How Sofia Samatar complicates the Bildungsroman in A Stranger in Olondria

WHM uses his feeble photoshop skills to illustrate how Sofia Samatar’s A Strange in Olondria complicates the standard plot structure of the bildungsroman.

Cover of A Stranger in OlondriaSofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria overflows with storytelling, textual and oral. Jevick is always remembering a bit of text or playing audience for another character’s urge to share with him a story. The plot is simple: Jevick leaves his island home, travels to and across Olondria and returns home. And yet because it’s so full of stories and because of how those stories interact with the main narrative arc, it feels like something very different. The narrative shape of A Strange in Olondria haunts and befuddles me. I want to understand it. No. Understand is not the right word: I want to appreciate it more fully.     

A Stranger in Olondria as Bildungsroman

Most of the reviews of the novel, swept up perhaps, in all that it has to say about literacy, reading, identity, travel and storytelling (and it has a lot to say about those things), didn’t invoke the term. Out of the reviews I’ve tracked down so far only Craig L. Gidney brings it up by noting that: “The form the novel takes is the bildungsroman: a novel about the initiation of a youth into the wider world.”

I agree with him (although, of course, Samatar beautifully and harrowingly complicates those words initiation and wider). I don’t know if it’s because I experienced it that way as I read it or if it’s actually important to understanding the novel, but I want to explore the notion further.

The classic Bildungsroman has many elements, and I’m sure there’s a whole line of academic argument over which are crucial and which are not, but for me specifically—and I have in mind two examples that I’m most familiar with here, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly and Stendahl’s The Red and the Black—a Bildungsroman often features:

  1. A semi-educated young adult main character
  2. Who is not content with his boring, often lower-middle class lot in life
  3. Breaks with his (it’s almost always his) father and/or family
  4. Travels to an exotic location or locations (either urban or rural — but in either case one that is foreign and more dangerous than that of the main character’s upbringing)
  5. Quickly develops an awareness of his naiveté
  6. Meets other young people (and, more often than not, also an older, more experienced woman) who educate him in the ways of the world
  7. Through those friends and acquaintances gets caught up in a wider political, social and/or cultural conflict
  8. Survives and escapes the political, social and/or cultural entanglements and
  9. Returns home a wiser, sobered, more complete individual.

I may be cherry picking these attributes so that they obviously fit A Stranger in Olondria. But they also fit Waverly and The Red and the Black.

Because the point of the Bildungsroman is the education of the main character and because it involves leaving from and returning to the same place, the plot (to be sure like other plot models) is a circle. Like so:

A gray circle to represent the standard plot of a bildungsroman; the bottom is labeled home, the top is labeled abroad

That’s laughably simple, right? But two things:

1. While the leaving home and traveling abroad is an element of many types of novels, in the Bildungsroman the home and abroad are more fraught, more to the point, than, say, in the quest structure. Abroad exists to complete the character’s education—not because it needs the main character to accomplish a certain task (like defeat the evil wizard or restore the monarchy or whatever—in fact, the main character in a Bildungsroman typically in the end avoids that plot). This is why a Bildungsroman is often more wandering in its plot—more of a travelogue. So it’s actually not a crisp circle. More a meandering, ovalish one.

2. That simplistic model is what was in my head as I read the novel and how the novel breaks that structure turned out to be one of the keys to how I experienced it.

The gap and the ghost

There’s a lot going on structurally in A Strange of Olondria in regards to textuality and storytelling—Jevick is always quoting texts or being told stories—that I haven’t yet been able to figure out in relation to the overall structure of the novel (see the “more reading” section below for some excellent reviews that talk more about those aspects). But going back to my simplistic plot model above, there are two ways in which Samatar breaks the model in a profound, jarring way which complicates the novel as a Bildungsroman: the gap and the ghost.

The gap occurs during the festival of the. After the death of his father, Jevick travels to Bain, the capital city of Olondria, on a trading trip. Up to this point, all the elements of bildungsroman are there: the book education, the journey to a more cosmopolitan place, the initial overwhelmingness of that place, the struggle to find friends and a place. But then something happens to Jevick during the Feast of Birds that throws the pattern of the bildungsroman off: after falling in with some of the young celebrants of the feast, Jevick takes something (not specified in the text) from a young women in what appears to be a brothel. “Cousin, this is what the gods eat” (69) she tells him. He awakens later, in pain and missing his waistcoat, his purse, and even the pearl button from this shirt collar. The city alight with the fever of a festival now echoes back to him his hangover. A gap has opened up. He has lost time. The city has disenchanted itself.

But what happens after that gap—or perhaps because because of that gap—is even more important. On the sea voyage to Olondria, Jevick meets Jissavet, a young woman with a wasting disease who is traveling with her mother in the hopes of finding a miracle cure. Jissavet has not found the miracle she was hoping for. She is now a ghost. And she steps into the gap that has opened up and haunts Jevick. This fact, once it becomes known to the Olondrians, makes Jevick interesting to them. He becomes a pawn in a fight between religious cults that is spilling over into the political sphere. Much of the subsequent plot movement of the book is similar to a bildungsroman, more people who try to influence him, more travel, more witnessing of scenes that strip away his illusions. But as all of this is happening (and all this is happening because of this) Jissavet continues to haunt Jevick. She does so until, in desperate straits, Jevick agrees to write her story in return for the ghost’s help. He gives his story (and the novel) over to her:

I sat at the desk in my jacket, dipped the pen in the ink, and steeled myself against the coming light. “I’m ready,” I said. (212)

He stops fighting the haunting and the ghost—Jissavet—is able to tell her story through his pen. And so, the circle gets disrupted. There’s no longer this miasdventurish but ultimately tidy, male protagonist-centered movement from home to abroad and back. In addition to those things, there’s a gap and a ghost and, finally, the ghost taking over the narrative. Like so:

A round orange circle with a gap in it and a light blue line curving around from the gap and then diving into the orange circle

More reading on A Strange of Olondria

Craig L. Gidney review  (Quoted above.)

Amal El-Mohtar, review for (Has a lot to say about literacy and identity.)

Sessily Watt, review for Bookslut (Makes some great points about books and power.)

Abigail Nussbaum, review at Asking the Wrong Questions (Nussbaum does an excellent job of showing how Samatar’s world building is different from a standard fantasy novel; she also explains much better and in more detail than I have above how Jissavet’s role in the novel complicates Jevick’s bibliophilia and privilege. It’s my favorite of the group.)

Gary K. Wolfe, review for Locus (Wolfe has high praise for Samatar’s prose; I agree.)

Nic Clarke, Strange Horizons review  (Among other things situates the novel as epic fantasy.)

Keguro Macharia, “Reading Sofia Samatar: Indwelling” for The New Inquiry (Really interesting: Macharia links the main character’s dead brother to the rest of the novel and in so doing provides a reading that is unique and thought-provoking.)


A science fiction short story from WHM.

SafeForge Incident Report

Everyone (except me)
SafeForge (the entire station)
SafeForge is an orbital station converted from an asteroid in the BN37 star system to mine heavy metals from the asteroid belt as well as serve as a refuel station for the infrequent occurrence of ships traveling between the two clusters of TheHub and BurstRose. The human component of the station was comprised of 233 individuals. A protectorate of the Materials Alliance Group, it operated as a self-regulating cooperative set at 15% member fluctuation, a cap of 10% admin, and 20% minimum gruntwork per cooperativist. The minimum buy-in was 5,000 toil cycles. The official culture designation was technocratic agnostic with high altruism and low deviation from galactic standard. That's the official line. But here's the truth: the station's isolation had led to a higher than standard localized culture and a high self-perpetuation state (89.3%) as well as proto-animism. I believe this is an example of what The Flangent Group has identified as closed system inductive drift. At the very least, there existed a slavish devotion to minor (or miner [as it were]) superstitions. For example: Although there was no reason to, every shift the miners would draw numbers to determine the order they would leave the station for their excavators. They would use the same stack of cards until there was an accident that either damaged machinery or led to the injury or death of the operator. After such an occurrence, they would publicly incinerate the stack of cards and prepare a new one. Another example: Women in a state of gestation always walked the corridor for their morning exercise that had been walked by the first woman who successfully brought a child to term on the station. Though the corridor had later been extended during an expansion, the historical end of the corridor was still marked by a stripe of red paint. The women never crossed it while exercising. There was a rumor that women who crossed the line had a higher chance of miscarriage or other unfortunatalities. [Yes, that's inexcusable word play. I'm leaving it in. Maybe it explains something.] One time (before my parents moved to the station), a group of teenagers thought it would be amusing to paint over the line and paint a new one several feet into the newer section. According to rumor, all the women who were gravid at the time lost their babies and the four culprits stole an excavator and crashed it into Riva, the gas giant that is the nearest planet to the station. This sounds like one of those cautionary tales generated by necessity rather than events, but I found the documentation. It's delightfully ambiguous on whether the shuttle was stolen or provisioned. [That word delightful is a red herring: if I were truly interested in the gray technicalities of bureaucratic cover-ups, I would have found more joy in my admin internship and would right now be exercising petty retributions on the still-living cooperativists of SafeForge.] Also: yes, the name of the station turned out to be quite ironic: Ha. Ha. Ha.
The station is in complete disarray. Many systems are down. All sectors (but mine [and I'm barely holding on]) are derelict. All 24 mining excavators are missing or destroyed. I am unable [and, to be honest, unwilling] to do detailed assessments.
I know I'm supposed to feel different now that it's gone, but SafeForge has never felt like home to me. Perhaps it is this distance that created the necessary conditions for me to write this report. Perhaps not, especially since it has taken me so long to file it. I should explain further. But to do so requires starting at the beginning. Kasstel write that beginnings rarely matter in the end. Maybe they're right. Maybe it wasn't the beginning where things went wrong. And yet as I did the research necessary to prepare this report, I found myself returning to it again and again. So: I was a lonely child. My research suggests that nearly everyone says they are. I have come to believe that this claim is proof of the narcissism which is bound up in any attempts to reflect on a childhood: to claim loneliness is to hint at thoughtfulness and uniqueness. Who, after all, wants to claim that they were a noisy, thoughtless, joiner of a child who spent all their time reacting to other children, head full of play? No, much better to be a child apart from the world: in one's own little world: creating the oddities and concerns that can bring insight and novelty to the world once refined by education and experience. Or to put it another way: it is a way to sidestep the naiveté, to not be implicated in the cruel innocence of children. Still: I actually was a lonely child. I can prove it thus: I was born on DromePort to ordinary parents: conceived and gestated in the ordinary way: raised in as comfortable (ordinary) and stimulating (ordinary) environment as my parents could afford. In my sixth year, my parents were accepted into the SafeForge cooperative. I now know that this had been their original goal--that I had been one step in their qualification for membership. I mention this not to deflect blame, but rather to provide a fuller picture of the situation. One would have hoped that such a backwater would have very few children, but the locals had taken advantage of its insignificance and isolation to go on a procreation spree. In my pool of children, there were 17 of us: only 20 less than the much larger colony in which I had been born. This abundance pleased my parents. The consequences for me were devastating: the move only solidified my middle-of-the-packness in an even more provincial location. I tried to fend off the sociable enthusiasms of the others, but there are only so many places to hide on a small, increasingly crowded station, and I was not so socially defective as to desire to isolate myself completely so I often was forced to join in. This was abetted by my parents, who were delighted to see that my--in their words--“friends” wanted to play. Except they didn't: I have verified this in my review of the creche feeds. They wanted me to run with the pack, but gave me no role within it. Once I joined, they ignored me completely. I was only present for them in my absence. Once that presence was discovered they would hound my parents or sniff out my quiet spots so that I would be forced to join in. One might think a child such as I would turn to art. My education file shows that some attempts were made to nudge me in that direction, but to no avail: I showed neither talent nor interest for the foundations and lineaments of any particular art form. At most I exhibited a slightly higher than average eagerness to consume the communal entertainments to be found on the station, which were paltry in number and thin in value, consisting mainly of screen-based slice-of-life narratives and live imaginative role-inhabiting/swapping (where, incidentally, I always played the overly serious project chair/captain/lead). In fact, I have no memory of and can find no record of me ever accessing the masterworks database until I began crashing about manically doing the research required to write this report. I have spent quite some time with it since then. My parents never seemed to worry about me. Why should they? I never stole rations, or moved sensors, or flooded the network with crude images or dirty jokes. Speaking of jokes: I somehow never grew out of the stage of development where children tell dumb ones. This is likely because my parents, especially my father, laughed uproariously at every one I told, no matter how hoary or unsophisticated. Let me illustrate with one that is representative: Q: What did the miner say to the asteroid? A: I dig you. [For those unacquainted with space mining operations, it's funny not only because it plays on the dual meaning of the word dig but also because heavy machinery operators are known for their monosyllabic literalness, especially in their expressions of romantic interest. Or to state another truism: a miner is always only after one thing.] Or how about this one? Q: What's the difference between butt waste and a vitprot bar? A: Shit if I know. [Alternate punchline: shit isn't what it used to be] These all should have elicited groans from my parents, but instead were met with laughter every time. Even the fifth time and the seventeenth time and the thirty-first. Even after I entered my teen years. Even after my mother died in a freak accident. My peers were no better. They also always laughed. Not as hard or long as my father, but they still laughed. And yet as I grew more self-aware, this laughter only reinforced my loneliness. It always seemed to create distance between me and the person laughing; whereas, I was looking to bridge it: to find some kinship: some spark between brains. It never was clear to me if I was being humored or laughed at or merely causing some reflexive action. So I told the jokes, each time hoping that this would be the time where things clicked. And they always laughed. Little did they know that after I finally grew out of these jokes, I had one more to tell. One that would grow horribly wrong. But that was yet to come and even after writing all this I feel like I'm forcing narrative on to the truth of my childhood and adolescence. Granted, it's a narrative that I, myself, have forced, but I'm not entirely convinced, and I will never know how convincing it is to anyone else. As the poet Sleek wrote: I been back and forth in my mind / like a faulty switch / swinging between possibilities / never landing on which.
None (because they're all dead). I strained my lower back while dragging bodies to the recycler, but that was post-incident. It has healed over the past couple of months.
It occurs to me that there may be some questions about why it has taken so long to file this report. I want to start by emphasizing that what finally happened was not in the plan at all: I did not want to destroy SafeForge. Keeping that in mind, believe me when I say that this report is not some exercise in nostalgia or exorcism or self-justification. It is a reconstruction: meticulously documented, exhaustively researched, corroborated where possible. (Of course, much of the documentation is gone, even my exhaustion has its limits, and those who can corroborate are all dead.) In addition, I have sifted through a multitude of research looking to situate this event in a theoretical framework that would be useful to those who will be doing a more thorough post-mortem [Sorry. Really: truly: sorry] of the failure. It seems to me that I have failed to find the right one, although I do not know if that is because of my deficiencies as a researcher and analyst or because I am too close to the situation. Indeed, even though I will likely never see the final Galactic Auditors report, the desire to provide something that will contribute positively to that report [but, hopefully, without biasing it] is what led me to finally completing this form.
This is where it gets complicated. And requires more information on my upbringing, specifically my adolescence and early adulthood. I don't think much needs to be said on issues of sexuality: I was in the lower end of the middle third in terms of frequency and number of partners. My partner profile centered around the descriptors: gentle, adequate, attentive, consistent. Schooling and career fit requires a bit more detail: I have already expressed my ordinariness. This inevitably translated to mediocrity in studies. I was cautiously interested in but never passionate about everything. Ironically, this dull dilettantery (please don't be impressed with the turn of phrase: I stole it from Shon Za 8) meant I was the only one in my group to rotate through every single occupational exploration station. As you should by now anticipate, I showed no strong affinity but also no strong aversion to any of the occupational tracks. I also exhibited only a very weak desire to leave the station. But even if that desire had been stronger, it wouldn't have mattered. Neither my psych profiles nor my evaluation scores were good enough to afford me that opportunity; while at the same time I was unwilling to commit (at least until it was too late) to manifesting the anti-social behaviors that would get me immediate passage on the next ship out. In order to understand the next part I must explain this: During my career exploration, I served a stint at the med station. It was quickly discovered that I lacked the urgency to be of use in emergency treatments or surgeries and the empathy to assist in non-emergency care, so I was assigned to behind-the-scenes stuff: sample analysis, ongoing treatment preparations, etc. For once, I became intensely curious about something: why were more than half of the residents of SafeForge being slipped synapse stabilizers in their vitprot bars (which I had a hand in preparing for the 40 remaining toil cycles of my med term)? I don't know why I was trusted with this information. That's a lie. I know exactly why: see everything above. But anyway: one of the medtechs let it slip that many of the members of the cooperative needed a little extra help so their moods stayed within the ranges needed to cope with station life. Clearly, they were trying to make the job I was doing seem more important and/or interesting. Not smart. But how were they to know? I was to find out later that this was just one of many indications that SafeForge had slipped into monocultural torpor. As Dinduh-Rae sang: How were I to know / You were this dumb? / With up your butt / Your only thumb? [So sorry. I may be experiencing the effects of long-term sleep deprivation.] And now I must explain this: You already know about the jokes. I also went through a phase where I became quite interested in accounts of practical jokes. All of my peer group did. That's how it works, right? Somebody dredges up some bit of gold from the archives; the rest go frantically panning for other nuggets with which to impress the group. Once that plays itself out, it's on to the next thing. Except with this one I kept up my search. Not obsessively: consistently. Which is how, several years later, I came across it. It was, as such things often are, buried in a report. There are hard limits to the miscreantsy that teenagers on a station can get up to: limits so effectively drilled in that the kids aren't aware of them. For example: One does not mess with anything that could affect station pressure. Another example: One does not do anything that could diminish or taint water supply. However, this is where the ingenuagility effect invariably comes in: the limits created by the unthinkable mean that the thinkable often becomes that much more twisted. The report gave me the basic idea, but the details on how it was carried out were heavily euphemized. I had to read between the lines and draw certain inferences. It wasn't that hard. Now, though, I wonder if I completely misinterpreted the nature and scope of the prank. Synthesizing the chemicals was easy (I expressed interest in doing another cycle in the components lab: this was such a rare occurrence that it was immediately granted and largely unsupervised). So was the delivery system (the vitprot bars). Clearly, I made a mistake in the amounts or in my understanding of how soon they would flush through an individual's system. I also probably shouldn’t have paired it with the removal of the stabilizers from the vitprot bars: I thought it would intensify the effects: I was correct. [To my horror.]
I have assigned myself the primary blame. But I believe I was only the spark that lit the tinder. Tharsten's work on systems failure has been quite useful in explaining what happened next, especially their observation that the search for inflection points forces a narrativistic perspective which is generally not useful at rooting out core causes. I don't have the expertise to generate a multi-nodal analysis, but I suspect the rest of the incident was caused by the systematic, cascading social failure of the human components of the station: a collective fall into delusion and violence.
I'm sorry if that all sounds a bit dramatic. And yet it was. I have had to quarantine the feed archives to stop my obsessive viewing of them. I will give only four examples of each phase [Fillip Skance: Four is always more (than three)]. You can isolate out the rest from the feed archives [which have now been coded to open only by input of a Galactic Auditor credential]. At first it was amusing (which is what I was going for): A shift supervisor paired the specialists up by the euphony of their kin names. A food tech over-sugared the pre-shift bowl of grains. A group of teens acted out the tragedy of the galactic family dressed in bedsheets and vacuum hoses. Then it was disturbing (which is where I began to be alarmed): The off-shift miners had words and fists with the ore processors over accusations of credit shaving. A creche leader ran calisthenics until the children collapsed. The admin team refused to process any fatigue exemptions. A group of teenagers formed a jeering circle around an elderly cooperativist. Then it was terrifying (which is where I isolated myself): Three of the shuttles bringing back ore tried to weave a double scissors and split into each other. A surgeon overrode the robotic controls and scalpeled a forested mountain with river scene onto a patient’s skin. An irate shift-supe flushed an insubordinate subordinate out an air lock and then shortly afterward received the same treatment from the remaining irate shift workers. The counselors opened up the medstores and the corridors soon filled with the dazed, the psychotic, the failing. And so I was a coward cowering but one provisioned and isolated, brain chemistry intact, and with access to most of the video, audio and system feeds available on the station. And so SafeForge fell. And so I researched and wrote this report.
So many. But it boils down to this: whether the failure was that of the system that produced the individual [Me!] or of the individual itself [Also: Me!]. I am, obviously, too close to the problem to offer a definitive answer, but I hope this report will provide an adequate starting place. Every end has a start. I wish you luck in finding it.
After the audit, SafeForge should be (at most) the object of a salvage operation.
I would hurtle SafeForge into BN37, but I don't know how. I'd carry out justice directly on myself, but I have too healthy a sense of self-preservation. I'd keep things running indefinitely, but the enviro systems still working are reaching the limits of my knowledge of how to maintain them. If by some outlandish coincidence you receive this report in time to help, don't come for me until after they fail: that would ruin the joke.

27 Ways of Looking at Genre

WHM looks at genre by torturing metaphors, begging questions and conflating issues.

Image of David Bowie Blackstar Album Art Eyes
Image: Barnbrook. Licensed under the Creative Commons NonCommercial Share-Alike license.

1. We talk of genre boundaries as if they’re electric fences and not softened butter.

2. We talk of genre boundaries as if genres are nations with borders to cross (complete with guard shacks and passports and visa stamps) and not estuary marshlands alive with foul bogs, ancient trees, and all manner of creeping, crawling, buzzing, cooing, winging life.

3. We talk of genre boundaries as if they are glass cases and not a dilapidated house filled with cobwebs that stick to us as we tramp through the rooms.

4. Okay, yes, those stifling marketing categories. But marketing categories are insatiable squirrels that dart here and there and stuff their cheeks to bulging with whatever acorns seem fresh and tasty and bury things here and there to decay, sprout, petrify.   

5. We say that, of course, genres are fuzzy sets and family resemblances and marketing categories and bookshop shelves and reader expectations and then it all comes down to the illustration and name on the cover where what it should be is a diagrammed sentence or a list of metaphors or a graph of the plot structure.

5. Oh, the talk of process. The pride about writing speed or lack of writing speed. The shaking the head in wonder at the three books a year or the one book every seven years. The need to signify your camp by how you describe your process. The easiest way to authorial persona is by way of process.

6. Genre transgressions are always contingent.

7. Genre is almost all contingencies. That’s why it’s so fun.

8. One day a genre author decided they would remove all their influences. They would get back to pure story. They would intentionally forget everything they had ever read. It took years of concentrated, intentional mind work and quite a bit of substance abuse, but finally their mind was empty and when they began to write, they wrote with a freedom they had never previously known. Now, I bet you think I’m going to say that they wrote a masterpiece or a bestseller or a steaming pile of cliches. Nope. The freedom was a momentary illusion. Three chapters in it all came back, the weight of genre. The tightness in the shoulders and neck and right there at the base of the skull that the author is always trying to ignore, relax or alleviate.    

9. Genre authors are shameless magpies. Just don’t look too close at their shinies. Stand afar and jut your hand from your brow and admire the glittering glare, the sparkling play of light.

10. Hey genre authors are you playing games with me? Are you having a laugh? Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes, lower the blast shield over my face? I think some of you are. Those who aren’t: why aren’t you?

11. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Romance and Mystery, and I gotta say this: do it better. I’m talking peanut butter and milk chocolate or dark chocolate and toffee almonds here—not stale bits of crisped rice in waxy chocolate product.

12. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Horror there, and I gotta say this: try peeling back a couple more layers. It’s not always necessary, but try it and see if in this or that particular case it is.

13. The genre readers know what they want. They want the familiar, they want the new. They want the comforting, they want the exciting. They want to be transported, they don’t want to leave the confines of their own worldview. They want you to explain more. They want you to stop explaining so they can fill the cracks with their own explanations. They want, they want, they want, they don’t want. Stupid readers.

14. Write fan fiction as if you’re writing original fiction (because you are); write original fiction as if you’re writing fan fiction (because you are). Yes, that’s a semicolon there. So am I suggesting some level of equality between the two? Am I saying that one is not parasitic on the other?

15. I am (I mean sure, there’s a difference between fiction that overtly uses another author’s characters and setting and fiction that comes up with new characters and settings, but it pretty much all comes down to stripping the car down for parts and rebuilding something else from it whether or not the serial numbers are filed off or proudly displayed).

16. We talk about genre as if it’s this thing we can embrace, subdue, love, pull apart, shove aside or wear when really it’s a library of narratives, of individual works. You wouldn’t spend most of your time in the library talking about the lighting, carpeting and shelving would you? Maybe you would for awhile. It is important to feel at home in one’s surroundings. But at some point in that discussion one becomes very aware of all the eager individual stories crowded together on the shelves longing, aching for your attention.

17. Hey genre, I’m going to use a word to describe you that was given to me when I first began studying comparative literature to describe that field: anxiogenic. Look, I know geeks and nerds are cool now, but being cool doesn’t remove the anxiety does it? Yeah, didn’t think so. So how are you going to turn that anxiety into productive anxiety rather than crippling or lashing-out anxiety?

18. Hey genre, you have too many awards.

19. Hey genre, you don’t have enough awards.

20. Okay, look. It’s easy to make pithy statements and set up false equivalencies, but if the space suit, jeweled slipper, cracked leather boots fit… Because there are too many awards the field seems to always be in a state of anxiety about lists and eligibility and nominations and finalists and winners and who is voting and who isn’t and what’s being unduly lauded. Because there aren’t enough awards whole categories are ignored.

21. What if instead of lobbing stories into various pens and then wallowing only in the pens we feel comfortable in, we realize that all new things are an acquired taste. It may take several tries and the right preparation of the dish for you to realize that while it may never become a staple of your diet, there’s a deliciousness or at least a particular-ness to whatever ethnic background, political ideology, religious experience, genre/sub-genre form, sexuality, writing style, etc. belonging to the author and/or the characters that caused you to dismiss the work. And that while with some works you may never come to like the candied walnuts in the salad that doesn’t mean that all the other ingredients aren’t tasty and well prepared. We could all be better omnivores.

22. Who should be blamed for the fact that so much of genre seems to focus on the adolescent? Or that so many of the novels are the equivalent of reunion tours and cover bands? Is that the fans themselves remain in a state of arrested development? Or is that coming of age and quest stories have a universal appeal? And if the latter then maybe it’s because adulthood is so boring and complicated. And maybe it’s because youth is reckless enough to seek adventure and start revolutions. Maybe it’s because it’s so much harder to change when you get old. Would we want genre to also be about the mundane triumphs of life?

23. (Hell, yes.)

24. In the beginning there was myth. Or maybe epic. Okay, let’s go with epic. In the beginning there was epic. On the first day, there arose adventure and horror. On the second day, engineering constructed itself (golden age). On the third day, prose style and ambiguity made it’s incursion into the field. On the fourth day, characterization came in and rounded everything out. On the fifth day, representation skirted around the edges and then marched across the field. What will happen on the sixth day of genre? What rough slouching beast? What skittering horde? What lumbering golem?

25. So here’s the deal with the mingling of literary and SF&F: the New Wave borrowed from literary modernism and postmodernism. So the fact that over the past 20 years the literary has begun to import stuff from genre (vampires, zombies, post-apocalyptic landscapes, plot) means that we can’t complain. Because we borrowed from literary back in the day. This is especially important because there is a bigger thing to worry about: both literary and SF&F seem to be converging on something that ignores the lessons already learned from modernism and postmodernism. Even the pulp writers will claim to want to write complex characterization. Even the literary authors will claim to want to make attempts at plot. Everybody is messing about with form. And yet while there appears to be this wide range, it’s all pretty damn mimetic. You want to shake up genre? You want to transgress? Dive back into modernism and postmodernism and see what you can re-emerge with.

26. Is anybody else in genre bored with endings that are either revolutions or restorations? (I’m especially looking at you epic fantasy.) And maybe that boredom is because: what happens after the big event? Who are those heroes? The builders and defenders rather than the catalysts. Because I’m no catalyst. But I might be able to build and defend.

27. To restate in relation to our specific present: we hope, we fear that we’re on the verge of major events. But what if the near future is all aftermath? Don’t we need stories to get us through that?   


An SFnalish mistranslation of Part 1:I from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus

WHM (mis)translates the first sonnet in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: “A tree of immense clarity arose. One made of bard songs.”

photo of the painting Beech Tree by Achille-Etna Michallon
Beech Tree by Achille-Etna Michallon; Thaw Collection, Jointly Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009

A tree of immense clarity arose. One made of bard songs. A tall tree for tall tales.

The tree arose and the world went quiet. The kind of quiet from which proceeds hints and signs, inceptions and transformations.

Mythic beasts nosed their way into this quiet out of languid forest dens and sleepy mountain aeries. The urge to bellow, to shriek, to growl, to roar had shriveled in their hearts. They all foreswore that they creep softly about not from fear or trickery but so that they may listen.

This was a time where existed scarcely a hovel to receive the quiet the tree had ushered into the world. No lair of darkest desires whose threshold trembled in response to the great silence. And so you felled the tree and raised from it a great hall in which to recite your verse.

Note on the translation: this is not even close to a faithful translation. For one, it’s prose and not poetry. For another, I drop the the mention of Orpheus that is central to the context of the entire project and switch some of the allusions to a different context entirely. For another, I interpolate all over the place. But the feeling of it—that I hope to have preserved/conveyed. Also: I have yet to read an English translation that deals well with the final stanza. Switching to prose allowed me a bit more freedom to turn it into something of a narrative.   

The original German version (as well as the rest of the sonnets in the cycle) can be found at Project Gutenberg DE