Suburban Review, and 2017 Round-Up

TSR-9-COVER-INSTAGRAM

My poem Dietary Requirements (Fossilade) is in The Suburban Review #9, available here. It’s about moral absolutism, the singularity, and a particular existential crisis I used to spiral into when considering vegetarianism until it occurred to me to come at it from a sustainability perspective. (I’m still not 100% vegetarian, but on the other hand, I also spend less time wanting God to exist so I could punch him in the face for inventing the food chain.)

While I’m at it, people are doing award eligibility posts – I’ve also been trying to hold down a full-time job, so it hasn’t been my most productive year, but I believe both Dietary Requirements and January’s End-Times Tables (in Star*Line) are Rhysling-eligible. Let me know if you’re an SFWA member looking for stuff to nominate, I’m happy to send you both poems privately.

 

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Snippet: Cats

Society as we know it came to an end the day cats spontaneously developed warp drive capacity. Faster than light travel, effective teleportation at short distances, meant no bacon was safe, no indoor cat confined. With unlimited food supplies and totally unrestricted movement, the cat population skyrocketed. cats are very territorial creatures, so once earth’s cat density reached a certain point, they turned their attention away from our fridges and into the stars. In space, mass becomes decoupled from weight, so each cat could carry months’ supplies of kibble on its journey through the galaxy. We could have just stopped making kibble, of course. What can I say? We were afraid. The cats were everywhere. our spay-and-neuter drones couldn’t keep up with them. It was only a matter of time, if we didn’t feed them, before they turned on us. So we tried to turn the cat space odyssey to our advantage. Cat cams suddenly became immensely more complex. The more chilled-out moggies were harnessed to airtight capsules – we still didn’t understand how the cats breathed in space – and experimental mice were placed within. The cats ate them, obviously. We tried dogs, but the cats flipped out and refused to cooperate. It had to be people. We hadn’t domesticated cats, after all – they’d domesticated us.

This was how I came to be the first cat-powered astronaut. Not an astrophysicist or a pilot, but an orphaned veterinary science major who’d proven mentally resilient to solitary confinement during my time in prison for stealing and selling horse tranquilizers. (What can I say? College is expensive.) Nobody would miss me if I never came back, and nobody would employ me if I stayed on Earth. I was the perfect candidate. My space-capsule was pulled by four patient tabbies called Bubbles, Kafka, Gretel and Megatron. They were sisters, which was the only way we’d found so far to combine catpower effectively. The course was set by a sort of rough and ready cat democracy – the direction we ended up moving in was the average midpoint between the individual cats’ attempted trajectories.

*

Our first destination – the moon.

The moon was boring. The cats spent a little time playing in the low gravity, leaping on each other and batting dust bunnies around at great speed. I took measurements and sneezed a lot. My space suit was cumbersome and had somehow gotten cat hair in it. I passed some time trying to flip off every individual I’d ever hated back on earth as accurately as possible. I was just about to call it a day and bribe the cats back into harness with tuna when a crackle came through from mission control.

“Khkhkhontrol to Freyja One, do you read me?”

“I read you, Control. What’s up?”

“We’re getting some strange astronomical readings. Are you seeing anything unusual in the direction of Orion?”

I looked towards Orion. It wasn’t there. Neither was anything else.

“Uh, Control?” I said. “We’ve got some sort of… massive… visual anomaly blocking that sightline.”

“Khkhk abort khkhkhkh,” said Control.

I have never waved tuna so frantically. I’d just reharnessed the cats and sealed myself into the capsule when the anomaly ate the moon.

*

The first thing I saw when all my sensors stopped delivering nonsense and error messages was a large drill operated by someone in an oddly shaped space suit.

“Um,” I broadcast on all frequencies. “Hello?”

The figure in the space suit jumped, looked around, and appeared to notice my ship.

“Oh shit,” said my comms. “Natives!”

*

A bit of messing around with tractor beams later, I was standing in the control room of n alien spaceship. I couldn’t help but notice it did not seem to be towed by cats.

“Very quaint,” said a tall purple humanoid in a jaunty hat, when I asked about this. “Mammals aren’t very efficient, of course. Our engine room contains state of the art dandelion technology.”

“I… see,” I said. “And, more pressingly… why have you stolen our moon?”

“Can a moon really belong to anyone?” said the alien.

“Yes,” I said firmly. “This one is ours. We need it for tides, or something.”

“Bollocks,” said the alien. “Research assured us nobody had been there for generations, we figured you’d checked it out and not particularly wanted it.”

I had no idea if we wanted it or not, but I had a strong intuition that we shouldn’t let aliens mess with it.

“Put it back, please,” I said.

Thinking out loud.

I’ve been reading Caliban & the Witch, a history of the transition from feudalism to capitalism with a focus on the witch-hunts. It’s a good fit with having recently reread Debt: The First 5,000 Years. They both have interesting things to say about the tendency for people’s economic anxieties to have complicated reflections in popular mythology – Caliban’s connection between witches’ sabbats and peasant revolts reminds me of Debt’s description of an African community’s obsession with cannibal witches tricking people into debt and eating their children right around the time the trans-Atlantic slave trade was using local systems of human debt collateral to enslave and remove enormous numbers of people in nearby countries.

I also recently watched a Youtube video that finally coherently explained to me the sociological concept of rationalisation as the creation of a predictable process out of an idiosyncratic one. That is, a rational system is one in which the same input should always produce the same output. In the context of economic production (as the video explains), the transition from a cottage industry (every clay pot you cast with your hands will be unique) to a factory-based industry (machines, division of labour and standards of measurement are used to create clay pots that are as identical to each other as possible).

Now, I have a lot of thoughts I’m gonna at some point try to express coherently about how that concept relates to the idea of rational thought, but right now I’m thinking fantasy and science fiction. I’m thinking about how Caliban & the Witch describes magic as fundamentally opposed to rationalisation (as part of the creation of capitalism) – not in the sense that believing in things which aren’t real is ‘irrational’ (per the modern definition), but in the sense that the rules of magic didn’t work like a machine. Pre-industrial magical beliefs treated the universe as being powered by personality and will – whether a witch made something happen by wishing it or by negotiating with a spirit, these were personal interactions, like hand-shaping a clay pot. Magic was not fungible, scalable or predictable.

Now consider how much modern fantasy actually rationalises magic – treats it like a natural process which can be understood and shaped until the same input always produces the same output. Consider the frustration of the protagonist (and, I’m sufficiently confident in predicting, the author) of Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality with J. K. Rowling’s hodge-podge quasi-latin incantations, lacking in-universe pattern or historical context. But, of course, it was Rowling’s attempt to fit magic into the highly rationalised context of compulsory schooling in the first place that inevitably led Yudkowsky to make the attempt – once you start thinking of magic as something you learn from a curriculum, it is inevitable to apply further parallels with modern education and look for deeper theory in it. (Many aspects of the rationalisation of modern schooling are of course deeply problematic in and of themselves, and I’d be fascinated to read a magical-school story which is actually about the problems with standardised testing and production-line education, but that’s a thought for another time.)

There’s a lot of science fiction that doesn’t go into the nuts and bolts of its technology – many people call this “soft” science fiction, and some consider it to be a sort of devolution from science fiction into the realm of fantasy with a technological aesthetic. But I think it’s the other way round. Science fiction differs from fantasy largely in its attempts to rationalise secondary worlds – it’s not important that the reader understands the mechanics so much as that the reader understands the broader rules, the expectation that technological plot points will produce predictable, repeatable, rational consequences. In that sense, a lot of modern fantasy is actually just science fiction with a magical aesthetic – the fundamental rules of the created world are the same.

I don’t mean that in a negative way – I have a strong rationalisation instinct myself, I want things to make sense, and patterns that fit the rational profile are so common in the modern world that looking for them is a strong default. Certainly the rules of commercial fiction itself are highly rational – Chekhov’s gun and all that – and stories that break those rules clumsily are very irritating. Stories which operate on a different logic wielded by a skilled author, on the other hand, are very exciting but notoriously difficult to read, and frequently subject to vehement critical disagreements between people who do and don’t attempt to interpret them using the standard formula.

And that does seem to happen more often in fantasy (magical realism, slipstream, etc) than in science fiction. Anyone got examples/counter-examples or other thoughts?

a post- post

Unspoken Words festival was pretty great. I learned a lot of things, and heard a lot of voices that aren’t present at larger literary festivals, which is exactly what it was for – so it’s fulfilled its purpose. Many of us who were involved in the festival don’t have a lot of experience, and I think that showed in places, but everyone as far as I could see was patient and eager to make things work, which counts for a lot. I’ll be posting a transcript of my Genre Poetry 101 workshop later this week, and hopefully video and/or audio of various segments as they turn up.

Just one thing, and I feel I should mention it precisely because there was so much emphasis on respecting the Aboriginal owners of the land we stood on, because we were all trying so hard and I can’t help feeling like I’m falling short in some way. Before I performed this poem last night I mentioned that I thought I’d have to update it eventually, or write a sequel – that among other things, I suspected it doesn’t make other white people nearly uncomfortable enough. (HMU if you’ve got tips about that)

Later in the evening a white man came up to me and said something about also having migrant heritage, but when I asked him what kind it sounded more like he was talking about the various European countries his various ancestors came from than his personal experience.

How can I make myself clearer?

Yes, one of the things this poem is about is that everyone’s family tree, if you go back far enough, contains both the invader and the invaded, contains children born of rape, contains everything humanity is capable of – and that nobody’s family future is 100% exempt, in the long run, from the risk of becoming again a refugee or an occupied people, that the difference between you and the people this is currently happening to is about luck and timing and historical context.

But it’s also a poem that compares Australia to Soviet Russia in the political repression department – and make no mistake, the things being done in our name to refugees are political (as I wrote about in this post), and the things being done in our name to Aboriginal communities are political (because ultimately if those communities weren’t busy fighting a hundred other injustices they’d have more energy and resources to direct towards trying to get their stolen land back).

Yes, if you are a white Australian reading/listening to this poem, I want you not to think of yourself as being a fundamentally different kind of person from either aboriginal people or asylum seekers, yes, but it’s not so you can talk about how like them you are, to them or to me. I want you to understand what is happening to those people-you-are-not-that-different-from, and I want you to think about why it is happening, and I want you to be angry.

Unspoken Words

I’m excited to announce I’ll be participating in a small poetry festival here in Sydney in early June. Red Rattler poet-in-residence and all round lovely Emma Rose Smith has put together Unspoken Words. I should be around all weekend if anyone wants a chat, but on Sunday I’m going to be performing a poetry set, participating in a panel on writing while queer and hosting a workshop on genre poetry. See you there!

This is a post for the #FreeSaeed National Day of Action. But I don’t think I need to tell you about Saeed – you can all use Google for yourselves. Besides, it’s not just about Saeed. Saeed is just this guy, you know. Could be your grandad. This isn’t about him. This is about the politically ruthless and morally bankrupt system he’s caught up in.

My spouse tends to make references to Ursula Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, when we’re talking about Australia’s border control policy. It’s apt enough – the government is more or less willing to outright admit that the awful conditions in our detention camps are a feature, not a bug. This is how you stop the boats – you take the people from the boats and you make their lives actively worse than they would have been in the warzone they are seeking asylum from. You make sure everyone knows it. But we’re unlike Omelas in a few ways, and one is that we’re not even torturing the child to fuel a utopia – we’re doing it to appease the strategic bits of the electorate who, for reasons sometimes rational and sometimes frankly racist, might otherwise object to the much greater amount of non-humanitarian migration our government (and their backers) support because it’s good for the economy. We’re doing it so a political party can have its cake and eat it, and for no other reason.

And we’re unlike Omelas in another way, because there’s no convenient mountains to walk away into. There is no way open to us to not be complicit in this atrocity. The only choice is between the two psychologically dicey paths of convincing ourselves that this is, somehow, okay, or doing whatever we can against it, always knowing it can’t possibly be enough.

#FreeSaeed is a flashpoint in path number two that’s worth paying attention to. Maybe it’s a sign that we’ve been tolerating the morally intolerable for too long – a line in the sand that says not one more deportation into danger, not one more sacrifice by means of eldritch bureaucracy to the political interests of the elites.

I’ve gone down to Villawood a few times in the last month, to spell the activists watching the gates for deportation vans. It’s an unsettling place. But I had to go and see what was being done in my name, and to do what I could, which wasn’t enough.

The video above is the song Immigraniada, by Gogol Bordello, which was one of the influences on my poem The Second Law of Thermodynamics that I didn’t namecheck at the time. One of the things I was trying to do when I wrote it was highlight that “we” in “we’re coming rougher” – not to try and convince people that They are just like Us, but the other way round, that We are just like Them, or could be given just a little push from events beyond our control.

I keep coming back to that poem (and this song) because I think we need certain things to maintain resistance over time to huge unjust machines like the one Saeed is sitting in the belly of. We need physical resources – cars and food and sunscreen – to keep a picket going, yes, but we also need emotional resources. We need things to remind us of our personal connection to the injustice we are fighting, because a purely intellectual moral objection simply does not fuel most people efficiently enough to prevent burnout – or to draw new activists to the cause, which is also necessary to prevent burnout. The paradox of direct action is that the more people get involved, the more we can spread out the labour and the risk and the more we can bear it, and yet in order to get there each individual must face the tremendous amount of labour and risk that will be required of them, and perhaps wasted, if they turn out to be the only one.

And yet, even if all you can do is, like me, stand guard a few hours to let people with more to give get some sleep… You never know if, this time, that will be the last little bit of effort it takes to tip the whole thing over into a critical mass that asks less of the next person to join and even less of the next.

And that means we need to fuel our souls in whatever way we can.

We’re comin’ rougher every time.

My poem End-Times Tables was recently published in issue 40.1 of Star*Line. This is the poem I mentioned working on in this post, and I think it’s a pretty fun poem, although my judgement may be skewed on that front – I showed it to my shoggoth (etymology: significant other via sig/oth) and got a “Leaning into that old-school Russian fatalism, I see?” What’s the point of stoicly facing certain doom if you’re not going to be cheerful about it, is what I say.

You can buy the issue here, or like my facebook page for a sneak peak at my poem!