecommunications companies. He then reveals that Angel’s neurological condition allows him to access the information passing through him leading to a rather anti-climactic scene in which Angel destroys part of the city’s power network in a fit of pique over being used by Case:

The slightest additional effort, and I was everywhere. All five boroughs—thousands of cloudporters looped through me. With all of us put together I felt inches away from snapping the city in two. Again I reached out and felt for optimal fracture points. Again I pushed. Gently, this time. An explosion, faraway but huge. Con Edison’s east side substation, I saw, in the six milliseconds before the station’s failure overloaded transmission lines and triggered a cascading failure that killed all electricity to the tri-state region.

Writers like Samatar and Chu use tiny pinches of genre magic to boost the emotional impact of their otherwise mainstream stories. Miller dumps huge handfuls of genre spice into his story of young love and yet none of these genre elements add anything to the story’s emotional payload. The real emotional meat of the story – Angel falling into love and back out into cynicism – is certainly luxuriant but its power is entirely unattached to the story’s genre elements. Even Angel’s rage-fueled hacking binge is downplayed and the story concludes with the character stepping away from the story’s genre elements in favour of a more prosaic bourgeois lifestyle:

I drank slow so I wouldn’t get too drunk. I had never walked into a bar before. I always imagined cops coming out of the corners to drag me off to jail. But that wasn’t how the world worked. Nothing was stopping me from walking into wherever I wanted to go.

Ryan Holmes is right when he says that the story’s engagement with genre materials is limited and he is right to single out the ending as lacking much of an emotional charge. This story doesn’t really work as a piece of traditional genre fiction as its future is dated, derivative and poorly realised. Nor does it work when considered as one of the hyperreal melodramas that have come to dominate the genre short fiction scene as the story’s melodramatic elements are entirely independent of the story’s hyperrealism. Samuel J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud” is a competently written if rather unadventurous relationship story with some wonderful observations but the story’s genre elements are so under-developed and emotionally inert that they serve only to get in the way.

10 Comments
  1. October 6, 2014 6:30 pm

    In the last paragraph, line 3, should “dared, derivative and poorly realised” be “dated, derivative and poorly realised”?

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  2. October 6, 2014 7:22 pm

    “I think this phenomenon has less to do with cynical or incompetent content providers than it does with an entirely organic shift in popular tastes.” Exactly. Perhaps belatedly by comparison to closer watchers of genre fiction, this point only really sunk in when I read Cloud Atlas. For me it was cause celebre. After all, I have never been big on arbitrary divisions of fiction.

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  3. October 6, 2014 10:09 pm

    Real Estate Law — Yeah :-) Fixed it, thanks.

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  4. October 6, 2014 10:17 pm

    William — Cloud Atlas is a really good example of how this technique works when deployed at novel length. I watched the film recently and I think that version of the story does an excellent job of capturing Mitchell’s genre tourism; none of the the time-frames fit together to create a fictional or thematic whole but each of the genres mimicked and texts pastiched (cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, 70s paranoid thriller, Last of the Summer Wine-style farce and Brideshead Revisited-style tragedy) fit the moods of the relevant sections. The novel’s slushy and impossibly broad ending is also consistent with the broader commitment to melodrama.

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  5. October 8, 2014 9:08 am

    There’s also SF Revu, although the quality of its reviews is not great. And, of course, there is/was SF Crowsnest, but its coverage of short fiction is erratic and the quality of many of its reviews is poor.

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  6. November 7, 2014 9:36 am

    A very interesting and useful article. Thank you Jonathan.

    Re David Mitchell, I found the weaknesses (?) discussed here present among other flaws perhaps, in his newest novel, The Bone Clocks. I know the novel is not ‘short fiction’ but I think it is an example of the tendencies you note above.

    Max Gladstone argues that the work functions as ‘anti-fantasy’ (http://www.maxgladstone.com/2014/10/the-bone-clocks-non-review/) noting how the intrusion of genre actually deadens the emotional thrust and narrative efforts of its other elements.

    “the Bone Clocks is an anti-fantasy: it wrestles constantly with fantasia’s tendency to sap meaning from normal human life.”

    While I agree, though not perhaps for the same reasons as Gladstone does, I felt there was a layer of authorial knowing, a wink and nudge, served up beside it which still presenting the genre elements as ‘serious stuff’ also preempted criticism of its juvenilia. Which came off for me as Mitchell seeking to have it both ways, and ultimately failing.

    “Rather than Magic appearing as a strange new world, a hidden reality, the Truth that’s Out There, here Magic is a choice that pulls people out of reality, that destroys the reality it encounters.  Embracing the Magic, heeding the Call to Adventure, again and again throughout The Bone Clocks, leads to abandoning love and wonder and everything that makes life worth living.”

    Simply because every time the fantasy elements appear in The Bone Clocks, the novel is reduced to painful cliches and melodrama, I was not convinced that its realistic elements were all that well written either. Though, like Gladstone, I enjoyed them far more and wished all the other fantastical nonsense would just be dropped as soon as possible. And not, I might note, because I’m adverse to fantasy, full stop. Or literary efforts in genre and vice versa.

    The end result, for me at least, was a novel that didn’t work well as either genre or as literature. Or to be more exact, it was a bit of both but executed as broadly commercial fiction, with the genre elements particularly poorly done. And finally, that taken as a whole the novel was a curate’s egg, in the original sense of the phrase.

    Is that due to the handling of genre in The Bone Clocks? Is it a signature style for Mitchell? Or is this just another example of the corrosive effect of writing for the market? Or none of these things? I’m not sure, but it certainly does seem to support some of your points here.

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  7. November 7, 2014 2:50 pm

    Hi Eric :-)

    Thanks for your message on the other post by the way, I just realised that I never got round to responding.

    That Gladstone post is really interesting as I think it comes at a similar set of ideas to mine but from a different direction. Fantasy is about fitting into a story that is larger than oneself and using genre tropes as a form of emotional italics serves the opposite function: It takes the things that are larger than us and reduces them down to little more than a feature of our emotional lives. I’m reminded of Chinua Achebe’s argument about Heart of Darkness using the continent of Africa as stage dressing for the breakdown of a single white mind.

    I’m not sure if this is about David Mitchell’s influence or a wider cultural pattern. There’s a Guardian review of the new Christopher Nolan film that accuses it of dealing in similar techniques:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/05/interstellar-review-christopher-nolan-matthew-mcconaughey

    “The appearance of Interstellar is a moment to reflect that Kubrickian sci-fi, like Loachian social-realism of the same 60s period, was once rooted in the real world: social-realist films could change the law, and sci-fi reflected and even inspired a world in which the moon really was about to be conquered, and everyone assumed that manned space exploration would continue onwards at the same rate. Today, this is a lost futurism. What remains is style”

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