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)

mv5bzjc0ngy5nzqtzwu5ys00nzy5ltk2yzmtmmywzmyzntawntzjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzuxnzy1njm-_v1_

“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)

41paxs50q2l-_sx311_bo1204203200_

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.

Advertisements

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.