I hesitated before requesting a review e-copy of Matthew Johnson’s short-story anthology Irregular Verbs and Other Stories – for, though it was labeled “Science Fiction/Fantasy”, I had a suspicion that the author might attempt to commit literary fiction.
The introduction, a gush of praise for the author’s artistic sensitivity and his nuanced command of language, did nothing to allay my suspicions. (Also, the word “transgressive” was used. This is generally a sign that wearisome levels of dimwitted political cant are oncoming.) The introduction read exactly as though I could expect the anthology proper to be lit-fic – that is, an extended stylistic wank in which the author continually mistakes either the fine details of the emotional lives of imaginary persons or his own meta-expressive language games for interesting subjects.
Parts of this anthology aren’t quite that bad. Other parts are worse. A few are pretty good (most of the better ones were first published in SF magazines). In the remainder of this review I will use Johnson’s work to explore some of the boundary conditions of the SF genre – how it differs from literary fiction and from genres such as mystery and fantasy.
Because I’m going to be saying a lot about genres of writing, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.
This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.
We will also require the following definition of science fiction (due in its most developed form to Gregory Benford): that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way. Every constraint in this definition is important; removing or relaxing any of them lands us in other genres.
The first story in this anthology, Irregular Verbs, is representative in both its virtues and flaws. In the Salutean Islands, the natives are so gifted at language that pairs of them constantly spontaneously generate new ones. It takes a daily public act of social will to maintain a common public tongue intelligible to all. Senderi Ang, mourning the death of his beloved wife Kesperi ten days ago, discovers that he is beginning to forget their marriage-language.
This story is like SF in several ways. The premise is fantastic (counterfactual) but not obviously impossible; the consequences are worked out logically and with respect for the reader’s intelligence. It uses the characteristic SFnal device of indirect exposition – the counterfactual aspects of the world being shown mainly not by expository lumps but through the thoughts and actions of the characters.
Despite this, as SF, it fails – in fact, it’s not even really trying. The lesser reason for this is its failure to participate in the SF genre’s historical conversation. The worldbuilding shows no awareness of or references to previous works of SF with similar or related premises (Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao, for example, or Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, or a James Tiptree story I’ve forgotten the title of). This failure would not in itself be fatal.
The greater reason, the fatal failure, is this: all the premise is used for is a meditation on the psychology of grief, loss, and the need to remember, ended by a futile symbolic gesture surrounded by fine language. To be specific: Senderi Ang has a friend tattoo a grammar and lexicon of what he can remember of his and Kesperi’s marriage-language on his skin. The author invites us to believe that this keeps the language alive, but it doesn’t – the tattoo is just a static representation of the language’s anatomy, not living use of it as an expressive medium. It’s a curious confusion, coming from a writer.
There is no sense of wonder here, no conceptual breakthrough; the reader is never given either a true nor a false but emotionally plausible sense of walking out of the story with more understanding than he or she walked into it with. Not only that, but what is dramatically presented as a solution to the central problem of the story is a false one.
I think we can locate a key difference between literary fiction and SF here. Johnson seems to consider Senderi Ang’s tattoo a resolution because it is a performative act that expresses the character’s emotions in a socially visible form; the fact that it does not actually fulfil the character’s expressed desire is somehow irrelevant even to the character. This is the discourse of modern and postmodern literary fiction: there is no truth and no objective reality, only people fooling themselves for comfort.
SF has much stricter standards for what would constitute a correct resolution. If this were an SF story, it would end something like this: Senderi Ang would find some functional reason for other islanders to want to preserve the language as a living medium; then he would begin teaching classes in it and find his fulfillment in that. Most likely the story would end as he begins teaching the first lesson. It is not merely the condition of his mind that would change but the objective condition of the world.
That didn’t happen. Thus, as a reader of SF receiving an anthology labeled “SF/Fantasy” and a story co-opting some SFnal ways of conveying counterfactuals, I felt cheated by the story and its ending.
I would have felt more cheated if I had not begun reading with a strong suspicion that the author’s understanding of what is central and particular about an SF reader’s expectations is defective, and that he would therefore likely fail to meet them. It was no fun being right about this.
The next story, Another Country, is in some ways better. An unexplained natural phenomenon has opened ways for “prefugees” from the historical past to come forward to the present. Again, the setup uses SFnal expository techniques. Johnson’s imagination of the sorts of things that might happen when ancient Romans and Goths collide with modern technology and pop culture is intelligent and witty. Some of the bits about that do deliver an SFnal sort of reward, a sense of increased understanding about where the flashpoints would be and how people on both sides of the divide would be likely to react.
We get those as appetizers, but there’s no main course. The story trails off into what, in SF terms, is a diffuse and unsatisfying ending. There’s no reveal; it is never even quite clear what the main character’s intentions were, or whether he was being truthful at various earlier points in the story. One suspects we are supposed to consider this ambiguity artistic and sophisticated, when in fact it just feels cheap and evasive.
This story seems to be intended as SF; the techniques of it suggest that we are supposed to be in a rationally knowable world. But like the previous story it ends as bad SF; SF’s promise to the reader is not fulfilled. Alas, worse is to come.
Public Safety is an initially cute little construction about a timeline in which the French Revolution’s odder attempts at breaking with the past didn’t fail and are manifest in an alternate New Orleans. The month of Thermidor is on the calendar, the watches use decimal hours, and “REASON OVER FERVOR” is on government buildings – it was a nice subtle touch that the author gives the motto only in Latin for the reader to translate. This is some high-quality SFnal scene-setting by the telling detail!
Turns out we’re in a police procedural where the detective is investigating a note threatening death to an unidentified woman on a specified date. All the most advanced methods of the 19th century are employed in the investigation. Phrenology! Graphology! Physiognomy! Racial theory! All of which we are straight-facedly invited to treat as the hardest of hard sciences. Meanwhile, machinery is mysteriously degrading – omnibuses are breaking down, and mechanical gear in theaters is suffering dangerous failures.
But the story squanders all that promise. On the appointed day, the detective guesses that the murder victim is to be Dame Reason herself. Natural law collapses; we get no hint of how this was even possible or why it was done or who might have done it, outside of speculation that the agents of chaos were scientists themselves.
The SF form requires of authors a central undertaking to the reader: that there are rules to the unknown, and if you are bright and observant enough you can comprehend them. Here that undertaking not merely broken but perversely inverted – the point of the story is that rational knowability itself has been murdered. This is not merely bad science fiction, it is a sort of nihilistic antimatter inverse of science fiction that is all the more repellent to an SF reader because of the technical skill and superficial cleverness with which it was set up.
Beyond the Fields You Know is a fantasy that chillingly subverts a cherished trope of children’s stories: what if the magical creature that invites you to adventure in another world is actually recruiting slaves to do scutwork in a magical war, and you can never go home? There isn’t really any internal logic here, just a sort of creepy dream sequence about a boy who breaks his chains. Rational knowability is out the window, but as we were not led to expect that it is not the exercise in perversion that that the previous story was.
What we have here is a correctly constructed instance of genre fantasy; it gets its pull from the evocation of old and emotionally powerful tropes from folklore and myth. The SFnal experience of conceptual breakthrough is not the aim, nor will fantasy genre readers expect it.
What You Couldn’t Leave Behind is the first story in this anthology I unequivocally enjoyed. How often do you run across a hard-boiled-detective pastiche set in a Buddhist afterlife populated at least partly by Egyptian gods?
Curiously, this Thorne-Smith-meets-Raymond-Chandler theological fantasy is also the first story in the book to fulfill SF’s genre contract – if you accept the Buddhist premises about reincarnation and nirvana the ending follows perfectly logically, and its kicker is a small but respectable conceptual breakthrough. Bonus points for the Casablanca reference at the end. Would that all the work in this anthology were so good.
When We Have Time is a chilling little vignette the likes of which Frederic Brown might have written. When the twist at the end comes, you realize it’s a possibility you should have seen coming. You had the clues, and the logic is impeccable, but the author stayed a step ahead. This is true SF, and would not have been out of place in any SF magazine from the early 1950s onwards.
This story exhibits a structure many SF stories have in common with murder mysteries, and the reason crossovers between both these two genres are so often successful. In both forms the author is required to play by the rules of rational deduction. The writer wins the game if the reader reaches the big reveal without having anticipated it but with the realization that the solution is correct; the reader wins if he or she gets to the truth before the author’s reveal. The author plays fair by leaving open the possibility that a sharp enough reader can win, and the work is judged more by how well and how audaciously the author plays the game more than by conventional literary criteria.
What distinguishes an SF story like this from a murder mystery isn’t the absence of murder but the presence of at least one premise in the story that is fantastic, e.g. counterfactual.
The Wise Foolish Son examines the way history is polished into myth. We might be in a rationally knowable universe here; there is magic but hints that it follows discoverable rules. But their discoverability is irrelevant to the appeal of the story; the appeal is in the resonance with folktale motifs we half-recognize. Thus we are in the territory of fantasy rather than SF.
Long Pig is a joke, a faux restaurant review in which you’ll know the punchline in advance if you recognize what the title means.
With Talking Blues, the expected wearisome political cant arrives as a folk singer manque attempts to unionize Hell. For our genre-analysis purposes it’s an allegorical fantasy and not much more needs to be said; the premise is so wildly implausible that there is no point in seeking rational knowability anywhere. The author probably thinks he has uttered a clever comment on capitalism, but I found myself thinking of Tom Lehrer’s We’re the Folk Song Army: “Ready! Aim! Sing!”
The Face of the Waters is a very slight bit of SF about somatic manipulation of the human germ line being turned to an obvious purpose for unobvious reasons.
Outside Chance is SF, too, and much more substantial. It’s a novel take on the well-established SF trope of change wars among alternate timelines. More than any of the SF in this anthology so far, it feels connected to the rest of the genre, as though it was written with awareness of similar past efforts.
Closing Time is set in a fantastic not-quite China where the ghost of a restaurant owner’s recently-dead father is bankrupting the joint by making his wake run too long. It is gentle, funny and unforced, avoiding the sense many of these stories emit that the author is perhaps trying a bit too hard to be clever and cute.
Lagos is bad SF, because the premise is broken. Nobody will ever hire poor Nigerians to run vacuum cleaners or wash dishes by telepresence, because by the time the infrastructure for that is in place autonomous robots will do the job better and cheaper. Johnson should have known better, since robots almost good enough already do exist.
Bad SF is not the same as non-SF or anti-SF, however; this is a far less serious offense against the form than Public Safety. The story is partly redeemed by clever intertwining of Nigerian folk magic with a technology-centered problem.
The result is almost what is called in the SF genre a “technology-of-magic” story, one in which it is central that magic works and the rules are rationally knowable. But not quite, as it is left ambiguous whether what is going on is magic or particularly insidious technology filtered through the perceptions of illiterate and near-uneducated people who nevertheless find a way to turn it back on itself. A writer whose sensibility is centered in SF would consider that distinction important.
The Dragon’s Lesson is another fictive folktale, a style Johnson is manifestly rather good at emulating. This one is didactic, with the fantasy device being used to set up a moral in the manner of one of Aesop’s fables.
In general Johnson is better at fantasy than SF, and I think the reason relates directly to SF’s genre rules. Genres exist not only because different kinds of readers seek different kinds of aesthetic rewards but because writers do too. For Johnson, fantasy seems to be deeply expressive but SF more in the nature of a technical exercise; his fantasies are fully realized but his SF bloodless and often defective in form.
Au Coeur Des Ombres seems to begin in the same alternate New Orleans as Public Safety, evidently well before the events of the previous story. The characters must cope with the consequences of Indians up the Mississippi having been deliberately infected by smallpox via trade blankets. As with Lagos, this presents a situation in which different participants view a situation in rational versus magical/religious terms; but in this case it is much clearer that the rational perspective can explain things the other cannot.
We are more clearly in the territory of correctly-constructed SF here, which makes the perversity of Public Safety harder to explain. The least hypothesis, I think, continues to be that Johnson’s understanding of the SF form is weak; thus, he readily imitates some of its surface features but does not really grasp its essence.
In Jump Frog, the author’s technical competence as a prose stylist is again on display as he successfully imitates the voice of Mark Twain. The result is a kind of SF premised on the counterfactual that early-19th-century speculations about electricity being the vital force of life were actually true; but mainly it functions as a pretty good joke.
The Afflicted is another swing at an SF trope now becoming rather tired; the zombie as not a supernatural phenomenon but disease victim. I don’t think any of the authors who have tried this have improved much on Richard Matheson’s trope-defining I Am Legend (1954), and Johnson doesn’t manage it either.
Nevertheless, this kind of story is worth some attention because it exemplifies one of SF’s central impulses – to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.
It is not clear whether Johnson really cares about this aspect of the SF form; the defects of some of his other SF stories suggest he does not. But in some ways his performance here is more interesting if he does not; it suggests how exposure to SF can teach some of its concerns and reflexes to writers who have little actual investment in SF’s core values.
Holdfast is, again, a well-constructed fantasy that approaches and perhaps reaches the state of of technology-of-magic. I won’t summarize it, as it doesn’t pose any interpretive problems we have not already encountered. It is a strong story, though; one of the best in this collection.
The Coldest War is a puzzle on two levels, one intentional and perhaps one unintentional. On the intentional level, we wonder what if anything has invaded the Arctic island where a soldier keeps his lonely vigil. On the meta- and perhaps unintentional level, we wonder just what the author thinks he is doing with this story. Who is the invader? What has become of the soldier’s partner? Is there an invader at all, or has the protagonist gone mad?
Some of the superficial furniture of SF is here; the story depends on devices for cold-weather warfare that don’t yet exist, and the logic of protagonist’s actions given what he thinks is going on is detailed. But the essence of SF is not. The puzzle is not resolved; there is no reveal. The protagonist cannot decide whether he is sane or insane.
Lit-fic writers think this sort of thing is clever and artistic. SF readers think it is maddeningly perverse. What is the point of writing a problem story if you’re not going to resolve the problem? It’s as wrong as writing a story that invokes all the tropes of a murder mystery but ends with the reveal that the victim died for reasons completely unrelated to any of them, or didn’t die at all.
Written By The Winners is another change-wars story with a darker, Orwellian angle. The interpretive problem that it poses is that the plot turns on an impossibility.
Sometime in the personal past of the characters, a totalitarian political organization used a device to change history to its liking. The impossibility is that the change is patchy, and some objects from the old history survived into the new one (one in the story is a vinyl record album). People exposed to these parachronic objects may do what the Party fears most: remember the old past.
This premise only appears possible because we mistake a brain’s view of reality, lumping it unto objects like record albums, as being more fundamental than it is. To see why this is problematic, ask why the history-changing process left exactly that record untouched, but not atoms in the objects arbitrarily close to it. And what does “close” mean, anyway, when we’re talking about the materialization of an entire timeline around it?
There’s a convention in SF called the “one-McGuffin rule”; you’re allowed one impossible premise per story, and FTL travel doesn’t count. So we might let this one slide by, except that what the story does with human memory is even more ridiculous. When people see parachronic objects and that causes them to recover memories of an erased past, where where those memories stored before? Are people supposed to be somehow psychically connected with versions of themselves that don’t exist?
The more you think about both premises from a scientific point of view, the more ridiculous and insupportable they get. This is bad SF; it is an SF writer’s responsibility not to utter tripe like this, because it violates the core premise that the unknown has to be as rationally knowable as the known.
Heroic Measures is better; a calm and darkly funny study of the problems of medical care for a superhero with terminal multiple organ failure. Awfully hard to run diagnostics on a man with invulnerable skin, since that includes opacity to X rays.
For the first time here we are unquestionably involved in the SF genre conversation; this story was obviously written with Larry Niven’s tongue-in-cheek Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex in mind. The general impossibility of the superhero gets by under the one-McGuffin rule.
The conclusion is inevitable, too. You put Superman out of his otherwise endless misery with Kryptonite, even if you have to face down Lex Luthor to get it. The conceptual breakthrough here isn’t in the solution but the reader’s growing understanding of how terrible the problems of having a body that can patch-heal itself forever could be.
The Last Islander is pretty good, too, in a more serious way. It extrapolates some consequences of immersive virtual reality and directed dreaming in detailed ways, and explores whether these have the staying power of organic human memory.
And that is it. A very mixed bag, but a good set of examples for examining the nature of genre in general and SF in particular. And the failures are cautionary lessons in why anyone who wants to write good SF should avoid becoming infected with the habits and limitations of lit-fic.