Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

Oof. I was far too busy two weeks ago to read/watch/listen to much for pleasure, so this week I’m catching up:

Netflix Event: Master of None, Season 2

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Aziz Ansari’s first season of Master of None surprised me in its mature, measured treatment of the aimless, absurdist way in which adults of a certain age tend to go through life–in part because of the digital era, but also in part because of a) a disconnect from the histories of life even close to home, and b) the subjectivity of a meaningful life in general. I’m only halfway through Season Two, but the show continues to illustrate how meaning can emerge in fleeting moments, and be lost just as suddenly. We are an active, engaged, yet still-lonely people, and Ansari’s treats all these multitudes with great humour, compassion, and hope.

Music, Part I: Tinariwen

I came across this group of Kel Tamashek musicians (known more broadly as the Tuareg people, hailing from the Saharan Desert region of northern Mali) by accident, but I was immediately riveted by their sound. In the process of learning more about their music–a kind of “rebel blues,” with that notion of rebellion literalized in the band members’ histories of political and military resistance–I was introduced to new and striking terms. Assouf, for instance, is a concept similar to the blues but also untranslatable–something of longing and nostalgia, but something also triumphant, for having overcome hardship even if hard times lie ahead. Tichumaren, meanwhile, is a term for guitar music emerging from violent political histories: a style of music entrenched in the liberation of the Tamashek people from colonial powers. And even Tinariwen is profoundly political– plural for the Tamashek word for “desert,” and as such a stand-in for the plurality not only of deserts they regard as the Sahara, but also of experiences carried by people who live within them. This is a band that contains multitudes, literally and figuratively.

Music, Part II: The Mountain Goats

There’s something quite satisfying about solid concept album, and this one–The Mountain Goats‘ homage to a particular set of goth culture histories–is warmly and wisely produced. I was never a goth myself, but the lyrics to these songs capture a deeper, more universal body of experiences through their specificity. One can easily resonate with the line “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore” in relation to just about any interest that opens a human being to a spectrum of fellow fans, while the whole song “Wear Black” speaks playfully to the way that our loves become our lifestyles. This album is in some ways a departure from The Mountain Goats’ usual, but the intelligence of their lyrics–the deft, precise strokes that convey whole, complex emotional spectrums–remains, and is joined with some thoroughly satisfying melodic arcs, like the one above. This album hit the writer in me in just the right way.

Book: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky

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At first, I could not bring myself to read this volume, despite its glowing reviews in journals like The New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic. I kept picking it up and getting thrown by the opening paragraph of the first short story, which reads:

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy, when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s attention. Her grandmother, overworked to the bone by the women whose houses she dusted, whose laundry she washed, whose children’s asses she scrubbed clean; overworked by the bones of a husband who wanted many sons and the men she entertained to give them to him, sees her son to his thirteenth year with the perfunction of a nurse and dies in her bed with a long, weary sigh.

Now, I love a long sentence–I read Alan Moore’s 1,262-page Jerusalem last year; I’m reading Mathias Enard’s Compass now–but this one just broke so many rules of coherence at once that I couldn’t grok its aims. First, we get a list structure (Her father, Her grandmother), but then that second item sprawls, using “bone” as its own subdivider (overworked by the bone of X, overworked by the bones of Y)… and then the sentence takes yet another turn with the final clause, “sees her son…” which has neither the benefit of a semi-colon nor shared verb tense to bind it to its ostensible subject (the grandmother). Chaos!

…And I would have left off the volume right there, frustrated by that syntax, if I hadn’t already given up on another book at its second line for similar reasons. This is from Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, another highly acclaimed volume I had also been interested in reading for its use of speculative elements to advance pressingly contemporary issues:

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.

Why. Is. This. Two. Sentences. What value was added by this heavy-handed emphasis on a phrase that, by virtue of ending the sentence, would already be lingering on the reader’s mind? Suffice it to say, as knee-jerk a reaction as mine was, I could not bring myself to trust the narrative voice after that stylistic trick–and I skimmed ahead, then put the book aside.

On the plus side, though, that knee-jerk reaction to Hamid’s syntactical variation made me take stock of my knee-jerk reaction to Arimah’s. Was I missing something that would become clearer with a little more trust in the author? So–I read on, and I’m tremendously glad I did. Chaos was the point, and although the whole first story is strung up on word play in the opening and closing paragraphs, it was a satisfying journey. The next story, more traditional in form, then clinched for me Arimah as an author who can encapsulate huge moral landscapes and the sweeping weight of life’s myriad experiences in only a few pages. By the time her stories took their fantastical turns, in a mode of magical realism well suited to histories of trauma and recovery, I found myself quite happily giving up my usual, more critical approach to any text. Arimah’s stories reminded me how much fun it can be to let a writer surprise you at every turn.

And… that’s it for now! Going forward, I’m delighted to have more time for my own writing again, and I can’t wait to a) start submitting proper stories for the first time all year, and b) return to finishing the novel project.

Wherever your own creative practice finds you, good skill and good luck!

Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

Nine days into a tricky work schedule, I’m having a rough time not letting my exhaustion get the best of my mental state, which possibly explains the melancholy nature of my “joy” selections this week–but hey, a) it’s nice to know one’s not alone with certain feelings, and b) look! Week Two of this type of post! I can almost call it a series now. Almost.

Netflix Event: Maria Bamford’s Old Baby

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I watched two comedy shows this week that played with location–Bamford’s, and Vir Das’s Abroad Understanding. Das gives nearly identical comedy sets in two different venues–a small New York comedy house and a huge stage in New Delhi–and generally uses his platform to advance a globalist approach to the human experience, while mostly teasing Americans for, well, America. Not everything lands (e.g. throwaway jokes about Africa), and I had to push myself to wait out the opening guitar number, but there are quite a few good laughs, and the overall message is optimistic–which is why my pick this week is Bamford’s set instead.

Bamford also plays with location, aided by the excellent directing of Jessica Yu, in a way that offers its own, understated commentary. Bamford–a versatile voice actor playing dozens of parts on Adventure Time–has bipolar spectrum disorder, a diagnosis I share. But whereas I simply become furious with myself three or four times yearly for wanting so much to engage with the world, when I know full well the impossibility of ever being understood, and the greater likelihood that I’m just doing harm to myself and others in the process… she has centred, in her artistic practice, that relentless wavering between wanting to connect through performance and wanting to crawl away and never risk engaging with another human again.

In this special, she starts in front of a mirror and the tiny audience of a living room, counselling viewers who were dragged to this Netflix special and who are already irritated by her voice to take a victory lap, secure in the knowledge that they’ve been good people in indulging their friends this far. As the special develops, so too does the size of her audience, and with it, the force and verve of her comedy–but never her confidence with self-promotion at post-show merch stands. The seamless interweaving of locations with material allows her comedy to reflect her own, relentlessly changing relationship with pursuing this career at all–and without coming to definitive conclusions; without finding “peace” in the end. As such, it made for precisely the reminder I needed this week, that struggling and not giving up is still possible.

Poetry: Safia Elhillo’s The January Children (2017)

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Technically, I read this book as part of one of my side-jobs, but I was so glad I had. I was fortunate to have a translator help mediate this text on two accords–first, through cultural references like Abdelhalim Hafez, who plays a huge role in this work; and second, after my reading, through explaining some of the Arabic phrasing. Even without full comprehension of all the language in these bilingual poems, though, the work sings. Elhillo, a Sudanese slam-poet-turned-page-poet, especially excels at presenting the free-associative chaos of memories and experiences trapped between languages and cultures, while remaining, by and large, cleverly in control of how this effect is managed on the page. Where gaps in comprehension exist (for this non-Arabic speaker), the poems instead invite conversation on, and reflection about, what it means to live in such gaps all the time. I was highly moved by a number of individual pieces in this collection, but also the strength of will with which Elhillo reclaims reductive identity labels and life in the diaspora throughout.

Graphic Novel: Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This (2017)

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Memoir is a huge sub-genre of graphic novels, and I’ve read my share of fair to middling specimens. This one, though–this one stands out for reasons I’m not certain I can do justice to with words alone. Suffice it to say, Imagine Wanting Only This is a reflection on all the ways in which things can end in even a gentle life, an “easy” life (and our protagonist does have the means to brood in some pretty fancy changes of scenery), and how one carries those losses as questions not meant to be answered in full. Our protagonist meditates on this theme through the loss of a relative, the stages of loss in a young relationship, the inherited health risks that loom over everything in her life, and the ways in which other people she stumbles into–strangers, really, out of time and space–have lost themselves in their own attempts to understand and immortalize loss. It was a mesmerizing hour’s read, and a testament to the author’s understanding of the distinct benefits that text and image can bring to the same page.

Music: Perfume Genius‘s “Slip Away”

I came to Perfume Genius from the song “Queen” on Mr. Robot‘s TV-show soundtrack last year, and Mike Hadreas just released a new albumNo Shape, this week. On the one hand, I resonate with this work for pretty unsubtle reasons: I read a familiar ache into Hadreas’s overtly queer-theatric music videos. Granted, everyone across the queer continuum has distinct issues (bisexual female persons like myself, for instance, face higher rates of a whole spate of health problems, which seem at least in part to stem from a lack of full safety and belonging among both queer and straight communities), but I feel there’s a fear of something being especially doomed about queer love that male-queer persons seem especially well-situated to convey in art. (Perhaps because gay culture has been haunted for decades by HIV’s impact on one’s sense of life prospects? Or perhaps because male portraits of queer experience have a more prominent place in the canon? Or perhaps I’m just stereotyping–who can say for sure!)

On the other hand, though, when Hadreas’ music veers towards–well, euphoria–as this piece does, it feels earned in a way that musical acts more frequently centred around the free-wheeling happiness of human interaction (for me) don’t. Put simply: I smiled a lot this week thanks to this piece’s place on my soundtrack.

And… on that note, it’s time for me to finish a book review before running the bookstore for the day, then coming home to mark and tackle course prep for the week. I didn’t have time for full works of fiction or proper films this past week–but I’ve got my eye on a collection of journalistic character portraits and a handful of wonderful speculative stories, plus one movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while.

Wherever your own readings and viewings find you, I hope there is at least joy in the little things in your lives these days. All best wishes for the work to come.

Joy Post: This Week’s Favourite Media

I’ve started a long string of working days, so I want to make room to celebrate some of the work that delights and provokes me from week to week. I want to say that this will be a regular feature–but, I know myself too well, so, let’s just call it an optimistic start.

Movie: Pumzi (2009)

I start teaching “Intro to Science Fiction” on May 2, and my class’s first taste of analysis will come from a viewing of Pumzi, a twenty-minute 2009 film that held up tremendously well on re-watch this week. This Kenyan production about a water-scarce future is elegantly produced and highly affecting, and touches on a number of themes I hope to develop over the next four weeks. I hope the students enjoy it as much as I did, and I look forward to seeing how many different ideas about the uses of science fiction they generate from it on Tuesday.

TV Show: Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Return (2017)

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“Omar comin’!” mutters kidnapped-space-scientist Jonah Ray, while a little boy in a terrible, terrible Christmas movie comes whistling on screen with an evergreen slung over his shoulder. I didn’t think I’d laugh as often at MST:3K’s revival as I did, but while the old episodes–which I watched well after their air-dates–were always endearingly goofy, I found a distinct joy in background-binge-watching a roast of lousy movies replete with more up-to-date references. The show’s changes haven’t diminished its fundamental character–so if you liked the old, or liked the old in theory but never got into it in practice, do give the new one a try.

Short Story: Salman Rushdie Reads Italo Calvino’s “Love Far From Home” (April 2017)

This is a bit of a cheat, because it’s a New Yorker Fiction Podcast, but I found the original story less remarkable than hearing Salman Rushdie and Deborah Treisman discuss its position in Calvino’s career: a work, that is, on the cusp of his transition into the style of writing and body of literature for which he is best known today. I enjoyed Rushdie’s breakdown of where and why he thought an older writer would have changed the ending, and I chuckled at both his and Treisman’s bafflement that Calvino could be so jaded about love so young.

Book: Longitude (1995)

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The path to publishing a history of stellar evolution is now, for me, a little more scattered than it was this time last year, but I can still take lessons from–and delight in!–other people’s successes in the pop-sci genre. In particular, Sobel’s Longitude is a marvel of short, controlled sentences, which she uses to advance eminently memorable anecdotes about Western civilization’s long, meandering path towards the chronometer. The book is as engaging and accessible as it is informative–a real feat; and one I have yet to master.

Music: Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” (2016)

Technically, I devoted more of this week to repeat listens of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, which moved me in places and troubled me in others, but this is the song I found myself humming more often–grammatical idiosyncrasy and all. Kiwanuka’s music has a near-timeless quality, with most pieces feeling like classic Motown grooves, swing, and soul–but also aching in a way that suits the contemporary world just fine. Lines like “Maybe this time / I can be strong / But since I know who I am / I’m probably wrong” especially hit the spot for me this week.

Article: “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic (April 20, 2017)

You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.

When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an “international catastrophe.” When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster.

James Somers’ account of a failed utopian project–and all the societal “protections” to blame–is a striking affirmation of how extraordinary the “future” in our present is. The fact that these are the sorts of problems we have today (alongside all our age-old horrific ones) speaks to how far we’ve come. For me, at least, there was something uplifting in the ruins.

Maybe it seems odd to cheer at failure, but I once published a short story, “We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You,” which used long-form journalism to convey how exceptional events (i.e. Mars colonization; mass death on a Mars colony; and the uncertain fate of a crew still hurtling towards Mars) would nevertheless unfold in a mundane way: absent a proper sense of wonder, that is, because of the smallness of infotainment culture and related Terran politics. I wouldn’t call my story a success–only a few readers seemed to grok the style, and I am, again, too much a fan of long sentences to achieve the correct voice for journalism–but in articles like Somers’, I find better examples of I was striving for: namely, the reminder that even in our failures, we often reveal our extraordinary potential as a species.

Whatever your own accomplishments and potentials this week, I hope you found them amplified by your own reading, viewing, and listening choices.

Either way, best wishes to you all.

Professional Update: April 23 – May 31

As I noted in my last post, I’m trying to move past oversharing on a personal level, and hoping to focus instead on the professional. I know it’s not healthy to be so overwhelmed by simple questions like “How are you?” that catching up with most people becomes a dread-filled exercise, but–right now it is, and so it goes. Many months of feeling trapped in conversations about my failure have taken their toll, and I’d just like to focus on the work to come.

To this end, tomorrow I hope to distribute the last of the thank-you letters I owe to people who helped tremendously with my teaching work this past term. With any luck, I can then focus on sending long-overdue notes to others who have reached out and been met with silence over these past few months, but–one thing at a time.

After tomorrow, it’s on to prepping for a condensed course, Intro to Science Fiction, that I will be teaching at a different institution in May. I have quite a bit of work to do this week to get the course ready, but I am looking forward to a body of meaningful conversations about the genre with a highly practicality-oriented cohort of college students.

On the writing front, the sudden emergence of this course meant giving up on finishing the novel by the end of April. This was a bit deflating, because the novel was supposed to be my transition project–a way of restoring confidence in the wake of last year’s failure–and I’d originally booked a 10-day window off all work (now rescinded) to revise it for submission in mid-May. Now I won’t be able to touch the draft in any meaningful way again until June 1, because between my two main jobs in May, I only have one day off. Nevertheless, my main concern here is not burning myself out, the way I did while juggling PhD work amid two to three jobs for three years. So, life goes on, and I can try to finish the novel again soon enough.

In the meantime, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to squeeze out a story submission in the next few weeks, but mostly I have non-fiction projects on hand: two book reviews due in early May, one article I hope to send out April 30, and a host of freelance editing to support a local writer I’m honoured to be assisting in the production of their first book of poetry.

For most of May, though, I expect I’ll have quite a bit of evening marking and lecture prep for this condensed course. And that’s okay. There are worse things for a sci-fi writer to be doing than reviewing their genre and contemplating its next directions for a while.

In June, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017 will be published, containing one of my novelettes from Analog; and in July, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection hits the stands with my last Clarkesworld story. I’m not sure when my next Analog story comes out, but these two reprints and that new work are it for now. It’s… a strange feeling, not having anything substantial in queue (or even written) on the short-story front, but there was a logic to my choice in January to focus on the novel instead.

June will arrive in due course–and with it, a fresh chance to finish the novel, start work on a new collaborative creative venture, and return to short-story-writing practice.

For now, though, I am in the middle of a significant energy deficit (i.e. work tasks these last two weeks all took far longer than they should have; I feel like I’m treading water in molasses these days), and between the aforementioned projects, I don’t see that I will have much time for anything else. But–so it goes sometimes. My original plan for May had been a slow, calm withdrawal from one professional field into another–but now that my trajectory’s changed, I am simply trying to be present in my circumstances, and to see where this new current takes me.

I also remain hopeful, though, that amid my new responsibilities I can still do a better job promoting other people’s creative excellence. With this in mind, wherever your own artistic projects and lives might take you in the coming weeks, I wish you all every success.

Going Forward

This post is predicated on two contradictions. For one, I know we destroy silence by naming it, but I want to explain my own, so as to mitigate any harm I might have caused by withdrawing from so much, and so many, in the last few months. For another, though, I am working to be more silent precisely because I recognize how childish it has been of me to strive to be understood, and to be frustrated when I am not–and yet, here I am, trying to explain myself. This post is a blatant exercise in cognitive dissonance, but I hope it will help me to avoid more.

The other day, I was reminded of a line from 1984: “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” In its original context, our protagonist is being tortured, but in a moment’s reprieve, he feels acutely that the whole interrogation still involves a deeper mutual understanding than is usually possible in his world.

When I hear the line now, I think of the pursuit of “being understood” as one of my greatest vices. I think of all the scenarios in which I have caused harm, to myself and to others, because I could not let go of the desire to have my convictions and behaviours read in the clearest light. I wonder, too, about all the scenarios that I have probably forgotten, in which I caused harm over much the same. I think of all these incidents as so much waste that I can only hope to avoid perpetuating–for how exhausting it is, and how deeply unfair, to expect ever to be understood by anyone, let alone by most everyone in one’s immediate purview.

When I failed last year at something that mattered a great deal to me, I came quickly to resent others for trying to understand that failure on their own terms, in ways that they could correct, and often with counsel that I did not ask for or desire. I was furious with the impetus towards talk that emerged everywhere in the ensuing months, but I was even more frustrated by my own readiness to play into it–and so often, with so many. What I needed was to think, and to be alone, and to act. So why couldn’t I? What left me feeling trapped?

Suffice it to say, I know I hurt or at least estranged many worthy people simply for not knowing how to decline to engage on certain topics. After decades of over-telling, though, silence does not come easily to me. For years, I have relied on social processes of narration–on blogs, on Facebook, in person–to negotiate my feelings, and I know I’ve been cloyingly open at times in consequence. And yet, I also know that some things can’t be talked through. Some simply require acceptance, and change. But when you have been open for so long, how are others to know when you’ve finally given up on that approach–and not out of despair, but for growth?

So–I know that I have been unfair, in expecting folks to understand how much I needed to hurt in private, and how much I needed to decide in private. And I hate how much added harm I have caused in the process, simply for not knowing how best to grieve.

In the last few months, for instance, while overcoming an unexpected eating disorder wrought by loss of appetite and a desire to disappear, I also significantly reduced my social circles, and planned at length how I would start over in a completely different community and field: a field, furthermore, that would compel the shrinking of ego I’ve yet to manage on my own. I also worked on a novel I intended to have finished at the end of April, which would say everything I felt I wanted to say in fiction, and so leave me free to vanish in other ways, too. I also started learning a new language (in part to distract from negative thought-processes in English), and attempted more silence in general to escape the pressure to perform that I put upon myself.

But last week, all these efforts–which varied in both success and coherence–were abrogated by the emergence of employment that guarantees my continued presence in this region for at least another eight months: time enough, that is, that I need to embrace being present in this community, and to focus on making the most of these new opportunities. After all, if I’m going to continue working multiple part-time jobs until at least the end of the year, I should be making the most of the stray pockets of time between them: writing article pitches and short stories, finishing revisions to the novel, supporting other artists in the community, developing new creative ventures, and otherwise asserting that certain kinds of narrative still matter.

So, this is what I will be doing, going forward. I’m sure I will make mistakes–decades-old habits are hard to break–but I will continue trying to minimize my investment in social narratives all the same. I am tired of retelling the story of myself, and in so doing rediscovering how little about me ever really changes. Instead, I will keep teaching myself to rely more on externalized narratives: the story, the book, the article, the lecture, the podcast. All of these new works will still contain a piece of me, but with any luck the piece that they carry will be less exhausting, because I will no longer be appealing directly to be understood. As such, I should be in a better position not to get frustrated, or resentful, or despondent, when I inevitably am not.

I’m sure this will sound cold to some, and maybe even unhealthy. Who are we if not the people we are among others–whether online or in person, at work or in play?

And yet, I am fairly confident that I will only be a better friend, colleague, teacher, and general community ally the more I learn to keep personal expectations low, ego in check, and a judicious, attentive silence at the fore of all interactions. With any luck, my stories will improve, too, in becoming the main outlet for my desire to communicate.

In short: I’m not disappearing entirely–but neither am I looking to return to old routines. I look forward to following word of other lives, and doing more to promote other people’s creativity on social media–but if I succeed in changing my outlook into something less toxic for myself and others, then my professional output–about the world, and about my fellow human beings within it–should suffice to convey who and where I am.

Much love in the meantime–and apologies, too, for any hurt or confusion my withdrawal has caused. May you find every success in the work and years to come.

Notes on a Dead Year, & Thoughts for the One to Come

I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.

This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.

Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.

That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.

I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts.[1] Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which

they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.

Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.

In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.

But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.

There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.

What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.

And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.

In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.

With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.

I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.

A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.


[1] Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.

Writing in 2016: Two New Stories, Both to Reappear in Year’s Best Anthologies

On Thursday I received an email from an SF&F giant of my youth: a name I know from twenty years of Asimov‘s mastheads and the editorial line of major SF anthologies. When I was just a wee sprog testing the waters, his anthology introductions guided my sense of how SF&F was growing as a discipline. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the simple fact that Gardner R. Dozois sent me a line!–because I’m still marvelling at how effortless it is to connect today with people who framed my literary imagination for years. We live in the future indeed.

Then there’s the practical side of things, too:

Today I send out my contract for “A Tower for the Coming World,” just published in Clarkesworld‘s December 2016 issue, to appear again in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection.

I only published two stories this year, due in large part to pouring far too much energy into a doomed dissertation draft. However, the other story, a novelette called “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” (Analog, April 2016), was also picked up for reprint, in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016.

Two stories, two forthcoming reprints in Year’s Best anthologies.

To say that I’m honoured and privileged would be an understatement.

As of late, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by three paying jobs, and writing time has been scarce as a result. But I haven’t forgotten how keenly I want to produce work that can respond to the needs of our changing world, and which will champion and elevate others doing even more extraordinary work to that same end.

These latest, doubled honours–the first publication of each story, and the impending reprints of both–leave me feeling even more serious, and calm, and focussed, about the work to come.

I have been very, very lucky.

Now it’s my responsibility to make good use of that luck in turn.

Wherever the end of 2016 finds you–and whatever your own goals for the writing year to come–I wish you every success. More importantly, though: if and when you achieve it, I hope that you’ll always be in the position to pay it forward. I’m certainly going to try my best to do so now.