On Monday the latest SF Signal Podcast went live, and I was on it. The topic: 2013 Hugo Ballot Suggestions. With January 31st the deadline for joining LoneStarCon to be eligible for submitting nominations, it seemed like a very good opportunity to participate in the conversation about them, especially since I was not going to be able to formally contribute to the process (due primarily to financial considerations). But I had read some great fiction in 2012 and wanted to give those stories a boost, so I volunteered to be on the podcast even though, as some of you know, my attitude towards awards is rather conflicted. Despite that, I wanted to put forth some suggestions for people to ponder.
I did a little preparation for the podcast, but I did not search for nominations for every category. I focused primarily on the fiction and writer categories, which for me are the most fun to debate. The evening of the call found me at the bookstore I manage, where I use the reliable landline to insure that I don’t get dropped or distorted by a crappy cellphone or Google Phone connection. This night I had an added challenge to podcasting: in exchange for staying after-hours and using electricity and the phone, I had to mind the owner’s wife’s dog, who is generally sedate but at the time was quite sick, and shortly before the podcast started coughing and retching. But it was very intermittent and she quickly laid her head back down, so I waited for the call to join the recording.
I thought that I was decently prepared but poor Sophie distracted me, and as the podcast got underway I realized that I had not read a lot of novels, and some of those were not eligible for the Best Novel category because of their publication date. I settled on a single choice: Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, which I found to be a powerful, gorgeous, sublime piece of fiction, if a bit slow getting underway. I reviewed it at my blog and wrote this about it:
“What makes The Troupe so satisfying in the end is that despite how faltering and ignorant our pursuit of life may be, how much we delude ourselves about it, knowing The Truth will not somehow save us. What preserves us, what keeps us going forward through a life that we know is going to end, are precisely the things that are ineffable and impermanent. We don’t do our constant song-and-dance just to fool people, but to impel ourselves towards a life that we can grasp and feel the worth of through the performance of it.”
As the podcast conversation unfolded the dog got more restless and seemed unhappy, so I moved closer to her and rubbed her ears as I tried to keep my mind on the discussion. I found myself thinking about the contrast between consoling a sick dog and trying to talk about literature as if nothing was wrong, and it put me in mind of a few stories made me think hard about the paradoxes of life.
Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion“ was first because I was quite taken with the way it created a strange yet empathic narrative with its shifts between points-of-view and the attendant conundrums about identity and control. From its excellent opening line of “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are” to a surprisingly hopeful ending, the story pulls you in and keeps you off-balance by challenging what a person’s sense of self is, where it comes from, and the ways in which people try to command it. It is a story with a mystery in it, but not one to solve. The issues that Quy and her family go through do not have a neat solution, because they are inseparable from the surrounding world; they are a product of it and fuel for it.
Through the use of second-person I found myself anchored to the story; the third-person segments pulled me out of the intimate experience of not being yourself into moments that were paradoxically distant yet personal. Tacking back and forth between viewpoints encapsulated the central concern of the story, the question of who are we? This was grounded not in some rapturous philosophical meandering but in a story about people struggling to exist with agency, navigating the ups and downs of existence in a very particular moment that still echoed with concerns that cut across time and person. Everyone struggles to be, whether or not they do it with the aid of amazing technology, and while the conditions of those struggles vary they are something that all of us deal with continuously.
When I brought up Ken Liu’s translation of “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia, I found myself tongue-tied to describe it, because I had not read it for months. I wasn’t even sure if it was a valid contender, being a translation, but the Hugo website has allayed my concerns. Regardless, for me it was a story that needed recognition for what felt like a fluid and deft translation of a tender, sorrowful story. What stuck with me, I discovered, was how it pulled you into another world, a world where you follow the protagonist through his life and find out some uncomfortable things about his world, and his fate, and perhaps about yourself. This is a story that is lyrical, dream-like, and earnest. Ning does nothing less than take us through many of the troubles of being alive in a place where that word has some strange, aching meanings. The story flows wonderfully but it is also intricate and thoughtful. The beauty of the language unfolds in the contrast between poetic and prosaic passages that tell us Ning’s story, which feels like a story we all have to go through.
Once again I had this feeling of moving back and forth between two modes of expression, although the shifts here are not in point-of-view but in the resonance of the language. There are moments of beauty and moments of dilapidation; hunger can become rhapsodic hope, small human moments become precious and sometimes unattainable despite their everyday plainness. The strangeness of the story emerges in the flow of unexpected moments strung together to become a mirror of an attempt at life. Moments: small spans of time laden with value or significance. They are not static; they move, and they are related, they give us impetus, we mark them as important and distinctive from all the other bits of time we have passed through. It struck me as I tried to console a now frequently coughing dog and stay present in the discussion that moments were the stuff of story, particularly in Xia Jia’s tale. Like de Bodard’s story, this one is also about discovering who a character is; this is the whole point of the story, but this is not about finding out their identity, it is about them peeling back layers of imposed identity to get at something more elemental beneath their skins and in their minds.
Shifting to Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “Desire” seemed in some ways quite natural, even though the story is so different than these other two. But this choice was a sudden one; I wanted to pluck one exemplary tale from Salaam’s Ancient, Ancient but could not remember the publication dates. As it turns out, this story is not eligible for the Hugos (publication date is 2004). But as I sat there with a hand on Sophie’s head, trying to give her some comfort as her coughing got worse, I thought about connectivity, which I found to be a profound theme in Ancient, Ancient. Being-in-the-world as a body is a frequent concern in her stories, and I felt that concern as my concentration fell more on the distressed dog than my fellow podcasters.
The fourth story I selected, Greg Bossert’s “The Telling,” is in some ways a much more straightforward story than these others. When I first read it (in the interest of full disclosure, in the same issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies as my story “The Scorn of the Peregrinator”), I felt that it had a lot of meanings to be teased out of it, that it was deceptive in its presentation, which is mostly the quest of a child to understand her(?) place in the world. There are few flourishes of language but many instances where you stop and wonder what more you can mine from a word, a meaning, a scene. The artistry of the story lies in way we are led by the child Mel to these instances of potential understanding. But what also struck me at the moment was that the story was about relationships, with other people and with the world around us. Mel’s quest was not about answering deep philosophical questions about existence, but about belonging, and making one’s own way through the world.
At this point I was drifting from the podcast conversation, to the point where I fumbled to talk about the next categories. Not only was I thinking about the lessons of the stories I had read, but Sophie was coughing so much that she started retching. I found myself doubly concerned: for her, and for not interrupting the podcast, so I begged off at that point so that what was happening at my end would not interfere with the rest of the show. After I hung up I tried to get her to drink some water but she wasn’t interested, so I bent down and consoled the dog as she retched some more and bent her head towards me, shuffling closer to me for comfort. I took her shivering head in my hands and thought about who I was to her at that moment. And it was a moment, a weighted, valuable moment of time where I tried to give her solace, where I felt a sense of myself enriched by these stories, sustained by what they showed me. There was nothing I could do for the ailing dog but give her something of myself, and I realized that what these stories had taught me was to recognize moments, to create them, to be present in them and let them affect you. I gave myself to the dog’s consolation and in that found an echo of the answers that most of these stories were seeking. That moment reaffirmed for me why those stories were worthy of recognition: because through them I found something of worth for my own being-in-the-world.