Thursday, December 12, 2013

2013 in Shit: Conservation of Shadows

The stories in Yoon Ha Lee's new collection Conservation of Shadows are the oily smog that the machine of genre endlessly vomits forth; they are the sunset-beautifying pollution that is expelled after the marketing department and the genre gatekeepers have had their say. They are the material and energy that, deemed in excess of the goals of production and reproduction of genre itself, are loosed to slowly replace the atmosphere itself. Anyone who knows where to look can see the many ways that the conditions of the factory are changing, from little zines like Expanded Horizons to massive autophagic displays like Oblivion to new genre configurations like The Weird; but as important as those are, a factory is never anything but an aspect of a larger ecology.

That Conservation of Shadows begins with the story "Ghostweight" seems, once the reader has delved further into the collection, a strange decision. "Ghostweight" is exactly the sort of science fiction that, while playing with the genre's recognizable tropes, is so thoroughly grounded in the epistemology of the genre that, no matter its variations, cannot possibly be other than science fiction. At every moment the reader knows everything that there is to know, and the discoveries in no way function to fill in gaps. There are no gaps to be filled; new knowledge is always only knowledge that we already had. This isn't to say, of course, that you'll see the twist coming; just that the way it comes isn't as revelation. It was there from the beginning, but in the form, not the content.

As the collection progresses, this epistemology is thrown into question; not, as one tends to expect, in the way that unreliable narrators or strategically withheld information often does, but by consistently using the actual stuff that provide the material and ideological basis of the genre of science fiction as themes within the stories. From colonial subsumption to language that acts to paper and ink themselves, Conservation of Shadows suggests that how we know what we know, in the context of the fantastical genres, is always only ever by way of the real stuff that conveys it.

This materialist critique of the genre is more than just the rhetorical flush of "meta" finding its way into genre from the mainstream. The ampersands in China MiƩville's Railsea or the thought experiment presented in Crossed Genres' anthology Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction never ironize or objectify the positions out of which they arise. Instead, they effect an implicit recentering from within; it is no longer tenable, at this moment in history, to simply elide the conditions of production of the text, any more than it was in the 70s to imagine that science fiction could continue to ignore "[P]ollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose."

What this thematizing does is to generate a critique of the political economy of science fiction; by using the genre's tools to foreground its own material basis, what Lee allows for is, rather than more emphasis on an abstracted "craft" or a nebulous sense of social responsibility, a broad comprehension of how the production of presence and absence within the genre is manufactured through both scarcity and sociality. To say this another way: Lee's stories, especially presented together as an anthology, change the face of science fiction. Not by way of polemics, but simply by way of existing, and doing so beautifully.

"Blue Ink" is Yoon Ha Lee's Final Battle at the End of Time story, sharing a sort of uneasy closeness with things like Greg Bear's 2008 The City at the End of Time; it is also his story that is most easily read as a realist narrative. The frame opens with the narrator describing that the story itself has been written in the titular substance; what follows almost requires itself to be read as a faithful psychological rendering of an extended procrastination fantasy. The narrator is whisked away to the generic postapocalyptic final stand, is humanity's last (worst) hope, and tricks the messenger (who is herself in the future, of course) back to change this awful present by refusing the battle to begin with.

The sfnal errata of the story is important, if not especially pleasurable or exciting to read; the rat with mechanical hands who gives the narrator an A-OK gesture is a decidedly science fictional repurposing of an animal associated, through Lovecraft and Jacques' Redwall series, with horror and fantasy. Rats themselves are almost entirely absent from SF, especially in the popular imagination; there is a reason that the trash compactor scene in Star Wars functions so well as a standalone vignette. It borrows the language of horror, briefly, and interjects it into the slick, well-lit corridors that science fictional futurism obsessively depicts.

But Lee's rat is on the side of the humans, at the end, just as the genres are; even Lovecraft, noted misanthrope, ended his life arguing for a sort of humanist socialism. All the baggage that rats in fiction carry, from the Pied Piper and the Plague on down, is forgotten in a gesture, with a little help from science fiction.

But the realism of "Blue Ink," accessible through its It Was (Probably) All Just A Dream frame narrative, complicates the seeming science fiction triumphalism of this gesture. It comes back to epistemology: SF functions by having everything always already be known; as soon as that isn't the case, it becomes hybridized, most commonly with detective fiction. With the dream frame, everything is both known and unknown, all at once and with no possible reductive explanation. Stable objects force the reader to interrogate them metaphorically; character development is no longer coherent and objectively different from plot; narrative valorization becomes silly and untenable as the text itself refuses to couch it. Thus the claims of laziness; readers quite like to valorize narrative, and many, when this is not allowed, feel cheated.

The real critique of the political economy of science fiction, however, is not this deeply embedded symbolic joke at the expense of genre triumphalism, but the use of the substance that titles the story. The blue ink is marked because it is a break from the protagonist's habitual practice; "Jenny Chang usually writes in black ink or pencil," the story informs us after divulging that the blue ink itself is "more than a fortunate accident." This nonhabitual, incidental detail preemptively fractures and fractalizes through the story itself, as a small prologue informs the reader to see in the color "the antithesis of red shift; the color of uncut veins beneath your skin." In his author notes, Yoon Ha Lee mentions that the story itself was typed, and not in blue; this is not, in other words, some sort of magical incantation but a serious, if playful, closed system in which material conditions (the pen that creates the world) shape and order what is constructed out of them. Against the propagandistic declaration that SF is the "literature of ideas," then, "Blue Ink" presents a pleasant little tale which argues the opposite; Science Fiction is a literature of stuff. And crucially, not just any stuff, but specifically the stuff which provides the conditions of its own possibility.

Much of this critique takes the shape of Lee's engagements with colonialism, an integral and often ignored constitutive condition of the kinds of futures that science fiction is able to consider. He does this not through didacticism but, again, by extrapolating on the material conditions of the medium itself. "Iseul's Lexicon," the only original story to appear in this anthology, is described in the author's notes as a story about "tactical linguistics;" and again the fantastical elements are both born out of, and provide a particularly clear lens into, the very material through which the story is built in the first place as well as the traditions which organize it into a conceivable, marketable identity. In Conservation of Shadows language is magic, and magic is materialism.

The success of the worldbuilding in "Iseul's Lexicon" relies on its historical analysis of power. The story revolves around the protagonist's effort to thwart the remnants of an old, defeated colonial power even in the midst of the advances a new one, and to do so she must employ the techniques of the old colonizer against them. This will, in turn, shift the balance of power in the ongoing war in an indeterminate manner. The "tactical linguistics" of the story revolve around the ways in which the universe's magic is itself a product of language; the Genial Ones' (the name given the old power) attempt to reassert themselves into the political realm (or at least take revenge on the humans who usurped them) is by way of a certain magic that can erase a language itself. The protagonist turns this around onto the Genial Ones' language and, in doing so, erases the source of all magic.

In a traditional genre story, this would be fairly straightforward; the protagonist would, despite having all the cards stacked against her, pull off a daring feat that simultaneously cripples both of the enemy forces at once, and in doing so save the world, albeit possibly costing something of herself. But because Lee sets up a relatively complicated history of power within the region, and declines to valorize this destruction of magic except as an unavoidable act of self-preservation, the story sets itself up against the tendency, fostered by its status as genre fiction, to be read primarily through the lens of moralism, and instead suggests that the interplay of objective, historical systems of power determine the condition of possibility for the ability of language to function not just as representation, but as action. Because Lee uses language not as a vessel but an organizing principle of the story, or a theme, it is implicated on both levels: as a component of a well-drawn regional colonial history, as well as what that history, ultimately, is made of.

"Effigy Nights," an earlier story in the anthology about "Imulai Mokarengen, the city whose name means inkblot of the gods," and whose inhabitants are "connoisseurs of writing," picks up on a thematic thread suggested by the origami weaponry of "Ghostweight" but left relatively undeveloped there: the primacy, not just of language in the creation of the fantastic, but of the material on which it manifests. The story focuses on an ongoing military occupation of Imulai Mokarengen, chosen because of its love of writing, and a fantastical resistance in which a surgeon is called to excise the city's legends out of the books in which they are written to create volatile paper heroes to resist the occupation. Like in "Iseul's Lexicon," an obvious narrative progression is suggested here, in which, to only slightly oversimplify, the good guys beat the bad guys, with a little pyrotechnics courtesy of the fantastical. Instead, Lee has the effigies immolate because of shoddy magical practices, and refuses to shy away from the deaths of the inhabitants of the city as much as the occupying army. And, in the end, a city of words and paper that weaponizes the paper by way of the words is, fittingly, a city that dooms itself to be destroyed by its own resistance.

A story like "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," in which each word in the title refers to a different magical gun, seem initially to lie outside of this paradigm. Shapeshifting small arms that do things like erase all memory of the wielder (the Needle of the title) or kill the commander of whoever is shot (Chain) don't, apparently, thematize the stuff of the story in the story itself. And the ostensible theme, a riff on the idea that determinism could run backward from a terminal effect around which all previous cause and effect chains are organized, seems like a mildly novel take on a physical law extrapolated into a story. Which is to say that, for all intents and purposes, "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain" appears to be a relatively conventional hard sf story, albeit with the fantastical cranked up a little high.

But where most SF would put the Chain at the center, Lee places the Flower; the protagonist of the story wields a gun which, once it is fired at someone, erases their ancestry. Having fired it once, she is now something like a ghost, as the victim traced their ancestry back 857 years. Having erased the better part of a millennium, she wakes up in a world where her language, her people, and her technology no longer exist; but this is only the backstory. The concerns at hand are of an AI to hire the protagonist to use the Flower to erase its maker from the timeline.

The story, out of context, would provoke an obvious question: why 857 years? Why not the first evolved human, or even all the way back to the first life form in this universe? The answer, as Lee observes in the author's note, is not in the story itself; and yet, for a story which clearly signals itself as science fiction, the absence of surprise at this particular omission speaks volumes. This is the effect, I am arguing, of the fact that by the time the reader has gotten to "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain" in the collection, their fundamental understanding of what science fiction itself entails has been changed; it is no longer possible to miss that the particular way in which stories are constructed is at least as crucial to the results of these stories as are the ideas which motivate them. And so a gun which murders ancestry by way of genealogy, rather than, say, genetics, makes perfect sense.

Rereading "Ghostweight," once the reader has absorbed Lee's unique reworking of the genre, proves an entirely new experience. Rather than a beautifully-rendered, if ultimately ordinary, sfnal tale, what is on offer is nothing less than a total epistemological break from the history of science fiction. What reads initially as rote is, in light of the ways that words and paper are figured throughout the collection, indescribably strange. And those opening paragraphs, whose poetic beauty seems at first to stem from their ability to estrange a familiar affect with a unique juxtaposition, are finally revealed as they are. For in Lee's stories the technological novum is not the various fantastika present or the mathematical rigor of structure, but the factory of genre itself, its endless production of texts that serve to reproduce itself; and the importance lies not in the fact itself, but its effects.

9/16: minor fix

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