Belated Readercon Recap: Towards a Literature of the Anthropocene

LCRW 33 in my mom's raspberry patch
LCRW 33 in my mom’s raspberry patch

One LCRW theme issue, two Readercon panels and a lot of hallway/bar/dealer’s room conversation (not to mention years of bumping around blindly alone in the dark), have only whetted my appetite for a much broader, sustained conversation about the promise and pitfalls of writing fiction in and about the anthropocene epoch. Don’t get me wrong–the panels were great (see previous post for titles/descriptions) and I even got to moderate one of them. But I confess I am not particularly good at steering discussion, especially not in person, in front of a crowd, with four smarter, more eloquent people all of whom have equally valid and quite distinct perspectives. And there just wasn’t enough time to cover it all. My fellow panelists laid out fascinating ideas, and I got a decent line in here and there, but we barely got into stuff I thought we could have spent a whole panel on, or two, or seven. And I had all these lovely panel notes I didn’t even get to!

One of my hall conversations afterward was with Emily Wagner, program chair, who I asked for more like that next year. “Propose panels,” she said, and I will. But I’m also going to do what I can to get people talking in the meantime.

To that end, I’ve convinced a few of the LCRW 33 contributors to field some questions about how they apply these ideas in their own work. I’ll be posting those interviews here over the next couple weeks, and doing a few interviews myself elsewhere (here’s one with the UK-based Nottingham Writers’ Society).

First, though, I thought I’d recap the Readercon discussion for those who missed it (insofar as I remember it), share some of those notes I haven’t yet managed to get the good out of, and lay out the directions in which I think this conversation needs to go.

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Readercon 2015 Schedule

Friday July 11

12:00 PM    F    Writing in the Anthropocene: SF and the Challenge of Climate Change. Gwendolyn Clare, Michael J. Daley, Michael J. Deluca (leader), Max Gladstone, Vandana Singh. Science fiction and fantasy have often dealt with fictional apocalyptic scenarios, but what about the real-world scenario unfolding right now? Climate change, or climate disruption, is the most challenging problem faced by humankind, and some have called it a problem of the imagination, as much as economics and environment. In the wake of the latest scientific reports on what is happening and what might be in store for us, we’ll examine how imaginative fiction conveys the reality, the immediacy, and the alternative scenarios of the climate problem.

4:00 PM    EM    LCRW. Christopher Brown, Michael J. Deluca, Eric Gregory, Deborah McCutchen, Alena McNamara. Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Group Reading

6:00 PM    ENL    Solarpunk and Eco-Futurism. Michael J. Daley, Michael J. Deluca, Jeff Hecht, Rob Kilhefer, Romie Stott (leader). In August 2014, Miss Olivia Louise wrote a Tumblr post proposing the creation of a new subgenre: solarpunk. Solarpunk, sometimes called eco-futurism, would be set in a semi-utopian future visually influenced by Art Nouveau and Hayao Miyazaki, and built according to principles of new urbanism and environmental sustainability—an “earthy” handmade version of futuretech, in opposition to the slick, white, spacebound surfaces of 1980s futurism. Solarpunk blogs have since proliferated, as Tumblr users like SunAndSilicon create and aggregate concept art and brainstorm solarpunk’s technological and societal shifts, enthusiastically building a shared-world fandom with no single owner or defining central text. For some, building solarpunk is an escapist fantasy. Meanwhile, in San Francisco there have been meatspace conventions to develop some kind of manifesto, with the hope of eventually moving realworld society in a solarpunk direction. What, if any, are the precursors to this kind of grassroots genre creation? Is it an inevitable outgrowth of fan-funded niche publishing through crowdfunding? Is solarpunk’s locavore pro-tech optimism in the face of climate change a distinctly Millenial backlash to Gen-X dystopias? And can the inevitable contradictions of a crowdsourced utopia survive the rigors of critical reading?

Saturday July 12

10:00 AM    ENV    Reading: Michael J. Deluca. Michael J. Deluca. Michael J. Deluca reads A short story, 2900 words, forthcoming in Mythic Delirium.

LCRW 33 Contents

lcrw33cover

It is done! And I am very happy.

fiction

Carmen Maria Machado, “I Bury Myself”
Alena McNamara, “Starling Road”
Giselle Leeb, “Ape Songs”
Michelle Vider, “For Me, Seek the Sun”
Deborah Walker, “Medea”
D. K. McCutchen, “Jellyfish Dreaming”
Sofia Samatar, “Request for an Extension on the Clarity”
M. E. Garber, “Putting Down Roots”
Eric Gregory, “The March Wind”

nonfiction

Christopher Brown, “Winter in the Feral City”
Nicole Kimberling, “Cook Like a Hobo”

poetry

Leslie Wightman, “The Sanctity of Nature”
Ingrid Steblea, “Another Afternoon in the Garden”
Kelda Crich, “Child Without Summer”
Peter Jay Shippy, “Singing Beach”

art

Kevin Huizenga
Dmitry Borshch
Steve Logan

What a mind-altering thing this has been for me. You know how, in this modern age, you look at social media and you only see what you want to see, from people you agree with, or at the most, you see stuff people you agree with are making fun of or eviscerating? Because that’s how the algorithms are designed to work, they’re these feedback loops trying as hard as they can to keep you coming back. Or maybe you look at TV, but your preferred stations and talking heads are doing basically the same thing, they’re narrowing down, they’re telling you what they want you to hear and only that. And of course, because everybody’s competing with everybody else for that privilege and for your attention, they simplify, dumb down, hyperbolize. And okay, maybe you go out into the world and interact with actual people, but disagreeing over drinks or a game of croquet just isn’t polite conversation, you don’t want to hear it from them any more than they want to hear it from you. Life as a process of polarization. It’s the virgin forest and the oil refinery and nothing in between.

Well, reading submissions for this issue has been the opposite of all that. It’s been open and organic and worldview-shakingly diverse, and it has been a balm. I feel like I’m seeing this thing, us and the world, in so much more relief and nuance than I ever was before.

I don’t know if it’ll feel the same for all of you who read it; you’re not vested in it in quite the same way; you’re not seeing yourself in it like I am. Seeing myself in the work of 250 or so writers, poets and artists, picking out the best of those, the ones that touch and cut at me and break me open. And then reading them all again, being forced by practicality and circumstance to pick out even fewer, then fewer still. And then arranging those in order, not unlike the way one arranges the scenes in a story, for all these other people to take in. What a thing.

Maybe it won’t be the same for you when you read it. But I hope it will. Because we all need that.

The issue will be out in print and ebook form in time for Readercon, at which there will with any luck be a small group reading from those contributors who happen to be in town. Later there will be a podcast episode. More about all that later. In the meantime, why not subscribe to Lady Churchill’s, get your copy and some delicious chocolate in the bargain.

A happy if belated solstice to you all.

Gene Wolfe

All of us from that time grew up with the feeling that you shouldn’t waste anything: you don’t waste rags, because rags can be useful.

–Gene Wolfe on the Depression, from this excellent interview shared with me by Justin Howe, reader of everything. Not a new sentiment–my grandparents were living evidence of this–but a universal one. Perennial. I can only hope the kids of the next generation grow up with this inscribed on their hearts/souls/skulls. Those of the current one certainly didn’t. Lately it seems chances are high it’s going to kill us.

Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

Preorder <i>Sherwood Nation</i> from Small Beer Press

In a Pacific Northwest beset by hourly more plausible, climate change induced desertification, the city of Portland struggles under strict water and power rationing, while the government and the rich glut themselves on hoarded resources. A plucky group of rebels arises to oppose them in the name of the people, annexing the poor Northeast neighborhood to create a tiny utopian state within city limits. Idealism, triumph, smashed idealism and tragedy ensue, along with a healthy share of the soulstring-resonatingly surreal.

“…You’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”

“Mm, spurs.”

An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.

“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”

But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.

“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”

They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.

“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on.

“They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”

“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”

“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.

Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation is the sort of SF novel I’ve been waiting for someone to write, wishing I could write: a near-future utopian political adventure romp thought experiment. By page 50 I was crying and cheering. These are not common reactions for me when reading fiction; I wish they were. Now I’m waiting for someone to write the next one, while I struggle to do the same. Here’s hoping it be you.

It’s not nostalgic–no laser blasters, no spaceships with batwings and 50s car fins. It’s not escapist. No, okay, it’s escapist–dare I say all fiction is–but it escapes to something rather than from it? It’s not grimdark, where the escapism comes from reveling in hopelessness, forcing you to roll in hopelessness like a bully mashing your face in the mud so when you look up at the real world it briefly–falsely–looks less shitty. It’s realistic, it’s honest. It’s fun. It’s as fun as Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, which is saying a lot, and somehow it manages to be almost as silly even while realistic, sympathetic, human characters are making horrible decisions and getting killed. It’s full of heroic characters I can actually believe in, I can almost believe myself and the people I love capable of being like, in the right circumstances, under great pressure. And it puts those plausible heroes in a setting enough like our own that the hard solutions they find just might apply to the real world. And that is something we need. Something I don’t see SF or literary mainstream fiction or anything in between providing.

Parzybok manages to make it feel effortless, spontaneous and painstakingly well thought out at the same time.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Sherwood Nation gets caught up in its own myth and falls into wish-fulfillment. But it’s not often. As often, we’re shown the kind of horrors a Fox News pessimist might imagine of a dictatorial/socialist utopia. And as in every other post-apocalypse setting I can think of, there’s handwaving. The question of where the water comes from, the long view of a droughted state, fades away for most of the book. But the focus is on the social and political aspects of revolution, people getting caught up in ideas, people resorting to each other in ways they don’t, can’t, in other than extraordinary circumstances. All Parzybok’s really clever ideas for surviving water shortage and living with power shortage on a citywide scale may be considered to take the place of SF wow-factor trappings in a more traditional postapocalyptic novel–I think of Bacigalupi’s spring guns and engineered elephants. They’re cool, they fit the setting, they inspire–and in so doing set the stage for the radical choices that drive the plot–they’re not the story. But unlike in Windup Girl, really unlike in anybody else’s SF I can think of, Parzybok’s wow-factor trappings are actually practicable, now, to actual beneficial result for the individual and the potential future of humanity. And for me, at least, and for us climate geeks who are the likely target audience, that plausibility does absolutely nothing to reduce the wow-factor itself.

I confess I love everything Parzybok has ever written. I know he’s not for everybody. But I’d argue Sherwood Nation is also the most accessible thing he’s written. So…if you’re anything like me…give it a try, won’t you?